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Poor and working-class Jews are underrepresented in pop culture, new analysis argues

(JTA) – As the WGA, the screenwriters’ union in Hollywood, returns to work following a five-month strike, the authors of a new analysis of Jewish representation have a message for its members: The world needs more Jewish characters who aren’t rich.

Portrayals of wealthy Jewish families spending big on lavish affairs — such as the characters in Adam Sandler’s latest movie, “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” — present a distorted picture of American Jews and their financial need, according to the analysis, released Monday by a partner of the Jewish Funders Network that is focused on poverty.

“People are still very surprised to hear that 20% of the Jewish community is experiencing poverty,” said Rachel Sumekh, the Jewish Funders Network’s project executive for TEN, formerly known as the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty. “One of the reasons why our narrative is outdated is Hollywood and the media, and what Jewish stories they tend to tolerate.”

The analysis and its recommendations add to a growing discourse about Jewish representation that so far has focused largely on whether it is appropriate for non-Jewish actors to portray Jewish characters, as well as on the depiction of Orthodox communities. TEN’s report weighs in on those questions but says that another dimension of how Jews are portrayed also deserves attention.

Titled “The Case Of The Missing Narrative: Hollywood, The Media and Jewish Poverty,” the survey finds that poor and working-class Jews are underrepresented in these fields relative to their prevalence in real life. It argues that greater representation of them could lead to more widespread recognition of Jews who are financially struggling.

The analysis compiles 85 films and 104 TV shows about Jewish themes, most from the last 15 years, and categorizes them according to their depiction of the Jewish characters’ wealth. A separate study looked at depictions of Jews in the news media.

The report about Jewish poverty and wealth on screen was written by Mik Moore, a media strategist who was once an executive at the progressive nonprofit Jewish Funds for Justice.

According to the report, while TEN estimates that one in five Jewish American households earn less than $50,000 a year, they are one-tenth as likely as wealthy Jews to appear in movies and TV shows. Moore primarily focused on works made since 2008, concluding that only three of 85 films during that time depicted Jewish poverty at all and that Jewish poverty is typically portrayed in the context of American Dream-style upward mobility. Some portrayals of wealth in Jewish communities conform to antisemitic stereotypes, the study concludes.

The data is not perfect. Moore also included a handful of what the study’s authors deemed to be “the most influential stories” from several decades prior, including “Annie Hall” and “An American Tail.” (They did not include “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 1971 film adaptation of the Broadway musical about poor shtetl Jews who yearn to be rich, because, Sumekh said, “it’s not set in America.”) 

Meanwhile, the analysis had originally included characters not identified as Jewish because they were played by Jewish actors; for their revised version, the team removed any character whose Judaism wasn’t integral to their portrayal, including fictionalized portraits of real-life Jews such as playwright Jonathan Larson in the movie “tick… tick… BOOM”. 

Yet the finished summary still identifies some characters as Jewish when they are not, including citing the Bluth family from “Arrested Development” as an example of a harmful stereotype of “wealthy Jews who have lost everything and work (or scheme) to redeem themselves.” (While the family patriarch, played by Jewish actor Jeffrey Tambor, embraces Judaism in prison before later turning to Christianity, the Bluths’ religious identity is not specified.)

Moore and Sumekh said such errors should not detract from ”trends that are beyond the data set”: namely, that Jews in film and TV tend to be portrayed as wealthier on aggregate than Jews are in real life, and that such a portrayal makes it harder for groups like theirs to convince the public that many Jews in fact need financial assistance.

“It’s not a mathematical sort of situation,” Moore said. “We’re doing our best to look at the dominant pieces of culture and media that speak to this issue.”

Sumekh named two recent Netflix comedies as especially problematic depictions of wealthy Jews: “You People,” Jonah Hill’s movie about an interracial relationship, and “You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah.” The latter’s portrayal of lavish and expensive b’nai mitzvah, she said, “implies that we all live a certain way.”

“That’s harmful because I, as a Jew, grew up low-income and shared my bat mitzvah with my sister. That doesn’t necessarily represent my Jewish experience,” she said. “There are many, many Jews who take out big loans to pay for bar mitzvahs, to pay for weddings, to afford their home and the right zip code, because they don’t feel like they have another option if they want to be in the Jewish community.” 

The analysis highlights some promising spots, too. Seth Rogen, the summary says, is “the contemporary Jewish actor most identified with playing Jewish characters barely getting by financially,” which the report suggests is related to Rogen’s childhood attending a Jewish socialist summer camp. 

But it focuses more on what it suggests have been missed opportunities, for example calling out the non-Jewish working-class character played by Jewish actress Kat Dennings on the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls.”

“There’s no reason that her character couldn’t have been written as a Jew,” Moore said.

With screenwriting underway again, Sumekh and Moore aim to inject new ideas into storytelling about Jews — and their analysis argues for more investment in Jewish creatives who want to challenging dominant narratives about their communities.

“My hope is that this report would at least encourage writers and decision-makers to resist the impulse to reinforce people’s preexisting beliefs about who could be a certain character,” Moore said. “And that includes a prevailing belief that Jews are well-off.”

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Top official says White House antisemitism strategy is ‘under pressure’ due to Israel-Hamas war

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration’s plan to combat antisemitism is “under a lot of pressure” because of the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents since the launch of the war between Israel and Hamas, a top White House official said.

Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, held an online briefing with national Jewish communal leaders on Wednesday, about one month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel. She said the landmark strategy Biden launched in May to combat antisemitism created what she called a cross-department “architecture” to track and respond to reported incidents of antisemitism, especially on college campuses, but that that system is now being strained, she said.

“Unfortunately, that architecture is under a lot of pressure now with the rise of events” since Oct. 7, Tanden said. “The last several weeks we have seen, on campus and off, a real rise of targeting of Jewish people and antisemitic slurs, actions, threats of violence.”

Jewish watchdogs have recorded a spike of antisemitic incidents worldwide and in the United States since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,400, wounding thousands, taking more than 200 captive and sparking an Israeli counterattack in Gaza. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 10,000 have been killed in the fighting.

This week, a Jewish man died after being wounded in an altercation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators this week near Los Angeles. Jews have also been assaulted and faced death threats on college campuses.

“We continue to see an alarming trend of antisemitic threats and attacks targeting Jewish communities across the country,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters just before Tanden’s briefing. “Disturbing acts like ripping down posters of Jewish hostages held by Hamas, vandalizing Jewish institutions, threatening to commit acts of violence against Jewish students, Jewish faith leaders and Jewish communities inflame tensions, stoke fear and are completely completely unacceptable.”

In the webinar, Tanden said the White House was aware of how deep fears are running among American Jews. “We understand that people are scared in this moment, people are scared who have gone their whole loves without being scared,” she said.

Just before the briefing, Jewish organizational leaders met with the top two U.S. law enforcement officials,  Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray, to ask for greater protections against antisemitic harassment since the launch of the war, especially on campuses.

“We are comforted by the very active focus of the Department of Justice and the FBI in investigating and prosecuting the tsunami of increased cases since October 7 of hateful crimes against members of the Jewish community,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a text immediately after the meeting ended at noon.

The meetings are among a flurry of efforts by American Jewish organizations to back Israel, fight antisemitism and advocate for the hostages. Jewish organizations are planning a mass rally next week in Washington to galvanize support for those goals.

Tanden said she and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona had met with Jewish students on campuses recently. “We spent a significant time hearing from kids, honestly, who are being threatened for who they are, for being Jewish,” she said.

On Oct. 30, Jewish leaders had a meeting with Cardona, days before he warned federally funded colleges that they could lose funding if they failed to address harassment of religious and other minorities. Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish outreach director who was on the webinar, said the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights complaint form now had “antisemitism” designated as an area of harassment.

“There is an actual dropdown, so if you feel like you are being targeted at a university, you can actually click it’s because of antisemitism,” she said. “The department will then investigate.”

Other organizations represented at the Justice Department meeting included the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and Hillel International. Julie Fishman Rayman, the AJC’s managing director, said in an email that Wray also addressed FBI involvement in efforts to release the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director of public policy, said Jewish officials who spoke to the Justice Department officials stressed the threat to Jewish students on campus.

“We asked them to surge more resources into law enforcement agencies to protect our communities,” he said in an email. “And we asked for a zero-tolerance policy — especially toward campus incidents. Federal authorities properly charged the student who made death threats at Cornell with a federal crime; that needs to be done across the board with others who act against Jewish students.”

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With the Jerusalem Biennale canceled due to war, participating artists mount 3 exhibits in New York

(New York Jewish Week) – Every two years, hundreds of artists from all over the world flock to Israel for the Jerusalem Biennale, an art festival that celebrates contemporary Jewish and Israeli artists from all over the world. 

Due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, however, the 2023 festival, which was originally supposed to open Thursday, has been tentatively postponed until next spring.

Many of the artists are mounting their shows in their home cities instead. At least five of the Biennale’s exhibits are scheduled to open this week in three continents — North America, South America and Europe — as a satellite version of the festival. 

On Thursday, three of the exhibits — “Activate,” “The Seventeen” and “Hallelujah” — will open in New York City, where more than a dozen artists who are featured in the Biennale call home. 

The Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in partnership with the Jewish Arts Salon and the American Sephardi Federation, will host two of the Biennale exhibitions, “Activate” and “The Seventeen.” They will be on view for free at the museum’s East Village location for the next week. 

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side will host a third exhibit, “Hallelujah,” in partnership with the Biennale. The Upper West Side building’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery will show the work beginning Thursday through Dec. 17.

Founded in 2013, the Biennale takes place across the city of Jerusalem and centers contemporary artists whose work references Jewish and Israeli experiences. This year, the Biennale was prepared to bring more than 200 artists to Jerusalem to host 35 exhibitions across the city under the theme of “Iron Flock,” which aims to “identify, through the eyes of curators and artists from all over the world, the movements, ideas, people, and moments that have become our unsaleable cultural assets,” as the Jerusalem Biennale’s website describes it. 

“The Jerusalem Biennale became like a pulse, beating steadily every two years. Since 2013, without exception and despite the many challenges, the Jerusalem Biennale has created a platform for contemporary art at the very center of the Jewish world. Until now. It’s as if the heart skips a beat,” Rami Ozeri, the festival’s founder and creator director, said in a press release. 

“But even now, after the unspeakable pain of October 7, we have witnessed a huge outpouring of solidarity from around the world,” he added. “Within weeks, our friends and partners have succeeded in mounting in their own cities the exhibitions created for the Jerusalem Biennale. We will continue to nurture the ties of art and culture between Jerusalem and the world today more than ever.”

At the Heller Museum, “Activate: A New York Women’s Perspective,” curated by Israeli artist Hadas Glazer, showcases the work of six New York artists — Siona Benjamin, Goldie Gross, Ronit Levin Delgado, Joan Roth, Chelsea Steinberg Gay and Yona Verwer — who explore “the complexities of life as a woman today,” according to a press release.  

Also at the museum, “The Seventeen” spans the 40-year career of Brooklyn-born artist Archie Rand. Curated by Samantha Baskind, the exhibition continues the artist’s explorations of “the Bible and Jewish texts in serialized paintings conceptually informed by twentieth-century culture,” according to the Jewish Art Salon website. 

Meanwhile, at the JCC, “Hallelujah” will showcase Israeli artists currently living in New York who have created art about their experiences as immigrants to the United States. On view will be works by Noa Charuvi, Hirut Yosef , Yehudit Feinstein, Yuli Aloni Primor, Gal Cohen, Ken Goshen, Gabriela Vainsencher and Maya Baran. 

Other exhibitions that were intended for the Biennale will be mounted at the AMIA Art Space in Buenos Aires and the Jewish Museum of Casale Monferrato in Italy. 

Ozeri said in a press release that more of the exhibits will open around the world in the coming months as a plan is made for the Biennale to take place in Jerusalem next year. “This heart will always keep beating,” he said. 

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Brazil police arrest 2 men allegedly plotting terror attacks targeting Jews

(JTA) — Brazilian police have arrested two men and are looking for 11 others reportedly involved in a terror cell plotting attacks aimed at Brazilian Jews.

The group is suspected to have ties to Hezbollah, the terrorist group based in Lebanon that is currently trading fire with Israel at Israel’s northern border. Details on the alleged plot were scarce, but the O Globo newspaper reported that synagogues were among the group’s targets.

One suspect was arrested on Wednesday after flying in from Lebanon to Brazil’s biggest airport, in Guarulhos, near São Paulo. Police are searching São Paulo, the Minas Gerais state and the federal district around the country’s capital Brasília for others.

Police said the charges of “creating or belonging to a terrorist organization and carrying out preparations for acts of terrorism” carry sentences of 15 and a half years in prison.

Over 100,000 Jews live in Brazil, mostly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The Confederação Israelita do Brasil, or CONIB, an umbrella group for Brazilian Jewish federations, congratulated police for breaking up the terror cell and expressed “enormous concern” about the situation.

Jewish communities around the world are on high alert in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, and police in several European countries say they have interrupted or tracked plots against Jewish targets over the last month. But even before October, a report published in April found that antisemitism in Brazilian schools had spiked over the past three years. Police are also cracking down on local neo-Nazi groups that have grown in size and influence in recent years.

Hezbollah has been known to have a large presence in Latin America for decades and has been tied to multiple terror attacks in the region, including the bombings of Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 in 1992 and the attack on that city’s AMIA Jewish center that killed 85 in 1994.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Brazilian police worked “in collaboration with Mossad and its partners within the Israeli security community, as well as other international security and law enforcement agencies” in making Wednesday’s arrests.

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