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The Jews of Prime Time
David Zurawik

Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life

2003 • 310 pp. 10 illus. 6 x 9"
Media Studies / Popular Culture / Film, TV, Visual Culture

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“A book that is sure to inspire debate in the entertainment industry, in the academic world and among the Jewish public at large.”—Baltimore Jewish Times

An examination of Jewish television characters from the last fifty years, along with a backstage look at the Jewish insiders who created the strange history of Jewish identity in prime time television

How did it happen that in a time when networks were run by Jewish men, and many television shows were written by Jewish writers, there were so few identifiably Jewish characters on television? In his provocative book, David Zurawik marshalls compelling evidence to suggest that, during television’s first thirty-five years, its primarily Jewish power brokers actively suppressed Jewish characters and Jewish themes from appearing on the small screen.

Beginning his investigation in the early days of television with Gertrude Berg and The Goldbergs, Zurawik, an award-winning journalist, shows how the Jewish founders of the three major networks—William S. Paley (CBS), David Sarnoff (NBC), and Leonard Goldenson (ABC)—dictated the kinds of shows Americans would watch from the late 1940s until they sold their broadcast empires in the mid-1980s. Under the auspices of these incredibly powerful men, the television industry either distorted or eliminated entirely images of Jews from prime time at the very moment when television came to hold center stage in mainstream American life. In fact, creating a cookie-cutter image of American life was so important to the top Jewish executives that they fabricated a brief, which circulated among the networks and became legendary in the industry. It claimed that CBS had “research” that indicated Americans were not interested in seeing Jews (or divorced people, people from New York, and men with mustaches) on the small screen. Zurawik convincingly argues that Paley and the others were ambivalent about their own Jewishness, and fearful, in the post-Holocaust, pro-assimilation, red-baiting 1950s, that their shows not appear “too Jewish.” The ironic result: with few exceptions, shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver came to represent American family life, while Jewish identity was presented as something that had to be obscured or hidden away.

Only when the moguls sold their interest in the networks and moved on did things begin to change in a sustained way. Serious shows with leading Jewish characters began to appear in series like thirtysomething and Northern Exposure, which dealt with issues of tolerance, intermarriage, and assimilation. But in many of the programs that followed, particularly the sitcoms of the 1990s, Jewish men and especially Jewish women fell into stereotypical roles that Zurawik describes as “nebbishy boyfriends lusting after non-Jewish women” or “Jewish-American princesses and smothering mothers.” And, although Jewish characters are now plentiful on television, many are very nominally Jewish, or Jewish in name only. Despite the best efforts of the successors of Paley, Sarnoff, and Goldenson, the culture of Jewish self-consciousness and censorship lives on in network television today.

Based on more than one hundred interviews gathered over ten years with network executives, producers, and actors, Zurawik’s book gives voice to these insiders—who reveal, for the first time, how and why the depiction of Jews on television has followed such a strange, unpredictable course.

Click here for TABLE OF CONTENTS

Reviews / Endorsements

"Mr. Zurawik, who is the television critic for The Sun, in Baltimore, originally wrote his book as a dissertation in American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Mr. Zurawik focuses on what he calls 'the history of these gatekeepers who created a strange void of Jewish identity' on network TV for much of the past half-century."—The Chronicle of Higher Education

"...readable and interesting..."—Jewish Book World

"As the story of Jewish characters in prime time is as much one of absence as it is of presence, Zurawik goes beyond the traditional, academic textual analysis. Instead, he decided to complement his exploration of the images with the more demanding production research, which meant interviewing as many executives, producers, creators and actors as he could, asking them questions that were often not flattering. 'It was Vietnam,' Zurawik told The Jerusalem Report, conjuring the metaphor of war to describe the process of pursuing the often-reluctant milieu of Jewish TV professionals. 'I was in a swamp and thinking fast. It's a lot of work, a lot of writing letters, a lot of getting rejected by some of them, of not getting answers, of following up.' His efforts paid off. The book provides not only a plethora of well-described case studies, but also a wealth of interviews with men and women of influence, all of whom expand and elaborate on Zurawik's findings."—Jerusalem Report

“For TV critic and historian David Zurawik to get people to talk at all about such a sensitive subject is impressive. To get so many to talk so revealingly is closer to amazing. Meanwhile, his own thorough and thoroughly entertaining insights about so many TV shows, from The Goldbergs and Rhoda to Seinfeld and The Nanny, make this one of the most important, well-researched and addictively readable television books ever written.” —David Bianculli, TV Critic, New York Daily News and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air

From the Book:

“[This book explains] how such censorship was enforced as it chronicles the lengths to which the founders and their network lieutenants went in trying to keep Jewish characters off the air lest their networks appear ‘too Jewish.’ One of those lengths involved executives at CBS telling producers that the network had ‘research’ clearly showing that American viewers did not want to see ‘men with mustaches, people from New York, or Jews’ on television. The first documented mention of such ‘research’ by a CBS executive came in 1969. Thirty years later, Hollywood producers and executives were still citing that CBS ‘research’ in interviews with me.”

Author Photo

DAVID ZURAWIK, whose Ph.D. is in American Studies, is the television critic for the Baltimore Sun and a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College.

Thu, 14 Mar 2019 13:08:09 -0500