Jewish storyline on ‘Downton Abbey’? Stay tunedby renee ghert-zand
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Like so many other Edwardian soap opera lovers, I am obsessed these days with Masterpiece Classic’s “Downton Abbey.” But it wasn’t long ago that I was smitten by another television series. It, too, was from a Common-wealth country. However, it wasn’t set in England, nor did it tell the story of aristocrats and their servants at the beginning of the 20th century. Rather, this other show took place much closer to home — in more ways than one.
The show I was hooked on from January 2009 to December 2011 was “Being Erica,” which aired for four seasons on Canada’s CBC network (and on Soapnet in the U.S.). It had no great houses, world wars or Gilded Age costumes. However, it did have Toronto landmarks, family conflicts and some cute contemporary fashions. It also featured time-travel psychotherapy. (Yes, you read right — patients get to go back in time and revisit their greatest regrets to learn lessons they can apply in the present.) But most important, “Being Erica” depicted a young Jewish woman and Jewish life in the most realistic way I had ever seen on television.
Erica Strange was exactly like me … if I were 15 years younger and a petite redhead. Nonetheless, she and her Jewish family resembled my own in my native Toronto. “Being Erica” had no broad shtick about being Jewish, no silly Borscht Belt humor (save for the T-shirts Erica’s kippah-wearing Reform rabbi father wore, printed with sayings like “I’m with Moses” or “I’m on Shabbat-ical”). I loved Erica so much that I decided to write an article about her for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
In reporting the story, I spoke to Toronto Jewish viewers who felt like I did. “Erica is Jewish like I’m Jewish: It’s not in your face, but at the same time it’s not just by the way,” said one. When I spoke to the show’s creator, Jana Sinyor, she told me that she had intentionally grounded Erica in a very realistic Jewish identity and milieu. “I purposely make characters as specific as possible in every way in order for them to be universally appealing. Everyone comes from somewhere, and I chose to make Erica Jewish because that is where I come from and what I know best,” she said.
I wrote about the realistic notes struck as Erica goes back to relive her own bat mitzvah, and how she struggles with the complicated nuances of forgiveness on Yom Kippur. I was impressed by Erica’s bravely voicing her opposition to brit milah, bringing up a sensitive topic that was soon to garner big headlines here in the Bay Area.
It was things like this that kept me coming back week after week, excited to see what other aspect of Erica’s Jewishness might be revealed along with her next travel-induced psychological breakthrough.
But then something happened. I had written my article after season 2, but season 3 proved disappointingly light on all things Jewish. By season 4, Erica’s Jewishness was reduced to hackneyed phrases with stock Yiddish words, such as “We stayed at my bubbe’s condo in Florida,” and “Jews eat gefilte fish.” Stuff was happening in Erica’s family in ways that would never have gone down in a real Toronto Jewish family, especially one whose father was a rabbi. Not to mention that this was all going on against a backdrop of far weaker scripts in general.
But, given my initial allegiance to Erica, I stuck with her to the very end. I didn’t give up on her, even though I felt that the writers had. And as it turns out, I wasn’t too far off the mark. While in Toronto several weeks ago, I met Jana Sinyor for coffee. She was very candid in our off-the-record conversation about her feelings about how the show had progressed. Our talk certainly opened my eyes to the complex demands of writing and producing a hit television show.
I was excited to hear that Sinyor is working on a pilot for an American series, also with a Jewish woman as its lead character. I plan to follow up on that story. But in the meantime, I’m quite sure (as they say on “Downton Abbey”) that later this year (if I’m reading correctly into recent reports) there will be something Jewish to write about in regard to my newest favorite show.
Renee Ghert-Zand lives in Palo Alto and is a freelance journalist covering Israel and the Jewish world for a variety of publications. She blogs at http://www.truthpraiseandhelp.wordpress.com.
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