A version of this essay originally appeared on Alma.
Last month, the Jewish internet was shocked by a scene from the TV medical drama “Nurses.” The shocking part should be that a clip from a subpar Canadian medical drama only airing on NBC because of a Covid-induced lack of programming managed to go semiviral. But no. The video went viral because of what many believed was an antisemitic portrayal of a Hasidic patient.
In the clip, a Hasidic man (with the worst fake payes I’ve ever seen) is told that he’d need a bone grafted from a dead body inserted into his leg.
“A dead goyim leg,” his father says, “from anyone. An Arab? A woman?”
“Or God forbid an Arab woman,” one of the nurses retorts. She later uses a story about King David to help convince the patient to have the procedure done because obviously her Christian understanding of the story would be enough to convince the man to forego his (inaccurate) religious beliefs.
This scene would never happen. For starters, the correct phrase would be “goyishe leg,” as a Hasidic man would surely know. Additionally, it’s highly unlikely that hearing a story about King David would change a Hasidic Jew’s religious convictions.
But most important, Orthodox Jews have zero issues with accepting organs, or bones, or anything from non-Jews. This scene is frustrating because it relies on harmful, grossly incorrect stereotypes about Hasidim.
People were enraged (you can find my own incensed Twitter threads here and here), and rightfully so. NBC ultimately pulled the episode from its online platform, and while the show’s original producers have apologized in a statement, NBC has not.
Actually, this clip shouldn’t come as a surprise. On medical dramas, too many episodes have featured some sort of religious Jew refusing medical treatment, essentially trying to martyr themselves.
Take, for example, the first season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” One of the storylines on its eighth episode revolves around an Orthodox woman who refuses to get a porcine heart valve replacement because they want to put a “pig, a freaking non-kosher, treif mammal, into my chest, into my heart! The very essence of my being!” (Seriously, I will never forget that line.)
Or on the fourth season of “House,” episode 12, in which House claims that a Jewish woman’s decision to become Hasidic is a sign of mental illness, related to her undiagnosed disease. Or the third season of “Private Practice,” the ninth episode, which depicts an Orthodox couple whose Orthodoxy doesn’t let them use birth control, so one of the doctors secretly prescribes the wife birth control pills and tells her they are iron pills for her “anemia.”
Why are these shows glorifying medical malpractice and the denial of religious rights? “House” outright equates being religious with mental illness, and a throwaway line in the “Grey’s Anatomy” episode asks why anybody would bother with Orthodoxy — “why couldn’t you be plain old Reform like everyone else we know?” In each case, Orthodoxy is portrayed as unreasonable, as a conflict that must be overcome.
So many things about these episodes make me angry. Why do none of these Jewish characters ever call and consult their rabbis? That would be the first thing most frum people would do when facing a complicated medical or ethical issue. And why are these shows making broad, sweeping, uninformed claims about things like kashrut or the use of birth control in religious communities?
These examples aren’t as dangerous as the clip from “Nurses,” which portrays religious Jews as horribly Islamophobic and misogynistic — a storyline that surely doesn’t help Hasidim in a climate that is already so hostile toward them. But each of these episodes frame Orthodoxy as backward and unwilling to change, and frame Orthodox people as fanatics willing to die for their bigoted beliefs.
The writers fail to understand Orthodox Judaism while relying on Orthodox Jews as a cheap plot device. Maybe they look at the huge number of mitzvot (commandments) that are observed by Orthodox Jews and conclude that it’s a rigid, unchangeable structure. They don’t understand that breaking Shabbat to save a life is not only allowed but mandatory.
In our tradition, there are only three sins you must die for committing: idolatry, murder and adultery. The concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) overrides virtually every commandment. Judaism values the sanctity of human life over almost everything else. Your rabbi would encourage you to take a porcine valve or the bone graft. My mother likes to quote one of her favorite rabbis quite regularly: “We’re meant to live by our Judaism, not die by it.” It’s about time these TV shows got that memo.
I understand the need to write good TV and create conflict. I understand (although do not agree with) the desire for out-of-the-box, exotic characters. But if you cannot construct a story without misunderstanding and misrepresenting an entire demographic of people, then it’s simply a story you have no right to tell.