Fans of the sitcom Friends will remember Monica and Ross Geller celebrating Hanukkah in their plush Manhattan apartments throughout the holiday episodes, while their pal Rachel Green spent the initial seasons trying to make it on her own, apart from her wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. Many tuned in last summer to watch Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix hit, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, which portrays wealthy Jewish families planning lavish affairs.
Although these shows highlight certain aspects of Jewish life, they and others ignore the reality of many Jewish households across the United States, as documented in a Foundation-supported report recently released by Together Ending Need (TEN). (The Weinberg Foundation and Jewish Funders Network launched TEN, formerly the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty, in 2019 to raise awareness of, and act to alleviate, Jewish poverty.)
The report, titled The Case of the Missing Narrative, explores how Hollywood and the media characterize Jews, recognizing the significant role that both play in shaping public perception of different racial and ethnic groups.
“One of TEN’s goals is changing the narrative about poverty in the Jewish community,” said Cassie Malane, who helps lead the Foundation’s efforts focused on Jewish poverty. “It is impossible to change that narrative without first knowing what it is. That’s the purpose of this report.”
U.S. Jews in entertainment and the news: Report findings
- Most stories in media and entertainment that focus on poverty in America ignore Jews while highlighting communities not perceived to be Jewish, such as urban communities of color, rural white communities, and Latin American immigrants. But more than 1 in 5 Jewish households are economically insecure, earning less than $50,000 annually, and 1 in 8 Jews live outside large metropolitan areas.
- The most common examples of contemporary Jews experiencing poverty in entertainment and the news are individuals who are ultra-Orthodox, the elderly, and 20-somethings. Yet nearly 90% of Jewish households earning less than $50,000 do not identify as Orthodox, and Jews were as hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic as the general population.
- Media and entertainment frequently overlook the range of identities held by Jews, including those based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Over 15% of U.S. Jews live in households where at least one person identifies as Hispanic, Black, Asian, multiracial, or another race.
- Wealthy Jewish characters are 10 times more common than those experiencing poverty. By contrast, over 25% of Jewish households reported struggling to cover the cost of medical care, housing, food, and other needs in a 2021 survey.
To reach these findings, researchers reviewed more than 1,000 articles, television shows, and films, with a primary focus on the period between 2008 and 2023. They looked at over 100 television shows that had either a major Jewish character or a significant Jewish episode or story, including shows prior to 2008 with a large cultural footprint (e.g., Seinfeld). They also analyzed 85 films that included significant Jewish characters, as well as national and Jewish newspapers and magazines that featured Jewish people or issues.
In partnership with TEN, the Foundation will take the insights from this important research to help promote a wider range of stories that reflect the diverse experiences of the U.S. Jewish community, going beyond the uplifting stories of economic success that are ubiquitous in entertainment and media.
“These findings not only support our mission but also are a tool we can use to explain why we do this work,” Malane said. “By conveying a truer picture, rather than continuing to feed the stereotypes, we can begin to show the complexity and rich diversity of the Jewish people.”