Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
While the excellent winner of the Ophir (Israel’s Oscars) for Best Picture, Sundance Film Festival entry Fill the Void, didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Film category, the Oscar nominee list still features an impressive slate from Israel. In fact, it’s doubly represented in the Best Documentary Feature race, by The Gatekeepers, from Israeli Dror Moreh, and 5 Broken Cameras from Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. These two films have been selected as the crowning achievements of nonfiction filmmaking, and it doesn’t provide anything close to a positive view of Israel.
The Gatekeepers has been widely praised as a groundbreaking exposé which brings to light the unexpected opinions of the six living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. All of Moreh’s interview subjects express a sincere lack of confidence in the attitude the Israeli government has held and currently holds towards the Palestinian people. When I spoke with Moreh, he said that this is an important film for the world to see, to comprehend that Israelis can be critical of their government’s policies. Yet it is an enormously destructive and dangerous film, one which provides no context for its preconceived notions. An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post breaks down the way in which Moreh’s film completely ignores the prevalence of terrorism. During our conversation, Moreh admitted that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of progress in the Middle East, yet his film irresponsibly fails to include anything to support that belief.
5 Broken Cameras, on the other hand, provides a narrow frame of focus, as Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat has five cameras destroyed while attempting to document the activities of Israeli settlers and the army’s response to the activism prompted by it. The context of the film is less problematic, but its message is equally troubling. Burnat creates his film to showcase his mission as akin to that of an oppressed people fighting up against its militant rulers, comparable to recent documentary subjects like Burma VJ (Burma), The Square (Egypt), and This Is Not a Film (Iran). Burnat’s story is disturbing most for the unfortunate trajectory of events that befalls him, which include the death of one of his good friends and a serious injury he sustains that leads to exorbitant medical bills. Regardless of the legitimacy of his cause, Burnat repeatedly defies explicit warnings to stop filming and uses the concept of nonviolent resistance as a catch-all defense for his revolutionary behavior. At one point in the film, Burnat’s wife asks her son how he felt when he came face-to-face with Israeli soldiers, repeatedly and belligerently suggesting that he must have been scared, a sentiment he eventually echoes after several moments of silence. It’s no surprise that achieving both peace and civility is difficult within a culture in which hatred is propagated for the other from a young age.
Both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras are understandably tough films to watch for those passionate about Israel, wherever on the spectrum viewers may fall. As films, the former is manipulative in the construction of its argument, while the latter clearly stems more from a clear and visible personal passion that aligns with the filmmaker’s own life and pursuits. Taken together as two-fifths of the best in nonfiction film in 2012, it offers a worryingly negative perception of Israel that may be all too prevalent in Hollywood.
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February 4, 2013 | 11:31 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
A funny thing happened this past Wednesday night. I was watching Suburgatory, a show where you’d least expect to encounter any mention of Judaism. The send-up of suburbia features the most plastic characters you’d ever hope to meet. The fictional town of Chatswin is every native New Yorker’s nightmare, the basis for the ABC comedy, which started when single father George (Jeremy Sisto) whisked his daughter Tessa (Jane Levy) away from the big city to her own personal hell. Now that George has finally found romance with Dallas (Cheryl Hines), the show caught a rare glimpse of Judaism when another man tried to steal her away.
In a place like Chatswin, culture is dominated by fashion and material things. Religion is rarely mentioned, especially since this show often gives in to its wilder temptations, featuring wholly over-the-top storylines, like jock Ryan’s (Parker Young) reaction to the news that he was adopted, prompting him to refer to himself under a new name, Eugene Goldfarb. The irreverent comedy has actually already tapped into Judaism once before, in an episode earlier this season, “Foam Finger.” Depressed because she was not included in her father’s second wedding, the airheaded Dalia (Carly Chaikin) worked briefly with a Jewish magician named Evan, assisting him on magic tricks involving kugel. When she called him a mensch and alluded to their possible future together, he immediately said that it would never work because she’s a shiksa. At the end of the episode, Dalia snuck out to her garage, opened up a Torah, and began chanting from it.
This latest brush with Judaism is just as random and unexplained. When Dallas’ dog Yakult begins acting strangely, Dallas is convinced that Wilmer Valderrama’s eccentric Guatemalan guru Yoni is the only one who can help get the dog back to a good place. Yoni’s religion is never explicitly referenced, though his emphasis on the pronunciation of his name – George calls him “Ya-ni” – suggests Hebrew heritage. More still, as George struggles to keep Dallas from falling for Yoni’s attempts to push him out, he bonds with Dallas’ daughter, Dalia, who, for once, offers a look into what might be going on in her head. We meet them mid-conversation, as Dalia explains that she is having trouble grasping, in her own words, “Why a loving God would ask Abraham or whatever to sacrifice his like precious son.” She laments the fact that, were she to convert, she “totally got jerked on this whole Bat Mitzvah thing” and ends her speech with “In closing, kugel!”
Dalia’s sudden interest in being Jewish is a peculiar phenomenon, and, unlike some fuller television forays into Judaism, this trip feels extremely unfulfilling. Cheryl Hines had an opportunity to encounter religious Judaism in the hilarious “The Ski Lift” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, when she mistakenly prepared a plateful of bacon for her Orthodox hosts. Inserting Dalia’s meditation on Abraham and Isaac and a shot of her reading from the Torah adds little to both the show and the cinematic portrayal of Judaism. Whereas other series like Weeds and The West Wing have dealt excellently with the Judaism of their characters, this particular shout-out feels inappropriate, lacking, and, most of all, unnecessary.
January 28, 2013 | 3:33 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
I had the exciting opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time last week. While in Park City, Utah, I saw twenty-four films and attended a number of Q & As with filmmakers and cast members. One of my most memorable screening experiences was the film Fill the Void and my conversation the next day with director Rama Burshtein. The winner of the Ophir Award for Best Picture and Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year, Fill the Void didn’t make the shortlist of nine films which were then narrowed down to five nominees. This powerful movie is, however, making quite a splash at film festivals around the world, in Jerusalem, Venice, Toronto, New York, and now Park City, and audiences throughout the country will have the opportunity to see it when it is released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics.
Fill the Void is set in the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world in Tel Aviv. Its protagonist is eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), whose family matchmaker has found her the perfect suitor whom she will soon marry. Everything changes when Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies during childbirth, leaving her husband Yohai (Yiftach Klein) with a newborn child and no mother to take care of him. Devastated, Yohai cannot think of getting married again, but he soon finds himself with an offer of marriage from an old acquaintance in Belgium. Shira’s mother suggests that she could marry Yohai and continue the bond between their families, prompting her both Shira and Yohai to weigh the decision carefully.
This emotional premise sets in motion a deeply compelling story of love and community. What is especially refreshing is its faithful, uncensored portrayal of the Hasidic world. Most other films about observant Judaism, from The Jazz Singer to Holy Rollers, depict a struggle with adherence to faith and to Jewish values. Fill the Void is a magnificent look at life within a Hasidic sect, where, despite tragedy, both Shira and Yohai never let their faith waver. Additionally, while Shira’s mother pushes for the union, her father explicitly tells her that she does not need to accept it, and if she does not want it, they can stop discussing it immediately, dispelling any sense of her being forced into the marriage.
There is an honesty to Fill the Void that is remarkable, showing devout people whose conflicts are not with their religion but rather guided by them. One standout scene from the film features Shira and Yohai speaking outside Shira’s home. When Yohai approaches Shira, she tells him, “You’re too close,” acknowledging the prohibition between unmarried members of the opposite sex having physical contact that exists in Orthodox Judaism. Yohai backs away, but not before replying, “It could have been closer.” This is a film that addresses friendship and romance, all within the confines of an observant world. It is thought-provoking and meditative without suggesting that a break with tradition is necessary to resolve an impossible situation.
When I discussed the film with Burshtein, she said that she wanted to a make a film that is from the inside, not to do with the outside world. She herself is Orthodox, and previously made films for women only. She is overwhelmed by how the film has been received in Israel, and looks forward to experiencing more reactions from American audiences. Describing the Q & A from the film’s Sundance premiere, Burshtein noted that there were people who knew nothing about observant Judaism, but that there is something magical about the love story that can easily be applicable to other cultures.
Fill the Void deserved a place alongside Amour, fellow Sundance entry No, and the other Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees this year. Instead, Burshtein and the superb actors and crew members involved with the film will have to be content with the fact that their remarkable film is playing to increasingly larger audiences, and anyone who has not yet seen it should anticipate its release and make time for a creative, satisfying, moving film about faith.
Enjoy a few of my other top Jewish moments at Sundance as well!
January 21, 2013 | 12:52 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
It’s a phrase that immediately recalls the grand exodus of the Jewish people, and a song often sung during Passover seders. Let My People Go is also the title of a new film now playing in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, Laemmle’s Playhouse, and Laemmle’s Town Center. This very entertaining movie is the story of Reuben (Nicolas Maury), a French-born gay Jew living in Finland whose life takes a crazy turn, which forces him to move him to spend time with his predictably loud and eccentric family. It’s a traditional Jewish comedy with a few important twists.
Reuben is not a religious man. He tells his mother that he dates goys specifically so that she won’t have them on holidays, and is sheepish about embracing his heritage upon his return to France. In a telling early scene, Reuben catches sight of The Ten Commandments playing on a television while he is in the airport, and he can’t escape the influx of Judaism into his life as his nephew prepares to chant the Mah Nishtanah at the Seder. Reuben even goes to consult his rabbi about how to detach himself from the Jewish people, and is told that even if he converts, he’ll still be seen as Jewish, pointing to Alfred Dreyfus as an example. Reuben’s family life is complicated, as his father wants to introduce him to his mistress of twenty years, and his sister’s wife has no qualms about outwardly expressing to the entire family that he believes that Israel was founded strictly as a way to get back at the Nazis.
Reuben’s mother, though she is French, should be instantly recognizable to American audiences as the typical Jewish mother. Rachel is first seen surrounded by a picture of Golda Meir and dancing at an exercise class to Hava Nagila next to a woman wearing an “I Heart Jerusalem” t-shirt. There is an imagined scene featuring a commercial in which Rachel advertises a “Jewish spray” that she can easily spray on her argumentative son-in-law to make him become Jewish. As portrayed by Carmen Maura, a frequent collaborator of director Pedro Almodovar, Rachel is the kind of character who can instantly remind anyone who grew up in a Jewish home of childhood.
The portrayal of overbearing, culturally identifiable mothers is not limited to those of a Jewish nature. Reuben’s Finnish boyfriend Teemu also has a strong-willed matriarch, who comes to see him after Teemu has kicked Reuben out and is having difficulty accepting his absence. When Teemu speaks derogatorily about prostitutes, his mother chastises him, telling him that prostitution is a career just like anything else. Let My People Go can be seen as an equal-opportunity offender, poking fun at Judaism, the French, Finland, and the idea of being gay. Reuben is a man who eternally finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, hopeless to control the life around him, and the audience gets a front-row seat to his light-hearted misery.
Let My People Go is a creative and inventive look at Jewish community and the healing power of holidays, an over-the-top adventure framed within a Jewish context. Antics which must be seen to be described lead to a chaotic but heartwarming Passover-night resolution, which gives some satisfaction to the film’s many discontent characters, including Reuben. It also possesses a surprising romantic streak, something that transcends religion or nationality. Though it might perhaps be more appropriate to screen this title in two months right around Passover time, it’s an enjoyable comedy that helps to enliven a January movie season that is typically devoid of quality so soon after all the Oscar films.
January 14, 2013 | 12:12 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Last Thursday, the Oscar nominations were announced. There were plenty of surprises, most notably the snubs of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director. Many of the films I discussed in last week’s post, “The Role of Religion at the Golden Globes,” have also been recognized. The Rabbi’s Cat had no luck cracking the Best Animated Feature field, but there is still some Judaism to be found among the nominees. One filmmaker with Jewish roots, Benh Zeitlin, who was profiled in a piece by the Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, found himself nominated for his first film alongside a veteran Jewish director, Steven Spielberg. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the Jewish content that populates several of the nominated films in two different categories.
The Best Documentary category is full of hard-hitting films with various focuses. How to Survive a Plague addresses AIDS, The Invisible War exposes sexual assault in the military, and Searching for Sugar Man examines the life of a famed musician. What’s considerably less expected is that the remaining two films in the category address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a major way. 5 Broken Cameras comes from Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and filmmaker Guy Davidi, and follows a Palestinian family’s life in the West Bank. The Gatekeepers, from director Dror Moreh, presents candid interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israeli’s secret service. Both films address the difficulties of achieving piece between Israelis and Palestinians, broaching the topic from a liberal angle. Both films are sure to cause controversy, and it’s intriguing to see them nominated in the same race. 5 Broken Cameras arrives on DVD tomorrow and is currently available to watch free on Hulu. The Gatekeepers opens in LA theaters on February 1st.
The other place that Judaism shows up among this year’s nominees is in the film The Sessions. This wonderful movie tells the true story of Mark O’Brien, a writer who lives his life in an iron lung after being paralyzed by polio as a child. O’Brien, portrayed by John Hawkes, who missed out on an Oscar nomination after earning Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild mentions, consults his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, to discuss the possibility of having sex for the first time. Father Brendan is an unusual but extremely compelling religious figure, struggling with his own concepts of sex outside marriage in this special case. Yet the film gets infinitely more interesting when Oscar nominee Helen Hunt first graces the screen, as sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene. When Mark refers to her as a prostitute, she quickly differentiates what she does as something entirely unique. When she and Mark start to bond, Cheryl reveals that, as her last name might indicate, her husband is Jewish, and she is in the process of converting. One memorable scene in the film shows Cheryl at a mikvah, explaining to the religious woman there that she is not uncomfortable being naked. Cohen-Greene is in fact a real person and an author herself, and did go through the conversion process. The fact that the film shows this mikvah scene and attributes positive religious values to a character type not typically imbued with such qualities is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see such a fascinating portrait of Judaism in a film where the protagonist belongs to another religion.
It’s unlikely that, come Oscar night, Hunt will be able to defeat Anne Hathaway for the Best Supporting Actress prize, but it’s easily feasible that either of the two documentaries mentioned above could win that award. In the coming weeks, I’ll provide an in-depth look at each of them, and stay tuned for other awards-related happenings!
January 7, 2013 | 1:05 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Thursday, and awards fanatics have the privilege to look forward to the Golden Globe Awards shortly after that, this Sunday at 5pm. While there are precious few Jewish themes among the films nominated, religion – in some form or another – plays a surprisingly strong part in a majority of them.
Christianity is all over Les Misérables, and it can be seen most in Jean Valjean’s transformation from convict to honest man. Touched by the generosity and forgiveness of a bishop, Valjean dedicates his life to God and becomes a positive contributor to society. The title character in Life of Pi follows multiple religions at once in an effort to love God, and even mentions that he lectures in Kabbalah, securing his thin connection to Judaism. Two Brits work closely with a Yemeni sheikh to transplant fly fishing to the Yemen in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a relationship that profoundly affects all parties. Even Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, chronicles of American conflicts with extremist Islam, portray a less evil and destructive vision of non-extremists, in the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper in the former and a practicing Muslim CIA official in the latter. The Sessions, which actually has some actionable Jewish content, is worthy of its own separate post after Oscar nominations are announced and its Jewish character is likely nominated.
Not all portraits of religion in Globe-nominated films are optimistic, however. Lincoln and Django Unchained are extraordinarily different films, yet their similar timelines (albeit fictional in the case of the latter) frame them within the contexts of white supremacist notions and Christian values of the era about God-given rights. The Master demonstrates the danger of a cult, following its shifty protagonist as he falls prey to one man pulling the strings and amassing a frightening number of followers to his cause.
A more creative interpretation of religion can be found in several other contenders. Silver Linings Playbook emphasizes positivity as a guiding force. Moonrise Kingdom sings about true love at a young age, which guides its pre-pubescent protagonists to each other against all odds. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel values serenity and relaxation, an appropriate reward for a long life spent working. Flight showcases Alcoholics Anonymous, focused on the presence of a higher power. The Impossible demonstrates the tremendous strength of family and hope in the most devastating of situations.
It’s rare to find such strong instances of religion present in every one of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s citations for Best Motion Picture and in a few of its other choices. Yet this year represents an instance where, Django Unchained aside, most of the films are more serious than usual. The comedies - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and Silver Linings Playbook - are not laugh-out-loud pictures; instead, more contemplative, light-hearted dramas. All but Quentin Tarantino’s excessive opus of violence in the drama category - Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty - along as nominated musical Les Misérables, represent formidable, long-term battles to achieve a monumental result. Compared with last year’s top category winners, The Artist and The Descendants, both strong films, of course, this year seems considerably more intense and thought-provoking.
It’s likely that Les Misérables will eclipse Silver Linings Playbook for the Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical trophy, following in the footsteps of Hollywood musical adaptations like Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, and Chicago this past decade. On the drama front, it’s a highly competitive race between Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. The films that will be crowned the best of 2012 on Sunday are indicative of a dramatic year in cinema, one that is sure to leave an impression and keep moviegoers thinking about its themes long after they have left the theater.
December 31, 2012 | 10:57 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Oscar nominations will be announced next Thursday, January 10th. Some of the categories are less of a mystery than others because finalists have already been announced. Jewish themes are often present in two such races, Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary. This year, however, another field with predetermined contenders has a film with remarkably unsubtle Jewish overtones. Among the twenty-one films deemed eligible for Best Animated Feature is The Rabbi’s Cat, a film with an unmistakable and highly curious focus.
Based on the popular 2002 graphic novel, which has been described as a mix of Voltaire, Jewish Algerian culture, and Albert Cohen, The Rabbi’s Cat is not your typical Oscar-friendly animated feature. Joann Sfar adapted his own work to create this eccentric and entertaining feature film, which is recommended for ages thirteen and up. The fantastical tale follows the loyal cat of an Algerian rabbi who suddenly gains the magical ability to speak. That mysterious gift prompts him to question his master about his beliefs and to begin an adventure-filled voyage through Africa to explore the surrounding culture and its religions.
The Rabbi’s Cat is a unique specimen in itself, and it presents an intriguing opportunity for religious conversation. The rabbi is rarely seen practicing Jewish rituals, yet he frequently opens his Jewish books and takes a moment to study. When the cat begins to talk, he immediately takes issue with the creation story and its timing considering the archeological evidence that confirms that the world is much older than biblical stories would suggest. The cat cannot comprehend why the rabbi is unwilling to train him for his Bar Mitzvah, as he believes that his miraculous ability to speak should present him with the same opportunities as any other being brought up in a Jewish home.
The cat is far from pure, of course, since his main object is to attract the affection of Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter and his cherished caretaker. His first words come after he has devoured the rabbi’s parrot, which he immediately denies. The rabbi chastises him and doubts his goodness because he begins his speech with a lie. His verbal capabilities are not unlimited, and he seems truly destitute when he realizes that the humans in his life can no longer comprehend him when he speaks. The portrayal of speech as a privilege rather than a right for an animal such as the cat is definitely thought-provoking.
The cat’s journey with his master starts when the rabbi learns that he must complete a French dictation to prove his language skills in order to be certified as the local religious authority. The rabbi’s lack of confidence, matched with the cat’s formidable intellectual prowess, prompts them to travel throughout Africa in search of answers. The rabbi picks up his good friend and distant relative, a Muslim Sheik, along the way. The friendship between the two sages of different religions is inspiring, and contrasts sharply with the aggression and intolerance they meet with as they interact with others during their trip.
The Rabbi’s Cat presents interesting philosophy and tackles its subject matter from a creative angle. Its beginning and middle are stronger than its end, as events transpire quickly and come to a peculiar and unsatisfying conclusion. Yet this is a worthwhile and notable cinematic achievement, and it would be refreshing to see Oscar voters reward it. It pairs well with Chico and Rita, a Cuban love story that managed a nomination last year. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine The Rabbi’s Cat finding a place among the likes of Brave, Frankenweenie, and Wreck-It Ralph. Call this one a dark horse with truly unknown chances.
December 24, 2012 | 10:28 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Since the next two months will undoubtedly be all about the Oscars, let’s take a moment to recognize the Jewish characters to be found among those nominee lists that reward television too. The two major awards bodies that also serve as Oscar predictors are the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which gives out the Golden Globes.
The Screen Actors Guild unveiled its choices for the best of 2012 on Wednesday, December 12th. This awards body is notable because it hands out precious few trophies, and is very deliberate about its categories. For film, four major acting categories and an ensemble award are doled out, with five nominees apiece. For TV, there is one male category and one female category for each genre – comedy, drama, and miniseries/TV movie – as well as two ensemble prizes, one for comedy and one for drama.
Among the casts SAG nominated, there are four shows with a handful of distinguished Jewish characters among them. Boardwalk Empire depicts a number of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and Mad Men had its new signature Jewish copywriter used by his employers to help make their client Manischewitz feel more comfortable. On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg’s Howard Wolowitz can’t escape his Jewishness – or his Jewish mother – while Glee’s portrayal of its Jewish high school students leaves much to be desired: Puck’s family incomprehensibly screens Schindler’s List every year on Simchat Torah, and Rachel always talks only about what she wants for Christmas despite her obvious, and much-discussed, Jewish roots.
The HFPA, which announced its picks on Thursday, December 13th, managed to honor more individual TV Jews. No ensemble awards exist, and actors are recognized not by gender but by lead or supporting status. Lead stars in drama series, comedy series, and miniseries/TV movies get their own categories, while all supporting actors or supporting actresses from any of those mediums get lumped into one race. What that means for this year is one particularly diverse representation of television Judaism, in the Best Supporting Actor field. Ed Harris’ John McCain and Eric Stonestreet’s Modern Family member are joined by standout players from three very different shows. Danny Huston plays Jewish mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond on Starz’s otherwise entirely missable Magic City, the emblem of brutality and power. Max Greenfield is the hilarious Schmidt on New Girl, a well-dressed ladies’ man with frequent stories about his Jewish upbringing and, most recently, his recollection of a directive from Rabbi Shmuley not to tell the other kids that Santa wasn’t real. And finally there’s Mandy Patinkin, who netted his first nomination after being snubbed last year, as Saul Berenson, the distinctly Jewish senior CIA agent who serves as mentor to loose cannon and series protagonist Carrie on Homeland. Saul most recently recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, for the second time in the show’s history, in the season finale after a deadly terrorist attack claimed many lives. Putting Diamond, Schmidt, and Saul in the same race makes for quite a competition, and it’s nice to see such strong, if not entirely pure, representations of Jews in contention for recognition this year.
The Golden Globes air on January 13th, and the SAG Awards are on January 27th. In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the film nominees from both organizations as the Oscar nominations approach, on January 10th. But fear not, as new shows premiere in late winter and early spring, it’s more than likely that fresh Jewish characters will grace television screens once again.