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‘Glee’s’ Jewish character ‘Jew-Fro’: Offensive, but not anti-Semitic

by Danielle Berrin

October 4, 2010 | 5:14 pm

The character Jacob Ben-Israel a.k.a. "Jew-Fro" on Glee

The second season of Glee, Fox’s high-school-musical-for-grown-ups, has chosen to spotlight its fourth Jewish character.  His name is Jacob Ben-Israel (Josh Sussman) though he is affectionately called “Jew-Fro” in reference to his cotton-candy wad of – you guessed it – Jew-Fro. Like the show’s other Jewish characters, Ben-Israel is also unlikable – only more so.

He is, by my account, a blithering fool. But I was somewhat disturbed to read this post from The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob, who takes him far more seriously:

The handling of the character—here presented as a sweaty, stammering, and compulsively masturbating Jew—borders on the anti-Semitic. Is it a case of Kosher panic? Or another symbol of that eternal Glee crutch: the use of stereotype as shorthand for character development? Either way, the butt sweat stains, over-the-top hairstyle (“It’s like a Jewish cloud,” cooed Brittany), self-pleasuring during the pep rally performance, and his attempt to actually buy Rachel from Finn are in shockingly poor taste, considering the series’ self-professed messages about acceptance and equality.

So, I agree, the Pee-Wee Herman antics? Not so hot. But “anti-Semitic”? That seems like a strong reaction to a character that is, at best, a caricature. “Jew-Fro” is not like any Jewish guy I know, which makes it hard to see him as any meaningful representation of Jewish whatsoever (even his fro, all messy and combed-through, is more Afro than Jew-Fro which usually come in the form of tighter curls and can be quite beautiful).  Ben-Israel is offensive because he’s callow and obnoxious – not because he’s Jewish.

It also makes little sense to me why Lacob’s analysis of the show, entitled “Why I Loathe Glee” (his italics, not mine) concludes that the show is silly and plotless (albeit true) but still insists it live up to its earlier incarnation as a smart show about “acceptance and equality”. (I’m not sure if Lacob is Jewish, but since the only mutual friend we share on Facebook is my rabbi’s spouse, I’m going to venture a good guess that his JewFro is personally offended by Glee’s JewFro.)

Even as Lacob rightly points out that “plot, characterization, and logic” have gone “out the window” on Glee – its audience holds: 13.3 million viewers for the Britney Spears episode last week. Because despite being plotless, Glee is not boring; it is trendy and zeitgeisty, taking the backdrop of high school and adding MTV.

“Scenes involving dialogue or plot development are shoehorned between massive musical set pieces, which draw from the vast and varied world of popular music,” Lacob writes of the show. “Instead of illustrating the unspoken and inner desires or fears of the characters, the songs here seem like coldly calculated viral videos, designed to rapidly spread across the Internet.”

Glee’s inventiveness as tabloid-style television for a generation that wants splashy entertainment fast is the antidote to more sophisticated shows like “Mad Men” (which similarly, does not depend as much on plot as it does on deep, rich characterizations, and the significance of events and historic parallels that require careful observance, patience and reflection). Glee is more like sex without love; a hot, quick fix that doesn’t amount to much and doesn’t need to.

Which is why it makes even less sense that critics are decrying the show for being plotless and popular—as if what’s popular is always a pre-requisite for taste. I say, let’s come back to this in a couple years—I’m willing to bet the Glee legacy will be exactly where it ought to be.

[CORRECTION APPENDED]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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