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Jewish Journal

Channel Surfing With God

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

March 19, 2014 | 4:46 am

One of my favorite television programs is the NBC series "Parenthood," which airs on NBC on Thursday evenings. It is the ongoing story of the family of Zeek and Camille Braverman of Berkeley, California, and their four grown children and grandchildren. They all live in close geographic and emotional proximity (sometimes within the parental domicile itself). Those who have watched the show over the years have witnessed health issues, political struggles, martial challenges, kids with "issues," and the basic  "stuff" of life.

So, here's last week's story. Crosby Braverman and his wife, Jasmine, have a new infant. Jasmine's mother becomes adamant that her grandchild become baptized. Crosby Braverman, the infant's father, is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea. He is hostile to religion and ritual. But, ultimately he (begrudgingly) agrees to the baptism.

Crosby and Jasmine need to find godparents for the infant. This creates a miniature political crisis in the family, because they have to "un-invite" Joel, their brother-in-law who is now separated from their sister. Joel does not particularly care about religion either, but he is hurt by the decision to exclude him. Crosby and Jasmine then turn to Crosby's brother and business partner, Adam, and invite him to serve as godparent in Joel's place. Adam is also unreligious, but he is both honored to have been asked, and later insulted to find out that he had been, in essence, a pinch hitter.

Serving as a godparent means that, should the parents be unable to do so, you are responsible for the child's religious upbringing. That would presumably mean that the godparent has a sufficient quantity of religious faith to be able to credibly fulfill that sacred duty. So, how do you have godparents who, themselves, are anti-religious? 

The religion of the Braverman family is, in fact, the Braverman family itself. For Jasmine, the infant's mother, the most important part of the baptismal experience will be that the whole family will be there -- which is probably similar to the way that many secular people feel about religious ceremonies. The theology takes second place to the sense of togetherness. Note the way that the Pesach Seder seems to have devolved into a Jewish springtime Thanksgiving dinner.

For his part, the Braverman patriarch, Zeek, tells the minister that "I didn't see much of God in Viet Nam." In itself, this insight is pretty valuable. It could have undoubtedly resulted in at least a half hour conversation. It would have had all the riveting excitement of "My Dinner With Andre."

What about the family name itself? "Braverman" is obviously Jewish. Are they, then, Jewish? Was someone, once, Jewish? Well, in fact, apparently, yes. In an early episode, a Braverman granddaughter advises her mother on what to wear on a date: "Mom, I don't think you've worn those boots since my bat mitzvah."

"Parenthood" is the perfect “post-Pew Jew” program. Yes, the Bravermans were/are in some way (?) Jewish. One granddaughter became bat mitzvah. That seems to be it. Perhaps they are modern East Bay Marranos. All that's really left of their Jewish identity is a name. (Episode idea: Crosby, or one of the other kids, rebelling against a totally faithless upbringing, starts studying kabbalah, or becomes a baal teshuva. As if that doesn’t happen all the time. Please, dear readers, one of you must know the producer of "Parenthood." How do we make this happen?)

Yeah, right. It's not going to happen. With some major exceptions, you can channel surf for weeks on end and almost never come across any reference to religion on a network television program.

Flip through the channels, and you will notice that almost no one goes to church, let alone synagogue. In the golden age of medical dramas ("ER," "Chicago Hope"), you never saw a chaplain walking the halls of the hospitals. Police shows? No chaplains. Fire departments? No chaplains. In the rare instances when religion is presented, it is usually in the context of a rite of passage or a life cycle celebration -- a wedding, bar mitzvah, or a funeral. You almost never see people attending a "regular" worship service. When television characters struggle with those "keep you up in the middle of the night" issues, it is rare for them to consult religious leaders.

And when television does present religion, it is usually lampooned, its practitioners portrayed as narrow-minded, its leaders and clergy portrayed as fools.

Why is television a religion-free zone? Perhaps television writers and producers think that such plot lines will be divisive and controversial. But they rarely fear to tread into other areas that might get a little sticky, like sexuality or politics.

Or could it be something deeper? The sociologist Peter Berger once quipped that if India is the most religious country in the world, and Sweden the least religious, then America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Berger was not quite right. If he means "ruled by" to imply that America's political leaders are irreligious, then he is clearly wrong. It would be hard to imagine that an avowed atheist could be elected president.

But the cultural elite, or at least the sector of that elite that determines what appears on television, would be the most "Swedish" of them all.

No one expects that television will be an accurate mirror of America’s sociological landscape. But every evening, millions upon millions of Americans watch the small screen, and they fail to see any reference to an aspect of their lives that is deep and profound – faith.

Someday, God will win an Emmy. God will channel Sally Fields at the Oscars. God will say: “You like me! You like me!”

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