'So Jewtastic': Hip Judaism in Popular Culture

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Television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews VH1's So Jewtastic, a new documentary about the hipness of Judaism in popular culture.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

Now here's a word you won't find in Webster's Dictionary: `Jewtastic.' The VH1 series "All Access Presents" has coined the phrase `so Jewtastic' to describe how Jews are more prominent than ever in popular culture. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with this review.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

Christmastime tends to be a lean season for Jews like myself. Sure, Hanukkah rears its head, but Santa Claus looms a lot larger in this country than menorahs and dreidels. Now here comes VH1 to proclaim that Jews are vocal and visible like never before. To prove it, they unleash a parade of clips filled with Jewish celebrities and themes. But by trumping up the evidence of how far we've come, the show "So Jewtastic" only reminded me of how little has changed.

In the early 20th century, Jewish studio moguls practically invented Hollywood. Their movies, though, largely avoided Jewish themes. Most actors who were Jewish changed their names. But VH1 argues that today's stars are a brand-new breed. Here's how Jewish actor Elon Gold from the Fox sitcom "Stacked" sees the difference.

(Soundbite of "All Access Presents: So Jewtastic")

Mr. ELON GOLD (Actor): What's happening now is that Jews can now sort of come out of the closet without their Judaism. You know, like, no one knew the Three Stooges were Jewish. You know, they were just like a bunch of goofballs. But nowadays, the Three Stooges would have talked about it. It would have been like, `Hey, yeah, that's right, we're Jewish. You got a problem with that? Boink!'

WALLENSTEIN: It's true that comedy has always been dominated by Jews; think of Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Today, stars like Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are blatantly Jewish. But the trend doesn't extend to other parts of the entertainment world. "So Jewtastic" reels off names like Zach Braff and Jack Black as examples of this new wave, but it doesn't tell us how they are expressively Jewish. I didn't know they were Jewish until VH1 told me.

"So Jewtastic" undercuts its own claim of the new Jew sensation by mining more evidence from the recent past than the present. Citing the popularity of "Seinfeld" and Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" only highlights the fact that there hasn't been much since. Sure, fans of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" noticed this season that Larry David is practically obsessed with all things Jewish, but that show is a cult favorite at best, not a mainstream phenomenon.

"So Jewtastic" also dates itself by spending a lot of time on something it could have noted 10 years ago, the preponderance of Jews in heavy metal bands like Kiss and Van Halen. Here, rockers Ben Lee and Scott Ian discuss the influence this trend had on their career choice.

(Soundbite of "All Access Presents: So Jewtastic")

Mr. BEN LEE: I remember as a kid when I first found out that Gene and Paul were Jewish, I just thought it was so cool because I was like, `Wow! Kiss is Jewish? No way! Ma, those guys are Jewish!'

Mr. SCOTT IAN (Anthrax): It did have a big effect on me learning that other rock 'n' rollers already in bands that I respected were Jewish, and that definitely made me think, `Oh, maybe I can do this.'

Mr. LEE: I remember hearing stuff like, `You can't be in a band. There's no Jews in heavy metal,' you know. And it's like, `Hello!'

WALLENSTEIN: I'll admit that it's a funny thing that Jews have gravitated to heavy metal of all genres. But again, I noticed there's nothing overtly Jewish about these performers. It's not like this guys were wearing yarmulkes along with the Spandex and lipstick.

I knew "So Jewtastic" was really getting desperate when it brought up Kabbalah, the ancient tradition being embraced by celebrities from Madonna to Britney Spears. Oi, gevald! Is everything coming up Rosenberg in America today? "So Jewtastic" plays connect the dots among a constellation of Jewish stars and sees a pattern, but I prefer to draw my own conclusion.

BRAND: Jewtastic Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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