Ask many Australians have kept them through isolation and they will tell you the same thing: Netflix and wine. Imagine if this pandemic occurred pre-streaming services. Imagine locking with a free-to-air television. Can’t stand the thought. Even wine cannot kill the pain enough.
In praise of the giant’s mercy, Covid-19 waited until there were more streaming services than we could really pay for before forcing us into house isolation.
One show about high rotation in Australian homes is Not commonNetflix Originals series is based on a true story of a Jewish woman who fled her husband and the ultra-Orthodox community in the United States for a new life in Germany.
Critically praised and very bingeable, this is the first Netflix series to show Yiddish – an ancient German derivative and most of it has retired – as its primary language.
Unorthodox offers a peek into the lives of Hasidic Jews, a largely closed community that until recently has rarely been depicted on screen. This is arranged in a very real Satmar Hasid Jewish enclave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and viewers around the world will note many similarities with the communities in their own cities. For many people, maybe even most Australians, the world and Unorthodox character will be as foreign as Israel.
There are only around 100,000 Jews in Australia, only 0.4% of the total population. Although there are small Jewish communities in Perth and Adelaide, most (around 90%) live in several suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne. Most identified as non-practicing, Conservative or Reformed; less than 10% of them in each city are identified as Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.
The Hasid is a small sect in the ulta-Orthodox community, but they are the most easily recognized. Hasid men exclusively wore black suits with white shirts and tzitzit (ritual bound ropes) hanging on their waists, yarmulkes (skull caps) and a single ring framed each side of their faces. Women are allowed more variations provided they dress “modestly”, in a loose style with legs and arms closed, and married women usually wear wigs.
But this is a minority among Jews in Australia; most of us, cannot be distinguished from the majority of the population. Unless someone tells you they are Jewish, you might not know. This makes display of antisemitism recently – swastika at home, neo-Nazi demonstration – increasingly confusing. Has this new anti-Semitic guard met a Jew? Do they know anything about our culture? Can they choose us from the line?
This lack of visibility – in number, geography and identity – is compounded by a lack of representation in Australian popular culture. Or in some cases, lack of clear representation. Although there are actually many prominent figures with Jewish roots in Australian literature (Linda Jaivin, David Malouf), film and television (Isla Fisher, Yael Stone, Ben Mendelsohn), music (Troye Sivan, Ben Lee, Jimmy Barnes), media (John Safran , Sharri Markson), entertainment (Osher Günsberg, Libby Gorr), comedy (Danny Katz, Alice Fraser) and fine arts (the late Judy Cassab and the late Mirka Mora), in many cases, most people are unaware of their Jewish heritage.
Unorthodox is one of a series of American productions including Disobedience, Transparent, Uncut Gems, Extraordinary Maisel, Grace and Frankie and Circus of Books, which ultimately tells modern Jewish stories that are not about the Holocaust or neurotic male writer and comedian. Jewish culture, characters and stories, better or worse, are ahead and center in Hollywood today – not just behind the scenes as our history, which is often joked about, sends.
What high visibility is currently doing on the American screen is highlighting the scarcity of Jewish narratives in Australian film and television. Yes, the Australian Jewish population is less than 2% of that in the United States, but given the migration of Jews to Australia starting from the first fleet, you would think some Semitic tales would be told. Even the historical scarcity of Australian Jewish characters is so bleak, I will give you $ 100 if you can name five. I can not.
When I think about it, I can only immediately remember the brilliant and very Jewish Australian actor, Sacha Horler as Liza in the 2001 Russian film Doll; and very much not A fascinating depiction of the actor Ewen Leslie about an Orthodox young man from Bondi who questions his belief in the short features of Jewboy (2005).
There is also an Academy Award-winning film Shine, about Melbourne-born Jewish concert pianist David Helfgott (1996) – and some in-depth dives into Google resulting in four examples of Jews depicted in Australian fiction and drama: many German Jewish refugees interned in Australian POW camps during second world war, described in the two-part miniseries of The Dunera Boys (1985); the Mendel family in the Palace of Dreams miniseries, based on a true story about a Sydney hotel they ran (1985); Scarlet “Red” Engles, played by Danielle Cormack, who is a Jewish criminal lawyer at Rake (2010-2018); and Marta Dusseldorp in A Place to Call Home (2013–2018) as the central figure Sarah Adams, who converted to Judaism for her husband. Maybe there is more that I haven’t found. But why are they so hard to find?
It’s nice to see Australians involved with a lot of American content about Jews and culture that isn’t just a replay of Seinfeld. But maybe it’s time for more Australian Jewish stories to fill our screens.
• This section was updated on April 30 to include references to Shine and Palace of Dreams
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