The Good Wife: Who You Callin' Extra?

Last year, she scored the dream of dreams, a recurring role on a TV show that happened to be made by one of my favorite TV writers (Rob Thomas, who did "Veronica Mars"). The show was canceled, however, and she was back to doing this.

"It's not a bad life," she told me. "I get to stand in front of cameras. I get to be recognized. And sometimes, occasionally, when I get thrown a line or placed in a good spot in front of the camera, I get to really flex my acting muscles. I get to be somebody else."

My first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was the story of a girl who starred on a sitcom about an Orthodox Jewish family. The girl, Hava, was Orthodox herself -- but being Orthodox was one small part of who she was. You'd never tell by looking at her: she was also a punk-rock New York kid who dressed in different outrageous outfits every day. On the sitcom, however, she wasn't playing the sort of Jew that she was; she was just playing a Jew, an everyman sort of stereotypical Jewish girl. For the time that the camera was on her, the rest of her sort of disappeared.

All day, I've been going through the same sort of thing. The pretty and familiar-looking girl who'd been walking down the other side of street all day -- as soon as the last cut was called, she whisked off her wig. Her jet-black wig was replaced by a shock of bright red Manic Panic-ed hair. Her Jewish features now could have been Turkish, or Greek, or Arabic or just straight-up generic American. She was a Jew for the day, and now the day was over.

As I pulled off my hat and coat and pulled on my actual cold-weather puffy coat -- still Hasidic, just a little less obviously so -- I felt the barest shudder of a Hollywood wish. Would Hasidim ever be more than that? Would anyone in television ever be more than a cliché of themselves? Did we even want to be?

The answer is, in some ways, embodied by Archie Panjabi, who plays Margulies's sidekick, the show's investigator. She might be the only Punjabi Sikh actor on prime-time American television. She is smart, sassy, flirty and just a touch mysterious. She doesn't have any trouble manifesting her cultural identity -- by which I mean, it isn't like she's acting white on the show -- but it's more that she is so many other things in addition to that.

Maybe that's why the knee-jerk reaction of Hasidic Jews to seeing Hasidic Jews on television is to be offended. Not because they're stereotyping us, but because they're reducing us. And, just like every Hollywood actor who gets glamorized in every inch of their lives, from their cellulite to their multiple adoptions -- and just like, I suppose, everyone, in their own way -- we just want to be adored.

____

** - I'm grossly oversimplifying it, I know.

 

This article is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.com, a Patheos Partner.

Matthue Roth is the author of Never Mind the Goldbergs, an Orthodox Jewish punk-rock novel, and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go. He is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com and the co-founder of G-dcast.com. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

12/1/2009 5:00:00 AM
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