Gary Goldberg, the writer and/or producer of several American TV sitcoms, died on June 24, 2013.

Among his productions was “Brooklyn Bridge,” a TV sitcom (based on his own life) about a Jewish family living in Brooklyn during the mid-’50’s. It was short-lived — only two seasons: 1991-93. Nominated for many important awards, it won three.

Among other reasons I feel that it deserves special mention is because it was one of the very few series — perhaps the only one — that presented Jews as something more than caricatures.

It starred Marion Ross – Mrs. Cunningham on “Happy Days” – as an immigrant Jewish grandmother. Her performance stunned me. She caught the special Jewish qualities of the character perfectly, without overstatement. I can think of only two other performances by non-Jews as Jews that impressed me as deeply: Rod Steiger in “The Pawnbroker” and Eddie Murphy as an old Jewish man in a Queens, NY barbershop in “Coming to America.” In each case, they caught something essentially “Jewish” about the character that should be taken seriously (even Eddie Murphy, whose character was meant to be comical, caught it without mocking it). Ron Liebman’s portrayal of Reuben Warshowsky, a union organizer whose {New York} Jewishness is essential to the character is also noteworthy, as is Richard Belzer’s “John Munch” (a fine discussion of whose conflicts and conflicting characteristics can be found at:

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Munch).

As for Lawrence Olivier’s “Jewishness” playing Neil Diamond’s father in the 80’s remake of “The Jazz Singer,” or Christian Bales’ “Jewishness” playing Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle” – the less said, the better (even though taken simply as dramatic portrayals alone, without reference to “Jewishness,” they were fine). Portrayals of Jews by Jews haven’t been much better. Sometimes, not even as good.

More often, the portrayal of Jews on TV and in movies is self-deprecating caricature. Howard Wolowitz (and his mother) on “Big Bang Theory” is a good example (although Simon Helberg apparently had an upbringing in “mostly Reform” Judaism, he has played “comical Jewish” parts several times). On “Seinfeld,” Jerry’s Jewishness was a minor joke – except for the episode in which Kramer tried to kidnap a new-born baby to protect it from the “barbaric” practice of circumcision! In the movie re-make of “Starsky and Hutich,” Vince Vaughan plays a father involved in crime, who wears a prominent Magen David (6-pointed “Star of David”) and a kippah at his son’s bar mitzvah; why the needless emphasis on his character’s Judaism? The list goes on and on. I haven’t even watched the current “The Goldbergs.” The coming-attractions were enough to turn me off.

Rarely, if ever, is a Jewish character – especially a religious one – portrayed as someone to be taken seriously and respected. Even where it’s been done (as on an episode of Law and Order SUV, in which a Hasidic-type rabbi is played by Bob Dishy), the portrayal is often respectful but two-dimensional.

When do the jokes about “guilt,” or “anxiety,” or “neurosis,” or “nerdishness,” etc., get old?

Writers creating Jewish characters and plots have infinite levels of depth and conflict to explore. A Jewish character could be bemused by the world and, at the same time, aggravated by it; resentful of how Jews have been treated, but with fundamentally heartfelt concern about the world’s well-being; struggling between maintaining a tradition (of which he or she is often not fully informed) and rejecting it by “assimilating,” or suppressing his/her Jewish identity; and so on.

Sholem Aleichem’s great accomplishment was to capture both the “humor” and the “tragedy” of Jewish life. It’s interesting to mention here that one of my first impulses as an adult to know something more about Judaism, came after seeing a teen production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” I was deeply moved by it. Some years later, after I was more involved in Judaism, I saw Zero Mostel in a revival of the musical on Broadway, and was appalled by his caricature. Had I seen him in the original production in the ’60’s, I might have had a very different reaction, as he caught something of Jewish culture on a Broadway stage; “out in public,” as it were.

I’ve also thought that there could be room on TV, in the “People’s Court” and “Judge Judy” genre – for a show in which cases are brought before a Beis (or Beit) Din. Three rabbis hear the case, question the witnesses and then discuss the case in order to produce a ruling on it. The discussion should be serious but accessible to the layperson. This need not – possibly should not – be done only by English-speaking rabbis with Yiddish accents and accentuation. Their concern for exploring the various sides of every question should be the focus; possibly, it could even serve an educational function by modeling higher levels of critical thinking (without being so abstract that it becomes a caricature itself), as well as how to disagree respectfully. There’d certainly be room for humor and wit, but in the service of implementing justice, fairness and kindness.

Then (and perhaps this should have been first), there’s the portrayal of “emunah” — Jewish religious faith — itself. There have been beautiful TV and film portrayals of Christian devotion. Muslim faith has had less of a “voice,” although I think that the “acceptance of G-d’s Will”-theme in “Lawrence of Arabia” was at least a fair presentation. But where has there ever been a portrayal of Jewish observance as a kind of “container” — an “ark,” if you will — for an inner trust and faith, sometimes bordering on the mystical (see Maurice Schwartz’ ecstasy while lighting Shabbat candles in the Yiddish-language film, “Tevye and His Daughters,” for a fine example of this)?

This post is only some opening thoughts on the subject of the portrayal of Jews and Judaism.

There’s always room for discussion.