Ben Shapiro, Real Time, and Public Jewishness

·5 min read

This month, something happened in American culture that was on its surface rather ordinary but was, on closer inspection, quite extraordinary: A religious Jew appeared on one of the most popular television shows visibly wearing the marker of his religious identity. I am referring to Ben Shapiro’s appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Shapiro, a conservative political commentator and an Orthodox Jew, was wearing a black kippah (also called a “yarmulke”), a skullcap traditionally worn by religious Jewish men. Although it blended in almost seamlessly with his jet-black hair, the kippah was nonetheless clearly discernible to any viewer.

Shapiro was on a panel with the left-wing political commentator Malcolm Nance, with whom he engaged in some heated debate about some of the most contentious political issues of the moment, interrupted only by intermittent applause and by Maher’s comedic relief — especially welcome, here, given the prickly and at times personal nature of Nance’s and Shapiro’s exchanges. All of this would have been rather unremarkable — pundits go after each other on TV all the time — were it not for the fact that Shapiro was appearing proudly on camera as an Orthodox Jew.

For a society that has been so accepting of multiculturalism and in which Jews have played a prominent role in almost all spheres of culture, from Groucho Marx and George Gershwin to Steven Spielberg and Larry David, there have been remarkably few Jewish celebrities who identify as religiously observant. There has been such a plethora of religiously observant Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims who have made notable contributions to American culture that to list even a decent portion of them would require an article in and of itself. By glaring contrast, the number of prominent religious Jews is so small that Orthodox parents trying to point out some of our “successes” to our children have been forced to fall back on fictional characters, such as Krusty the Clown’s father Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky on The Simpsons and the famous convert-by-marriage Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, who won’t go bowling on Saturday because, as he memorably exclaims, “I don’t roll on Shabbos!”

I was in high school when Vice President Al Gore selected Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate in the 2000 presidential election. At the time, my friends and I at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Washington Heights paid far more attention to Talmud than to politics, but when we learned that not only was there a U.S. senator who was an Orthodox Jew but that he stood a good chance of becoming vice president of the United States, we were seized with the kind of excitement typical of fans of long-suffering sports franchises that finally come within sniffing distance of winning it all.

When we saw, however, that Lieberman did not wear a kippah in the Senate or on the campaign trail, we were crushed. How, we wondered, could a Jewish man identify as Orthodox and not wear his kippah in public? The old doubts began to creep back again. Why was it, for example, that Christian and Muslim athletes such as Mariano Rivera and Hakeem Olajuwon could be openly devout adherents of their respective faiths, but Sandy Koufax (held up as a hero by Reform Jews and Conservative Jews but not by Orthodox Jews), outside of one token observance of Yom Kippur, was utterly unobservant? Why was it that Stephen Colbert could reference his Catholicism on air but Jon Stewart limited expressions of his Jewishness to the satiric “old Jewish man” voice he’d bring out from time to time? As a religious Jew, could you only participate meaningfully in American culture by checking your religious identity at the door?

Shapiro’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher won’t entirely quell these doubts, especially for those on the Left who are uncomfortable with his politics, but it may go a long way toward making religious Jews feel more comfortable about our place in American culture. Shapiro’s turn on Real Time feels particularly significant at a time when, through TV series such as Netflix’s Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life, the culture seems to be celebrating American Jews who abandon their religion. This is an extremely bizarre and disturbing trend in American TV and culture. Would Netflix also be so heavily promoting shows about black or Hispanic or Muslim Americans leaving their communities?

In an era in which, for better or worse, identity has become paramount, we religious Jews may at long last be seeing that someone who looks and lives like us really can make it here. It is now up to purveyors and creators of American culture to bring us more Shapiro on Real Time and less Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life — to ensure that the visibility of people like him is not a one-off but a harbinger of a broader, and long overdue, acceptance of religious Jews in mainstream culture. Maybe, though, this episode is a sign that 2021 might finally be our year.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral fellow and research scholar at the University of Salzburg. He is the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life.

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Tags: TV, Judaism, Religion

Original Author: Daniel Ross Goodman

Original Location: Ben Shapiro, Real Time, and Public Jewishness