Seeing is believing

Sharing narratives of ‘normalcy’ can help debunk misconceptions about Jews

In Short

Dispelling stereotypes about Jews — including the ones we hold, too — requires exposure to the full breadth of Jewish life and experiences.

“Can I see your horns?” the boy asked when he heard I was Jewish. 

“What horns?” 10-year-old me responded. 

“The ones on your head,” said the boy. 

“What?! I don’t have horns.” 

The first time I was asked this question as a young girl growing up in Texas, I was flabbergasted. Why did people think I had horns? It was not until later that I learned that this is a common misperception some gentiles have based on a biblical mistranslation. In Exodus 34:29, the verse says that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai “karan ohr panav” (“the skin of his face shone” or “was like a ray [of light]”). Karan is spelled similarly to keren, which means horn; and when the artists like Michelangelo depicted Moses according to the widely accepted but erroneous Latin translation of the text, the prophet was literally decked with horns. It is an image that has since become a meme the world over.

Needless to say, Jews do not have horns, but thanks to the work of Michelangelo and other artistic portrayals this misperception persists until today.

This story was top of mind for me as we at TEN: Together Ending Need (formerly the Jewish Poverty Affinity Group) released a new report: “The Case of the Missing Narrative: Hollywood, Media & Jewish Poverty.” 

Arts and entertainment, often in the forms of TV and movies, shape how many of us think about different ethnic and racial groups. Pause for a moment and ask yourself: What is the dominant narrative about American Jews in media and movies produced in the United States? One only has to think back to this summer’s Adam Sandler movie “You are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” — its lavish parties complete with special outfits and professionally done hair and makeup — to come up with an answer. Can you even remember the last time you saw a working class or economically insecure Jew portrayed in a movie or TV show? And if you can, was that character a contemporary individual, or an immigrant from the previous century? Not a single character comes easily to mind. 

The Friedman family in “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” on Netflix are a great example of Jewish representation, but their economic status also adheres to stereotypes about American Jewish life in popular culture. (Scott Yamano/Netflix)

It might surprise both Jews and non-Jews to learn that a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found that more than 1 in 5 Jewish households in America were economically insecure, earning less than $50,000 a year and experiencing “difficulty paying for medical care, their rent or mortgage, food, or other bills or debts in the past year.” One in 10 Jewish households reported earning less than $30,000.

As a group of philanthropists, TEN has been wondering why more Jewish funders do not focus on alleviating economic insecurity as part of their charitable giving. When we started to ask others this question, people responded by questioning whether there really were economically insecure Jews. After all, they never see these people.

TEN contracted with Mik Moore, CEO of Moore + Associates and an expert in cultural and narrative change, to research what narratives Hollywood and the media have centered in their storytelling about Jews today. Of course, these narratives appear in places other than Hollywood and the media, but both reach mass audiences and have a strong influence on all of us.

In “The Case of the Missing Narrative,” Moore finds that “for every Jewish character in film or television facing poverty, there are almost 10 Jewish characters who are wealthy!” 

“If you expand the comparison to include all of the working-class and upper middle class Jewish characters, there are more than twice as many high earners. Yet according to Pew Research, in 2021 there were around an equal number of Jews making under $50,000 (21%) as making over $200,000 (23%), while 26% of American Jews had trouble paying bills at least once.”

The time has come to change this narrative. Jews have been viewed as an American success story, climbing the educational and economic ladder. When that becomes the only story many people know — when Jews who struggle are almost invisible — our diversity and complexity is erased.

The “rich Jew” narrative has had many negative effects. It plays directly into antisemitic narratives about Jewish wealth and influence, and it erases the story of Jews who struggle economically. It’s time to paint a picture that shows the diversity and complexity of Jewish communities around the country.

“It is possible to replace the stereotypical narrative of Jewish wealth with a narrative about Jewish commitment to equity, in which Jews help lead efforts to address inequality and corruption, within and outside the Jewish community,” Moore concludes in his report. “It is possible to tell untold stories about how American Jews struggle to overcome the same economic barriers faced by other Americans, replacing a narrative of exceptionalism with a narrative of normalcy.”

A narrative of normalcy. These words jumped out at me as I thought about how strange and othered I felt as a kid when asked to show off my horns. I was completely normal, just like everyone else, yet because of an archaic narrative I was seen as different. 

The narrative, the stories we tell, have huge impacts and resonate for generations. 

The Jewish story has never been monolithic. We are made up of diverse communities and individuals. Like everyone else, we are also economically diverse. Some are very comfortable, and some struggle. Since biblical times, Jewish values have asked those with more to help provide for those who have less. Landowners must leave the corners of their fields for the poor to come and harvest for themselves. We are all required to take care of the widows, the orphans and the economically disadvantaged. 

To make a difference for those who struggle financially, we must also begin telling their stories. If we shine a light on the Jews who go unseen, we will be better able to raise money, advocate for better public policies and truly help those in need. It is beyond time that both we and the rest of the world gain a more nuanced understanding of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network.