TV’s Jewish Characters of Color

Isabella copyAs of last month, ethnic minority characters with half-Jewish hyphenated last names are now featured on three of the most popular shows on television.

Having one such character was interesting, two was a coincidence, but three is a trend.

The characters in question are:

* Tina Cohen-Chang, a former member of the show choir on Fox’s Glee. Tina’s religious background has never been mentioned on the show, but her last name strongly suggests a part-Jewish, part-Chinese origin. Interestingly, the character is played by Korean-American actress Jenna Ushkowitz, whose adoptive father’s own father was Jewish; hence the last name.

* Dean Levine-Wilkins, the newest attorney on the outstanding CBS courtroom drama The Good Wife. African-American actor Taye Diggs plays Wilkins, and he describes the character as a “hot-to-trot lawyer.” Diggs has a Jewish connection, too. His own “good wife” of eleven years is actress Idina Menzel of Wicked and Frozen fame. The couple, who recently separated, named their dog Sammy Davis, Jr. because, Diggs has said, “My wife is Jewish; I’m black.” And their five-year-old son Walker is, of course, both.

* Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, a supporting character on the wildly successful and long-running Disney Channel animated show Phineas and Ferb. Her mother is Mexican, and her father is Jewish-American.

Glee and The Good Wife have never explored the religious identities of their hyphenatedly Jewish characters, though Isabella observes Chanukah while the other characters celebrate Christmas. And the show featured a “Mexican-Jewish Cultural Festival” with a song whose lyrics included “There is kreplach on tostadas, a pupik in our piñata, we kibitz when we lambada.”

Good for Hollywood for introducing characters who seem to be both of Jewish extraction and people of color. It’s a good reflection of today’s Jewish community, which is no longer quite so monolithically white. Intermarriage, cross-racial adoption, and increased comfort with conversion across ethnic lines have led to a greater rainbow of Jews in our pews.

Personally, I have half a dozen Jewish friends (some Orthodox, some not) of minority extraction. Certainly in my relationships with them – and hopefully in the wider Jewish community – their skin color is as relevant as their eye color.

It’s no small achievement that Hollywood has begun to diversify the racial background of its Jewish characters.

Happily, some parts of the Jewish community have begun to do so as well. For example, Behrman House, the largest Jewish textbook publisher in North America, now publishes curricula with images of Jewish children who are from racial minorities, are disabled, or who have same-sex parents. And the Web site of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is filled with images of happy Reform Jews who are not white.

However, other major Jewish organizations have a less impressive track record. I did a non-scientific survey, counting the apparent ethnicities of the first fifty Jewish-identified faces I found on the Web sites of 10 important Jewish groups. Leaving aside the URJ, several organizations (Hillel, Jewish Federations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, J Street, the American Jewish Committee, and B’nai Brith) have one or two Jews who appear to be racial minorities in my sample. Another two (Aish HaTorah and the National Jewish Democratic Council) had none.

Who cares? We’re all the same, right?

Sure, but imagine an African-American Jewish girl who only sees white faces when Jewish characters are in movies, or when she reads Jewish magazines, or when she browses synagogue brochures. It sends a message that “Jews are white,” which is precisely the opposite message of the one her parents give her at home.

We’ve come a long way from Juan Epstein, the Jewish Puerto Rican “Sweathog” on the 1970s ABC sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. Epstein’s double ethnicity was a frequent source of wisecracks on the show. By contrast, the Jewish-minority identities of today’s equivalent characters tend to be utterly unremarkable.

And why not?

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About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at