The Jews of Prime Time

Review by Joe Rosenberg

Bookcover: 'The Jews of Prime Time'The Jews of Prime Time
By David Zurawik
Brandeis University Press, 2003

It has been 58 years since the ovens of Adolf Hitler were banked, but the flames of antisemitism still linger in the periphery of our lives here in the US. Now more than ever, bigots and antisemites are coming out of the closet in TV discussion shows, in chatrooms, and in cyberspace in general.

The thrust of these attacks is that the current Administration is courting the Jewish vote in 2004 and so propping up Israel and trying to quell the Palestinian uprising. The corollary argument is simple: Jews control the media and therefore dictate what the US thinks about Israel and our allegedly pro-Zionist foreign policy.

Scared by the anti-Communist witch hunts of 1945-1960, the TV moguls caved in to enormous pressures to show the American landscape as one wholesome "WASP" fantasyland. Goodbye, Molly Goldberg.

The Jews of Prime Time, a book by Baltimore Sun TV critic (and Jew) David Zurawik, disproves that notion. According to Zurawik, the Jewish heads of pre-cable television at CBS, NBC, and ABC--like the Hollywood moguls of the pre-TV era and the owners of the New York Times and Washington Post--did not want to ‘taint’ their programming with "Jewishness.”

Scared by the anti-Communist witch hunts of 1945-1960, the TV moguls caved in to these enormous pressures to show the American landscape as one wholesome "WASP" fantasyland. While the networks allowed Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and other overtly Jewish entertainers to flourish in the early days, by 1955 the only exposure Jewish comics such as Alan King, Jack Carter, and Jan Murray got were daytime quiz shows and Ed Sullivan's show. As the author points out, by the mid '50s, Molly Goldberg was gone. (Zurawik doesn't mention Phil Silvers or Sergeant Bilko, but in behavior and speech Bilko was the stereotypical NYC Jew, set among a bunch of naïve goys. However, right always prevailed at the end, and Bilko usually returned or lost his ill-gotten booty.)

By studying the evolution of sitcoms from the Dick Van Dyke Show to Seinfeld, Zurawik demonstrates both the growing heimishasation (heimush=jewishness) of prime-time sitcoms and traces in his 241-page tome the ways in which network heads Paley, Sarnoff, and Goldenson worked to insure that dramas and sitcoms were not about the urban Jewish experience. In this way, these heads could protect themselves from challenges presented to them by the US government.

The self-censoring Jewish executive in the media was the result of a desire for assimilation and entry into mostly WASPish, elitist circles. Although, for example, William Paley initially defended Edward R. Murrow from attacks when Murrow took on the anti-Communist plague, he distanced himself from Murrow and let his Gentile subordinates force Morrow's departure from CBS. The same thing occurred in the movies. Paul Muni, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Danny Kaye each changed their names to become screen idols. Pictures like Gentleman's Agreement and Fiddler on the Roof were made by Gentiles, and only Charlie Chaplin, who was half-Jewish, attacked Hitler.

The New York Times hired its first Jewish reporter in the 1950's, although the paper was founded and owned by German Jews. Jewish entry into the world of finance and communication only occurred in Gentile-owned firms after the bodies of Holocaust victims were paraded in the popular press.

We are now at a crossroads in Jewish-Gentile relationships in this country. The more American lives and property are destroyed by anti-American, anti-Israeli terrorists, the more such baseless documents like the Elders of Zion surface again. Some may dismiss Zurawik's work as simply another whiny Jewish "kvetch" of "poor us," but I see it as a wake-up call, inciting Jews to cease being timid and ashamed of our heritage.

What I am ashamed of is the cowardly way in which network heads acted. As the experience of Hitler has proven, "sucking it up" never works in the long run. God bless those like Gertrude Berg, Murray Janofski, Nathan Birnbaum, and Ben Kubelski.

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This story was published on August 15, 2003.