While I love the entire "Real Housewives" series, the New York City one is my favorite because I lived in Manhattan and it holds a special place in my heart. I find the women of the show to be an intoxicating combination of vapid and intriguing, which makes for incredible reality television! Also, being a Jewish woman, I am happy to watch successful Jewish women on the show.
Jill Zarin recently coauthored the book "Secrets of a Jewish Mother," and I was thrilled to see a famous woman not only acknowledging, but embracing, her Judaism. I also assumed that Bethenny Frankel was proudly Jewish, but when I recently watched her on the "Real Housewives" after-show hosted by Andy Cohen, I was confused by how she responded to a viewer question. Andy had received an e-mail asking Bethenny if she was Jewish (which I found odd because she is so obviously a Jew). Bethenny responded, "No, I don't consider myself Jewish. My dad was Jewish and my mom converted ... but I don't think of myself as Jewish."
I was stunned. Here is a woman who is as "Jewishy" as they come: She looks Jewish, she sounds Jewish, she has a Jewish name and Yiddish words are peppered throughout her lexicon. Not to mention the fact that she is 100 percent Jewish, given that both of her parents are Jewish (Judaism recognizes converts to be as Jewish as if they had been born Jews). Why would she deny her ethnicity?
Bethenny quickly changed the subject to her new book and talked about all of her successes as an author and celebrity chef. Here is a beautiful, accomplished woman who is riding a hard-earned wave of success, yet she flat-out denied her heritage with no explanation. Had she said, "I was Jewish, but I found Jesus and converted," I would have understood. But her only reason for not affiliating with her religion was, "I'm just spiritual." But how, I wondered, does being Jewish conflict with being "spiritual"?
I found myself feeling a bit like I did when I used to watch "Seinfeld." Here were these characters who were so clearly Jewish, but there were rarely any direct references made to their Judaism. While I thought the show was brilliantly funny, I had a hard time jumping on the "Seinfeld bandwagon" because of the Jewish elephant in the living room. There was something vaguely unsettling and self-hating about the whole thing. I could only speculate that the producers believed that if the characters openly discussed their Judaism, they would have lost a large part of their audience because of anti-Semitism. Perhaps they were right.
I wonder if Bethenny feels the same way. I've always been a fan of hers on the show; she naturally takes on the role of Greek chorus as her sharp wit and moments of vulnerability showcase her magnetic personality. But now I'm not so sure. I'm disappointed that she missed the opportunity to proudly acknowledge her Judaism in front of a mass audience, especially during a time when Jews and the State of Israel need all the support they can get! While people of all creeds and cultures -- from Muslims to African-Americans -- get major kudos for embracing their heritage, it seems as if Jews are all too often reticent to acknowledge theirs.
It has been a long-standing debate as to whether Judaism is a religion or ethnicity. I'm with most American Jews who tend to think of their Jewishness as a matter of culture. There are certain cultural traits that that are shared by many Jews, just as there are distinguishing characteristics shared by Mexican-Americans or Italian-Americans. Jews in many parts of the world share many of those cultural aspects, which only leads to the fact that Judaism is indeed a culture. So while Bethenny may not be a practicing religious Jew, she is still culturally a Jew, just as an Italian-American who doesn't practice Catholicism is still Italian.
I can only imagine the uproar if one of the African-American women from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" denied being black. Can you imagine Nene saying, "Both of my parents were African-American, but I don't consider myself black"? Not only would it be terribly insulting to the African-American community, it would be ridiculous as well. But it seems to be socially acceptable for Jews to assimilate to the point of denial.
In our society, we celebrate racial and religious diversity, and this is a wonderful thing
-- except, maybe, if you are Jewish. I'm now even more proud of Jill Zarin for valuing her heritage enough to write a book that celebrates everything that Judaism, her rich and beautiful faith, has taught her. And I wish Bethenny had had the chutzpah to at least answer "yes" when asked about hers.