February 25, 2021 NBC’s show “Nurses” does Hasidic Jews
NBC’s show Nurses did an episode with a Hasidic Jewish patient who needs a graft as part of medical treatment.
It’s bad. It is cartoonishly bad.
A few years ago after watching Woody Allen’s Fading Gigilo, I wrote about all the Hollywood stereotypes that they love to use — either as grist to propel the story forward, or to provide comic relief. For instance, here the Hasidim act like the mafia and give Allen the opportunity to make Jewy jokes. “I’m already circumcised!”
The clip from the NBC sitcom Nurses is bad like that, but much worse.
Alison Josephs from Jew in the City did a full report on the episode. The episode has been pulled since.
There is so much wrong in this brief piece.
I’m going to break it down and show you how the this goes wrong:
1. Clothing: Everything is off! For both the father and the son, Israel. I was recently on a film set and I described one person’s outfit as “movie-esque.” This surprised everyone, but it wouldn’t surprise people from the community. I bet that if you show them a picture of Israel in this scene, they will immediately know that it’s from a film. The sidecurls are so bad — it’s what Hasidim wear on Purim during masquerade day! These synthetic stick-ons are sold in the Purim stores along with the cheap beards and hilarious shtreimels. Hollywood then uses them as serious costumes.
Also, the father’s hat is a krach-hit and is not the right hat to go with that suit. The boy’s facial hair also looks off to me. But most of all — when will Hollywood figure out that almost all Hasidic men wear glasses? Just put a pair of glasses on one of them. Try a little.
2. Accent: They both have smooth, American accents. Hasidic men have distinct Yiddish-Hebrew accents. They struggle to pronounce “th” as well as “ww,” and they linger on the “r” much more than native English speakers. There is also a singsong rhythm to English from native Hasidic Yiddish speakers that is very different. The tune is less declarative and more inquisitive.
3. Concept of consent: Israel literally says “No! I do not consent!” Such a western phrase! Hasidic youths do not call the shots, especially not when the parent is by their side. The father in this scene has no patriarchal authority. Hasidic children (even the sneaky/rebellious ones) are very deferential to authority. And when there is a medical crisis, decisions are made with the recruitment of professional “networkers” who advise and suggest and help divine the best course of treatment. Israel’s decisive voice is way off for Hasidic culture.
4. Deference to medical professionals: Another element of the Hasidic deference to hierarchies is the respect for medical professionals. Questions are usually asked cautiously and eagerly — “Doctor, so what do you suggest, pray tell!” But here, Israel and dad are two defiant fanatics.
5. God is the only one we turn to: Israel declares: “It’s God who heals what he creates.” Everything in Hollywood’s Hasidim is about God this and that. Oy vey. That is projection from the outsider. The appropriate Orthodox Jewish idea for this scene would be that of hishtadles. Hishtadles, which means to make an effort, is the belief that one must make an effort in order to summon divine assistance.
If the individual does not make an effort, then God will not help him. One must do their part. This is a part of the idea behind seeking so much aggressive medical intervention. You’re jumpstarting the miracle machine.
Another expression everyone over 10 would know is “Venishmartem me’oyd l’nafshesaychem.” It means: You must guard carefully your health. This is a decree. I don’t know where it’s from, but it’s an aphorism you take seriously. That’s how real aphorisms go; they might not mention god and you might not know where they come from, but you know that you better not be careless with your body.
6. God forbid a woman or an Arab, or an Arab woman! When the doctor tells Israel he must get a graft from a deceased patient, the first thing his father worries about is who it would come from. Will it come from a goy? A lady? Will it come from an Arab? The nurse adds a snarky: “And God forbid an Arab woman!” The entire scene assumes that the only concern Jews have is purity. It’s absurd.
If you really want to do a scene where doctors order a medical procedure that might pose religious problems, then the Hasid would respond by consulting with a religious expert. And the dilemma would be phrased in extremely legalistic terms. No one obsesses over some kind of biological purity. This sounds almost — I don’t know… another culture…? One with an obsession with biological purity..?
7. The film Chosen and sports: One of the rare good films on Hasidic Jews is the adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel Chosen. The problem with Chosen is that it is very dated — it hearkens back to a time that Hasidim and their neighbors had much more interaction. And when neighborhood games were serious business.
Those who write contemporary stories about Hasidim often cull material from these older conflicts, without checking to update the story. True, basketball is not allowed for most stringent Hasidim. It would certainly not be acceptable in Kiryas Joel. But it would also not be a serious sport — it would be a fun little sneaky sin. No one would ever, ever want their child to be left with a limp (“what about shidduchim, marriage?”) to avoid playing. Maybe in the secular world this could happen, maybe in Chaim Potok’s baseball time. But not here.
8. Religion vs. science: The moral of this little clip is this: Religion is at odds with good medicine. As Josephs wrote, “…a major theme of the show – that our choices are binary: believing in God or medicine – never both together.” The science of this binary is not actual science, it’s a fanatical devotion to medical authorities in its own right. Actual medicine gets on well with the religious decree to “be fruitful and multiply.”
The show runners managed to tick off all these cliches in a 44 second segment.
The episode created an outcry, and NBC removed it. This is good. I don’t like the viral cancel culture, but I also don’t like the wimpy submission to being caricatured. We’ve come a way from Netflix’s Unorthodox, which will be responsible for much of the prejudice against Hasidim. There is no reason for films to be like this. If audiences ask for better, they will get better. If they settle for this, then help us all God. These Hollywood creations are beyond healing.