Does ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Peddle in Anti-Semitic Tropes?

Some Jewish groups have accused the hit Netflix show of anti-Semitism. Others disagree.

I want to get this out of the way first — I really enjoyed The Umbrella Academy, Netflix’s hit show based on the eponymous comic by Gerard Way (yeah, that’s My Chemical Romance’s lead singer Gerard Way). It’s about a complex group of characters born with special powers trying to prevent the apocalypse (think X-Men meets Groundhog Day, or rather, meets its more angsty counterpart, Palm Springsalso a great pandemic watch). It’s a wonderfully distracting, out there, and quick-witted sci-fi show — one that refuses to make its super-powered protagonists heroes or anti-heroes. It also has an amazing cast: Elliot Page, Justin H. Min, Tom Hopper, Ritu Ayra, and the incredible Emmy Raver-Lampman (who is dating amazing Jewish rapper/actor/multi-talented dreamboat Daveed Diggs).

I especially love The Umbrella Academy for how it improves upon its source material in a way that quite a few recent fantasy and sci-fi adaptations have done, like HBO’s excellent Watchmen and Netflix’s Cursed — by making its cast of characters more racially diverse and queer than the source material. In the case of Watchmen and The Umbrella Academy’s second season, which takes place in the 1960s, it even makes some powerful social commentary about racism in our country. Sci-fi has long been a vehicle for social commentary, and it’s heartening to see that tradition continue in these comic book adaptations.

So I must say that I, a person who may or may not have watched this show more than once (it’s pandemic season and I need my binging comforts), was surprised to hear that the show had been accused of anti-Semitism so vehement and vile that the Board of British Deputies wrote a letter to scold its creators.

I knew right away what was being referred to, without even having to read the articles — I too may have raised my eyebrow at the show’s iconic villain — The Handler’s — somewhat frequent use of Yiddish, which activated my Jewdar, for a brief moment, when I watched the first season of the show last year. I was surprised to see a couple more Yiddish words made it to season two as well.

“The use of a Yiddish saying by the evil boss of an organization which controls the world’s timeline is clearly an antisemitic trope,” the Board of British Deputies’ vice president Amanda Bowman told the Sun, a British tabloid, after the group published an open letter last year, following the premiere of season one in 2019. “Whether intentional or not, this makes for very uncomfortable viewing. Netflix should take action to remove the racism from this scene.”

After season 2 dropped last week, similar accusations resurfaced. The main and most viral one comes from a particular Twitter thread written by @gabsaporta, who is 16 and Jewish, which details the possible moments of anti-Semitism in the show.

So does The Umbrella Academy use anti-Semitic tropes? Well, it’s clear that my love for this show may color my own personal conclusion on the matter — but let’s try to unpack these accusations.

First off, who is The Handler?

The Handler works for the Temps Commission, an organization charged with maintaining the integrity of the time-space continuum — by eliminating those who threaten it. The Commission itself throughout the show becomes a bit more complex than purely evil, but their goal throughout much of the show is making sure that the apocalypse — which SPOILER ALERT is brought upon by one of the members of The Umbrella Academy — still happens.

The Handler, one of the top agents of the commission, is not a character in the comics but in the series, she is a truly fabulous villain — think Ursula from The Little Mermaid meets Moira Rose, with impeccable wigs and hats, a glorious sense of style, and many self-serving villainous interests. Yes, The Handler is all about keeping the space and time continuum, but more than anything, The Handler is all about The Handler. She’s played by Kate Walsh, one of my favorite Grey’s Anatomy alumna.

Is The Handler Jewish?

That is unclear. But The Handler does pepper her speech with Yiddish words — more than any other character on the show — but still, by my count, in all of the two seasons of The Umbrella Academy, she says about three Yiddish words, including shvitz, a commonly used word for sauna, and one full Yiddish phrase. While some on Twitter have argued that Yiddish is a language primarily used by Jews, which of course is 100% true, as someone who has lived in New York for a decade now, I can confirm that peppering your speech with Yiddish words is not an exclusively Jewish trait. I’ve seen many non-Jews throw in Yiddish words into sentences at a rate and speed that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. It’s possible that The Handler is more of a philo-Semite — in itself not a really great thing to be, but kind of tracks for a villain, I suppose.

Either way, The Handler uses Yiddish words that many non-Jews use — shvitz, mishegas, chutzpah — and that we see other non-Jewish characters use on TV and movies fairly often. It might not always be a comfortable experience, but I wouldn’t describe it as anti-Semitic.

What does stand out is that The Handler is the only one somewhat commonly using these words — and that she is also an evil power-hungry character.

Personally? I’m not really convinced that The Handler is Jewish, and I definitely don’t get the feeling that the writers of the show intended her to be — or that many viewers would see her as such. In season one, you discover that the Handler has SUPER MILD SPOILER ALERT the gun Hitler used to kill himself in her office as a sort of odd memento. The weird detachment with which she addresses this piece of Nazi paraphernalia left me totally convinced that she couldn’t possibly be a Jew.

So yeah, basically, the answer to this one is we don’t know if The Handler is Jewish — aside from speaking some Yiddish, in addition to other languages (we see her speaking Swedish and Mandarin), there are no indications that she is. There are no Jewish characters in the show — aside from a sweet Jewish couple, the Frankels, that show up in one small but important scene — and religion is not really a part of it.

So… is The Commission an evil Jewish organization?

Aside from the occasional Yiddish word, The Handler does offer one full Yiddish sentence in the season one finale, a Yiddish proverb which she prefaces as “an old proverb we use at the Commission” — di eyer viln zayn kliger fun di hiner, which means “the eggs think they’re smarter than the chickens.”

Certainly, attributing a Yiddish proverb to a clandestine, all-knowing, and ancient organization is not the best look, and I actually find this to be the most problematic and jarring Jew-ish moment of the show’s two seasons.

The proverb is indeed spot-on for what the commission is meant to represent, and actually a really nice allusion to the time-travel aspect of the show and a balm to the overused “what came first” joke. It’s honestly a pretty great saying! But it’s still a somewhat uncomfortable indication of a Jewish connection to the Temp Commission. However, the organization itself is pretty diverse and, as the second season explores, not clearly as evil as we may suppose.

What about the accusation of a Jewish cabal of lizard people?

In season two, which takes place in the 1960s, one of the main characters is obsessed with stopping the assassination of JFK, which he glibly tells one character is orchestrated by [character name redacted!] and “his nasty little squad of lizard people.” Twitter user @gabsaporta connects this to an Elders of Zion inspired anti-Semitic theory pushed by British radio host David Icke, in which he claims the world is run by a cabal of lizard people, many of whom are Jewish. Icke is generally an abhorrent person who was kicked off YouTube this year for promoting COVID-19 misinformation.

In this specific case, well, SPOILER ALERT, it is later revealed that there is an actual (non-Jewish) alien lizard-like person in this clandestine cabal — so the joke is actually alluding to a future plot point. I’m pretty sure that this show is not meant to promote any of Icke’s fringe theories. It’s just a sci-fi show and sometimes weird paranormal creatures show up, okay?

Yeah, okay, so is the show anti-Semitic or not?

Well, quite a few Jews (and non-Jews) on Twitter seem to think so:

Others disagree:

No, but, seriously, is this show anti-Semitic?! Tell us now!

Here’s the thing. There are definitely Jewish creators working behind the scenes on The Umbrella Academy, including writer Lindsay Gelfand — but having Jewish writers hasn’t stopped shows like Harley Quinn from using anti-Semitic tropes. But when comparing these two shows, Harley Quinn’s use of anti-Semitic tropes seems significantly more egregious — the villains in it are clearly defined as Jews — and that does feel like an important distinction.

The Umbrella Academy seems to have made a couple of ill-advised choices — specifically, having only one villainous and power-obsessed character use words in a known Jewish language. My best guess is that it’s just a character quirk the writers decided to give her — there are a lot of random and non-sensical character tropes and storylines in this whole show. It’s something that definitely warrants a little more sensitivity and perhaps some introspection.

But, as someone who writes about Jewish TV and movies a whole friggin’ lot, it’s very hard for me to say that this show is anti-Semitic, especially when it just isn’t centered on Jewish representation and doesn’t clearly demarcate any character as Jewish — and particularly in light of the fact that, for a very wild show, The Umbrella Academy attempts to be socially conscious. At best, I’d say it’s possible that it unintentionally used an anti-Semitic trope that many viewers who aren’t versed in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or Yiddish just won’t notice. I personally totally missed the “lizard people” reference when I first watched the show — there was just so much going on!

I try to be judicious with accusations of anti-Semitism — we are living at a time of rising anti-Semitism and I don’t want to devalue instances of hatred against Jews. I try to ask myself if this show is actually harmful to Jews, and for me, personally, the answer is no. I don’t think the average viewer will be quick to perceive Walsh’s character as Jewish and connect said perceived Jewishness with her villainy.

But as writer Katherine Locke posits, for those looking for anti-Semitic tropes — no, not Jews but ardent anti-Semites — these mistakes from The Umbrella Academy writing team may offer some validation, and that is certainly something to consider.

Either way, it would be interesting to get the perspective of the writers and creators of this show. Showrunner Steven Blackman has addressed (if not so satisfyingly) other controversies surrounding the show in the past. And maybe if there’s a season 3, let’s drop the Yiddishisms. Or at least give one of our protagonists an excellently topical Yiddish (or Ladino!) saying or two to tout — to even the playing field?

Update: Since this piece was originally published, showrunner Steve Black has responded to the abovementioned accusations in a statement:

“The accusation of antisemitism in The Umbrella Academy is hurtful and, more importantly, factually incorrect,” Blackman wrote. “I wrote these episodes, created the character, and am myself Jewish. While I understand audiences sometimes receive things in a different way than creators intend, The Handler was not created as an anti-Semitic character. The Handler speaks every language, including Swedish, Mandarin, Yiddish, and English as we saw this season, and The Commission is not an evil organization; they do not control finances, governments, or the media. The only thing they control – and more importantly, protect – is the timeline of our fictional Umbrella Academy universe.”

Image via Netflix

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