Why Do Medical Dramas Have Consistently Terrible Plotlines About Orthodox Jews?

There's been a recent outcry over an episode of NBC's " Nurses," but I'm sorry to say this has long been a trend.

On Wednesday, the Jinternet (Jewish Internet) was shocked when a scene from TV medical drama Nurses was uploaded and shared. The shocking part should be that a clip from a sub-par Canadian medical drama only airing on NBC because of a COVID-induced lack of programming managed to go semi-viral. But no. The video went viral because of what many believed was an antisemitic portrayal of a Hasidic patient.

In the clip, a Hasidic man (with the worst fake peyos I’ve ever seen) is told that he’d need a bone grafted from a dead body inserted into his leg. “A dead goyim leg,” his father says, “from anyone. An Arab? A woman?”

“Or God forbid an Arab woman,” one of the nurses retorts. She later uses a story about King David to help convince him to have the procedure done, because obviously her Christian understanding of the story is enough to convince this man to forego his (inaccurate) religious beliefs.

The thing is, this scene would quite literally never happen. Firstly, the correct phrase would be “goyishe leg.” Secondly, referencing a story about King David would not get an Orthodox Jew to change their mind about a halakhic decision. The idea that hearing a story about King David would change someone’s religious convictions is incredibly Christian. But that’s all besides the point; that conversation would never take place.

Orthodox Jews have zero issues with accepting organs or bones or anything from non-Jewish sources. And yes, some Orthodox communities have questionable practices in regards to women’s rights, but this is not one of the ways women are discriminated against. This scene is frustrating because it’s built on a harmful, grossly incorrect stereotype that exists to further other Hasidim.

People were enraged (you can find my own incensed Twitter threads here and here), and rightfully so. But to be honest, this clip shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you’ve ever watched at least one medical drama, you would know that there’s always an episode that features some sort of religious Jew refusing medical treatment and trying to essentially martyr themselves.

Take, for example, Season 1 Episode 8 of Grey’s Anatomy. One of its storylines revolves around an Orthodox woman who refuses to get a porcine heart valve replacement because they want to put a “pig, a freaking non-kosher, treyf mammal, into my chest, into my heart! The very essence of my being!” (Seriously, I will never forget that line.) Or Season 4 Episode 12 of House, in which House claims that a ba’alat teshuva’s (a person who becomes religious) decision to become Hasidic is a sign of mental illness, related to her undiagnosed disease. Or Season 3 Episode 9 of Private Practice, which depicts an Orthodox couple whose Orthodoxy doesn’t let them use birth control, and so one of the doctors secretly prescribes the wife birth control and tells her they’re iron pills for her “anemia.”

So many things about these episodes make me angry. Firstly, why do none of these Jewish characters ever call and consult their rabbis?? That would literally be the first thing any frum person does: Call their rabbi and have their doctor explain the situation so they can discern if there are any halakhic issues. Secondly, why equate kosher laws and treyfness (non-kosherness) with medical procedures?? Kashrut is about the preparation and consumption of food — if you’re not eating the porcine valve, and if it’s saving your life, you’re good to go. As for birth control, it’s a complicated issue and should also be discussed with a rabbi on a case-by-case basis. So why is this show making a broad, sweeping claim about the use of birth control in religious communities? And why the hell are they glorifying medical malpractice and the denial of religious rights????

These examples aren’t as dangerous as the clip from Nurses, which portrays its religious Jews as horribly Islamaphobic and misogynistic — a storyline that definitely doesn’t help Hasidic Jews in a climate that is already so hostile toward them. But each of these episodes frame Orthodoxy as totally backwards and unwilling to change, and they frame Orthodox people as fanatics willing to die for the cause. Even more than that, House outright equates being religious with mental illness, and a throwaway line in the Grey’s Anatomy episode asks why anybody would bother with Orthodoxy — “why couldn’t you be plain old Reform like everyone else we know?” In each case, Orthodoxy is portrayed as unreasonable, as a conflict that must be overcome.

What they repeatedly fail to understand is that Judaism does not function in the same way many forms of Christianity do. That is, the one thing that makes you Christian is your belief in Jesus. People look at the huge number of mitzvot (commandments) that are observed by Orthodox Jews and conclude that it’s a rigid, unchangeable structure. They don’t understand that breaking Shabbat to save a life is not only allowed, but encouraged. In our tradition, there are only three sins you must die instead of doing: idolatry, murder, and adultery. The concept of pikuach nefesh (literally “watching over a soul”) overrides virtually every single commandment we are given. Judaism values the sanctity of human life over almost everything else. Your rabbi would encourage you to take a porcine valve, or the dead bone graft.

I understand the need to write good TV and create conflict. I understand (although do not agree with) the desire for out-of-the-box, exotic characters (this is probably the first and only time someone has called Orthodox Judaism exotic). But if you cannot construct a story without completely misunderstanding and misrepresenting an entire demographic of people, then it is simply not a story that you have the right to tell. I am sick of seeing the misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews on screen, especially in regards to pikuach nefesh, a central tenet of our practice.

My mother likes to quote one of her favorite rabbis quite regularly. She says: We’re meant to live by our Judaism, not die by it. It’s about time these TV shows got that memo.

(Oh, and it’s worth noting — NBC pulled this episode from its online platform, and while the show’s original producers have apologized in a statement, NBC has not. A little sus if you ask me.)

Shoshana Gottlieb

Shoshana Gottlieb (she/her) is a writer, film fanatic, and future Jewish educator who dreams of writing Jewish rom-coms. Her mother thinks she would've made a great doctor. You can find her too-niche memes on Instagram @JewishMemesOnly and her dumb Jewish jokes on Twitter @TheTonightSho.

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