On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review June 3, 1998 / 9 Sivan, 5758

CBS's Touched by an Angel

Even Moses himself couldn't redeem this show

By Elliot B. Gertel

FOR WHATEVER REASON, Touched By An Angel waited until after Passover and Easter to offer up its little morality play about a Jewish slumlord sentenced to spend Passover in a property in which he exploits minority tenants, a property that also happens to be his childhood home and the place his father died of a heart ailment.

Yet, the timing of the broadcast itself is symbolic of a depiction of a sacred Jewish Festival in a way that is neither Jewish nor Christian, but mixes together elements of both faiths for the purpose of scuttling both.

Writer Michael Berenbeim makes a point of mentioning several times that the nasty slumlord, Jacob Weiss (Bruce Davison) had a pious and generous father -- a cantor, no less -- who was always good to his tenants. Weiss also has a kind Jewish mother, and a decent wife and son, whom he has estranged, but who want to be close to him. But is hard for the writer to isolate his character as extreme case when he has African American tenants booing Weiss in court for hating them because they are "not Jews."

Whatever the writer's disclaimers to the contrary, Weiss very definitely comes across as representing the cruel Jewish landlord, an embittered exploiter in the tradition of The Pawnbroker. Ironically, the scenario is a throwback to the Sixties.

I suspect that statistics in the 1990s would reveal a rather small percentage of ghetto properties owned by Jews. More and more, the slumlords taken to task are African American. But in this episode, there is not even black on black crime. All the driveby shootings in the ghetto are done by white mobsters (who are at the beck and call of streetwise black youth). It is the presence of the white, Jewish exploiter which provokes both crime and substandard living.

African American angel Tess (Della Reese) is careful to observe that Weiss is an "equal opportunity offender," hurtful to both the people he hates and the people he loves. He fires anyone who won't get him what he wants and who dares to tell him the truth. He has no use for Judaism or Passover, but when he finds out that his sentence begins the night of the first seder, even after stating his unwillingness to come to the seder and at least see his wife and child, he exploits the Jewish holiday to appeal the judge's decision.

As it turns out, however, the judge is Jewish, and a member of the same synagogue to which Jacob belongs, and reminds Jacob that he has only seen Jacob's wife and son in synagogue on Pesach. That dialogue rings true as an effective indictment of the way that some Jews exploit Judaism when it is convenient, but the overall message of the episode is that the angels have to wait for after the seder, for outside the Jewish family, for some place other than the synagogue, to work their redemption. Jacob will change, but not because of any transformation caused by Judaism or the Jewish calendar or Jewish songs or traditions. He will change by being enabled by the angels, and by the G-d that they represent, to exploit Jewish rituals to beat the Angel of Death with the right technique.

While under house-arrest, Jacob enlists the help of a young African American boy, a tenant in the building, to find someone who can tamper with the police foot-monitor. His young "helper" demands $1,000 to make the connection. The implication of the script is that the young boy is not really a gouger, like Jacob, but is teaching the latter a "lesson" for neglecting the building to the point that the boy's father was injured in a kitchen fire. Thinking that Jacob was planning to do some good with the thousand dollars, his son brings his bar mitzvah money to his dad, and then is shot in a drive-by attack by Caucasian foot-monitor adjuster gangsters.

The Irish angel, who has already preached to Jews twice before on this series, makes her general statement about how G-d loves Jacob, and then reminds him of his father's last words, quoting from the biblical words found in the daily Hebrew prayers, that we must love G-d with all our heart, soul and might, and teach this to our children.

During his stay in the old tenement building, Jacob has heard his father's voice singing Eliyahu Hanovi, the Passover seder song inviting Elijah the Prophet to bring freedom, redemption and peace to all people. But Jacob has resisted and fled the song. "Freedom is for rich people," he told his father on the seder night that the latter died, "and we don't even have enough money to pay for a doctor."

Jacob has bitter memories of black youths beating him up on the way home to that tragic seder after he had picked up candles at the synagogue. His father told him that Jews and African Americans must get along because the black slaves identified with the Jewish hope for freedom and peace. He sings both Eliyahu Hanovi and the African American spiritual, Go Down, Moses to make his point, just moments before his death. (One wishes that this "cantor" had sung the Pesach Kiddush in the proper mode.)

Reflecting on his dad many years later, Jacob tells his mother that if he managed the building like his father, spending a fortune on maintenance and letting rents slide, "We'd still be stuck in that dump praying for G-d to provide. G-d didn't get us out of Brooklyn. I did."

During her little "epiphany," the angel tells Jacob that he must humble himself before G-d, that this requires great strength and that he must put his wounded son in G-d's hands. As if by instinct, Jacob washes his hands with his son's blood and then rubs a bloody handprint on the door, near to where the mezuzah used to be in his father's old apartment. Neither Jacob nor the angels know what to expect next. Their test of "faith" seems to consist of waiting out the efficacy of the blood. Sure enough, the Angel of Death walks to the door, but then strolls off. It is as if no one in heaven or earth knew whether the old Bible story would still work, but felt that it was worth a try.

Here too, salvation comes not from G-d, but from Jacob's money (could that be why the main character is named after the biblical Jacob?), which is now a religious money. He just seems to manipulate skillfully, both in the business and religious realm. The African Americans in the hour are totally helpless, unable either to help Jacob or ignore him (the writer himself cannot decide how they respond); they are so caught up in their own inability to keep track of their children or to stand up for themselves that they make no decisions of any kind. The only thing they choose to do as African Americans is to break into a few choruses of Go Down, Moses with Della Reese. The scene is so silly and demeaning to blacks that it comes off as a comical parody on the use of hymns like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in Marx Brothers films.

Jewish songs are treated no better. Jacob sings Eliyahu Hanovi as a mantra after his son is shot, but it is a mantra chosen for nostalgia and seasonal purposes. Jacob's new "faith" is just another form of pulling himself out of a bad situation, and his black tenants are not even given credit for being able to do that.

In the Bible, the lame is, in fact, an in-your-face message to the Egyptians that the Israelites have such faith in G-d's promise of redemption that they will sacrifice something sacred to the Egyptian religion and use its blood to identify Jewish homes. That said in no uncertain terms that they were not afraid of the Egyptian incarnate god, Pharaoh.

Berenbeim's Touched By An Angel episode moves awkwardly into the realm of Christian symbolism where the son's blood becomes the atoning sacrifice --- and Angel Monica does use that word, "sacrifice," to describe Jacob's son. But the "theology" really combines a crass take on the "Old Testament" concept of the "sins of the fathers" with the belief that the movers and shakers of the world will, as a class, instantly clean up their bad karma if they use their superior talents to manipulate biblical rituals. In the process, they can feel good about helping the docile folk of the world. That way, no one need be "judged" by codes of personal or communal responsibility and activism. Could we have here TV's first sampling of a pop form of Hinduism with shades of pop Buddhism?

Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel is JWR's resident media maven. He is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion.

©1998, Elliot B. Gertel