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Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

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Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

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Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

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John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

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Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

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April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

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April 2, 2014

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Jewish World Review August 16, 2004 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5764

Joan of Arcadia: ‘Innocent’ teen drama makes mockery of religion

By Elliot B. Gertel

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Do you know what your children are watching?

https://www.jewishworldreview.com | CBS is showcasing "Joan of Arcadia" as much as possible this summer in order to win new converts for its blockbuster. But the religion it advances is New Age doctrine.

The show, which airs Friday nights, makes its audience amenable (or Amen-able) to a belief, as propounded by Alice Bailey and other early ideologues, that humanity must look to a "hierarchy of liberated souls" or avatars — that is, incarnations of the deity — to free humanity from the Hebrew G-d and from the Jews (and from Christians and Muslims) who hold the rest of the world back from true enlightenment.

Because the well-written and memorably acted episodes are often moving, clever, and artful, they are effective at opening the audience to New Age concepts.

New Age manifestoes depict Jews as unspiritual — earthy, lustful, perpetually insensitive. This canard is completely embodied in the series' portrayal of Friedman, Joan's chemistry classmate, and her younger brother Luke's best friend. For some reason the child is never even given a first name. Friedman's comments are always puerile, off-color, even salacious.

At a party at Joan's home, Friedman drools over her nude baby pictures (writer: Barbara Hall). In an episode about the debate team, written by Joshua Ravetch, Friedman tells his best friend that the look a girl gave him is a "look you usually have to download" (writer: David Grae). The suggestion that Friedman is all too familiar with Internet porn does not rest there. Another writer, Hart Hanson, has Luke tell Friedman that when the family computer is seized by the FBI (to corroborate Dad's charge that city officials are corrupt), Luke is "not covering" for Friedman's "latex fetish."

Friedman hits on someone when he thinks she is a "go-er," namely, a girl who had sex with another student and got pregnant. When, in the yearbook episode, Luke gently chides his best friend for strapping bras to mannequins, Friedman responds: "I'm Jewish, Dude. Neurotic really is a part of the deal." (writer: Dave Grae) He hits on his best friend's girlfriend in cosmetology (!) class (writer: Robert Girardi).

In a moving episode about Joan intervening before school shootings take place, it is insensitive Friedman who provokes an outcast's fury with cruel jokes. While Joan is tying a tie for this fellow, Friedman blurts out, "Tie it in a noose." One can understand Joan angrily responding, "Shut up, Brillo head." Or should we "understand" it? Such a remark would be deemed racist were it addressed to others. Why do producer Hall and writer Joy Gregory make it acceptable when addressed to the show's primary Jewish male?

One can imagine the discussions at staff meetings about how to make more obnoxious. Friedman is insensitive enough to ask Luke and girlfriend Glynis (Mageina Tovah), after they have suffered a break up, whether he, Friedman, will have problems "because you guys aren't squeezing the produce anymore." Is that vulgar or is it vulgar? To be fair, I must point out that there was one time when Friedman was made somewhat sympathetic. When Luke is nasty to Glynis, Friedman tries to admonish him with an impatient, "Dude." Writer David Grae (in an episode about Joan working with the children of battered women), does give him that. But this seems to be Grae's own —and short-lived —tender moment for Friedman.

Another doctrine of New Age writers is that monotheistic religion, like Judaism (or Christianity or Islam) imprisons people with rituals and requirements that stifle "true spirituality." The contrary Jewish girl, Grace Polk (Israeli-born Becky Wahlstrom), classmate of Friedman and of Joan, embodies revolt against ritual and everything else. Early on in the series, we learn that Grace's father is Rabbi Polonski (Paul Sand). Grace has never even told Joan that she is Jewish, let alone the daughter of a rabbi. Joan needs to talk to Grace and takes it upon herself to visit. (She has never been invited, it turns out, because of Grace's issues about being a rabbi's daughter.) Dad explains to Joan that his parents changed the name to Polk and that he changed it back to Polonski; Grace has changed it back to Polk "to defy her father, which is healthy in moderation."

The rabbi, as a Jewish male, is Friedman-ized. His obsession is not sex but food. Though Joan is obviously upset and needs spiritual advice, the rabbi allows for only a "small religious question" because he wants to enjoy his dessert.

Joan is not sure whether G-d has asked her to do something "wrong" or whether it is the devil. The rabbi says, "We don't really believe in the devil." (The Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, including the daily prayers, refer to Satan.)

Writer Hart Hanson actually gives the rabbi some good lines that follow, "We believe in yetzer ha-ra, our inclination for evil, which comes between us and G-d. You may be right [that the yetzer ha-ra is trying to guide you]. The yetzer ha-ra thrives on moral confusion." The rabbi advises her to confuse the yetzer ha-ra: "Act with righteousness, kindness, follow the yetzer ha-tov [good inclination]." This is a creditable description of the classical Judaic approach to human beings and their moral struggles. But Joan takes leave of the rabbi with a chirpy "Enjoy your dessert," emphasizing, again, his focus on physical self-indulgence. Also, the first season concludes with Joan being locked in struggle with the rabbi's "non-existent" devil (writer: Barbara Hall herself). So much for the rabbi's gastronomically-generated theology.

In the theology department, Barbara Hall gives the best lines to the priest. His words in the season cliffhanger about consolation and desolation are not only thoughtful, but help Joan's parents as they hurt for her and for their other challenges. Consolation and desolation, he says are the polarities of religious experience, which is shaped both by G-d's nearness and by G-d's withdrawal.

This is, by the way, a very biblical concept at the heart of classical Rabbinic teaching. But by this point the rabbi is in no position to come across as wise. He is now concerned, in an episode about third grade ashtrays and art projects, more about pasta getting cold than about dessert! Again, Joan stumbles onto the rabbi's doorstep in search of Grace, and again she finds him preoccupied with food. But this time he talks to her at greater length, mainly because he is concerned about his own problem —namely, Grace. At Hebrew classes against her will (between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m.?), Grace, "unfortunately," regards Hebrew classes as a curse, "which is why she has managed to put off her bat mitzvah for three years."

Later, in this episode by Joy Gregory, Grace confides in Joan that her dad is using her sick grandmother to "guilt" her into going through with the bat mitzvah ceremony." You can't fight a rabbi," she says, "when he breaks out the guilt. And the worst part: I finally gave in, thinking, I'll just cause a lot of trouble…[maybe] speak out for a Palestinian homeland just to pi-- off the teacher." Grace goes on to describe the horror of (a) permissive parenting, (b) bad theology, (c) a dad who thinks mostly about food, and probably (d) all of the above: "My dad loves it. He says I'm questioning the nature of G-d in the world, which is exactly the spirit of the Talmudic scholarship."

Joan gives the response that I think we're expected to give: "That sucks." Grace declares in resignation: "Tell me about it….[unclear word: Except?] there's no escaping it." Strange, isn't it, that in an episode in which one of the G-d-mouthpiece people stresses the importance of priorities and commitments, Grace is totally fettered by guilt and family (tribalism) into a ritual she finds meaningless and burdensome.

The point is thus made through Joan's mother (now an art teacher) that smashing one's childhood toy for an art project can be a more meaningful coming of age ceremony than a bat mitzvah since "becoming an adult is more a series of steps and missteps." In other words, religion cannot lend sacred status to time or to personhood. Life cannot be a guided journey. It is rather trial and error wherein one must try to correct one's errors right away. As Hart Hanson has a G-d-person tell Joan: "Every decision is another chance to do the right thing."

In a moving and tasteful episode about teenage sex, G-d leaves everything to "choice." Writer Stephen Nathan gives us no sense of "mitzvah" or religious duty. When G-d tells Joan to give her boyfriend, Adam, a gift, she begins to assume that sex is required. Grace doesn't help matters when she reports that in "Hebrew class," her rabbi (not her father?) talked about "giving" and said that the act itself makes one love the other person. Grace says that this rabbi taught her that in Hebrew "to give" is the same as "to love"; she then asks Joan if she loves Adam. Is this Grace's interpretation, or did writer Nathan mean to give gift-giving a sexual connotation in Judaism? If so, the writer confuses the Hebrew verbs a-h-b (to love) with y-h-v (to give). The other, more common, root for "to give" (n-t-n) does not double for "to love," not in a sexual context or any other.

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The "theology" here is that choosing is in and of itself the absolute good and what life is all about. But is it? Traditional religion speaks of revelation of some Divine guidance to human beings. Joan of Arcadia rejects this across the board. Choosing to choose brings whatever grace is necessary to figure out what is right, sooner rather than later. Scriptures are superfluous, maybe quaint, maybe reference material.

Yet rejecting revelation leads to its replacement by something else. In the final episode of the 2003-2004 season, Barbara Hall clued us in to what she was substituting for the old fashioned scriptures. And this, too, is a very New Age notion that "science" somehow works to guide people to take pause and to "do the right thing."

Dad speculates that "something in the magnetic field" like "solar flairs" intervenes to bring people to a better place to make those choices. Grace feels the power of love as a "chemical reaction necessary to the conditions required for Darwinistic evolution" to pull her out of the tribal guilt doldrums and by puckering up with Luke.

Poor Friedman. He is still deep in the earthy, tribal phase from which Jewish men, according to Joan of Arcadia, find it pretty near impossible to extricate themselves. As soon as he hears the words "bar mitzvah" or "bat mitzvah," writer Gregory insists upon (or is contracted to?) put into his mouth associations like these: "Bat mitzvah. Going for the full Jew, hah?…I say, soak it up. I got totally wasted on kosher wine at mine, kissed Jennifer Cohen, I made two grand."

Friedman is also depicted as wanting to escape his "personality flaw" of being (too?) Jewish. In the yearbook episode writer David Grae has him invent a girlfriend, "Brittany," "lots of plaid, the whole manger," who attends a Catholic high school.

Grace and Friedman, the Jewish girl and the Jewish boy, are nasty to one another, especially in the presence of third parties. In the bully episode Friedman refers to Grace's "Femi-Nazi garb," and suggests that she's a lesbian (writer: Joy Gregory). In an episode about cheerleaders, he chastises his best friend, Luke, for being attracted to a "dyke" or "lesbo" —namely, Grace (writer: Joy Gregory). In the episode about an inner city homeless girl, Friedman, true to the form consistently given him by all the show's writers, offers to help the new student to "find the women's locker room." Grace butts in, telling the new student: "This is Friedman. You can step on him, it's allowed (writer: Garrigus).

Grace's impending bat mitzvah ceremony becomes a standing joke of the series. Rituals are not to be admired but laughed into casualness so that they have no spiritual or moral power. Writer Robert Girardi has Joan ask Grace whether "the bat mitzvah thing" is "over," so that the latter will respond: "You'll know when it's over. There'll be a big embarrassing party with rubber chicken and old Jews dancing to Donna Summers." Is the implication that even a bat mitzvah in a rabbi's household will be tasteless and meaningless as all rituals are bound to become? To Joan's question, Don't you have a Hebrew class you should be at?", Grace responds: "Why do you think I'm here" (piano lesson episode, written by Antoinette Stella).

As a character Grace is even more off-putting than Friedman; she is confrontational, acerbic and can be downright hurtful. Yet she expects others to be sympathetic of her. When Joan accidentally stumbles on Grace's being a rabbi's daughter, the latter scolds: "Don't you pick up on any signal at all?" In other words, Grace expects Joan to back off and not learn anything about a friend, especially if that friend is a rabbi's daughter who does not want that fact to be known.

Both Friedman and Grace are brilliant students, but as human beings they are just not, shall we say, "evolved," to use the New Age term. To be evolved in this series one must have, well, grace. But it is not the Christian grace that goes with certain beliefs and doctrines. It is grace of the generic New Age kind: to "touch a truth that lets you see the world in a new way." It is a "gift that can be felt when you're open enough to accept it." Is writer Joshua Ravetch reducing Divine grace to what Oprah Winfrey calls a "light bulb moment"?

In the last episode of the first season, writer/producer Barbara Hall has Friedman make nasty sexual innuendos in the final stretches — a closing impression of the Jewish teenage male? When Joan faces dangerous illness, Grace makes a typically thoughtless remark, "Should we send for a priest? How do you people do it?"

So far, the jury is out on whether Grace will find —or develop — some grace herself. She has some good qualities that are harder to find in Friedman. After verbally assaulting Joan at a debating team school assembly, Grace feels remorse and sympathy, but says: "I don't really apologize so this isn't happening, but I just should have thought about you." Can she, will she, accept the gifts of Jewish teaching regarding forgiveness, friendship and apology? Will the show give her, and other TV Jews, including Friedman, that gift, that grace? It needn't go into the Jewish concept of grace, though that would be nice. It need only acknowledge that Jews can have grace, too, and be gracious. But that means ridding the show of New Age motifs that are patently ungracious to Jews.

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Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel, JWR's resident media maven, is a Conservative rabbi based in Chicago. His latest book is "Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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© 2003, Elliot B. Gertel