Several episodes into the current season of Sex and the City, the quintessential WASP named Charlotte York descended into a Jewish ritual bath. Charlotte's immersion in the mikvah completed her conversion to Judaism. And it established a welcome landmark in popular culture's portrayal of Jewish characters, which is also to say the nation's regard for Jews themselves.
Until the HBO series, no television show had ever presented a conversion with such visual and theological detail. Even more important is what the approving portrayal represents: a reversal of the entertainment industry's tradition of viewing Jewish identity as something to be shed in the quest to become American.
For nearly a century, ever since the Broadway comedy Abie's Irish Rose, the standard narrative of love between a Jew and a Christian has pointed toward interfaith marriage, and the implicit abandonment of Jewish observance and continuity, as the epitome of the melting pot. Even the musical theater's famous celebration of Jewish roots, Fiddler on the Roof, included a subplot that espoused acceptance of intermarriage.
Jewish artists themselves eagerly perpetuated the ideal, along the way routinely contrasting the supposedly materialistic, narcissistic, suffocating Jewish woman with the wholesome gentile, the so-called "shiksa goddess." The archetypal expression of this choice came in the film The Heartbreak Kid, adapted by Neil Simon from a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. A Jewish groom on his honeymoon strays from his bride, a bundle of neurotic tics, in favor of the serene, flaxen-haired beauty played by Cybill Shepherd.
In slightly less sardonic ways, television series from Bridget Loves Bernie in the 1970s to Mad About You have put forward a similar endorsement of intermarriage. Just last season, 7th Heaven featured an interfaith wedding smoothly conducted by a rabbi and a priest together. Rare indeed has been the show like thirtysomething that dared to depict a Jewish protagonist occasionally anguished by what he had abdicated for love.
You cannot simply blame the writers and producers, many of them Jewish, of these shows and films. Their fiction reflected some of the facts of Jewish life in postwar America. The rate of interfaith marriage, below 10% in the 1930s, surpassed 50% in the 1990s. The likelihood of a gentile partner in such a marriage converting to Judaism simultaneously dropped.
In one respect, the growth of intermarriage offered the ultimate proof of America's embrace of Jews; it was willing to include them not merely as citizens but as spouses and in-laws. Acceptance does not get much more intimate than that. Nor, however, does it get more double-edged, for intermarriage on a massive scale means the erosion of Jewish community, culture and identity. All of this ardor for the gentile "other" cannot help but suggest a sad capacity for Jewish self-loathing.
So the love affair between Charlotte York and Harry Goldenblatt on Sex and the City overturned the conventions. Divorced from a fellow WASP, Charlotte fell in love with Harry in part because she perceived in this Jew a sensitivity her ex-husband lacked. When she confessed she might be infertile, Harry shrugged it off and said they could adopt. He was being, as they say in Yiddish, a mensch, a substantial human being.
Unlike all of those Jewish characters of yore, who were so ready to reinvent themselves with a gentile wife, Harry insisted that Charlotte convert; he wanted their children to be fully Jewish.
So Charlotte embarked on a conversion process that Sex and the City showed in a largely accurate way: a rabbi's initial rejection of Charlotte as a test of the seriousness of her intent; her participation in a series of classes about Jewish religion; and, finally, the ceremony at the mikvah. (For the record, Sex and the City did err when it had Charlotte undertake a Reform conversion for marriage to a Conservative Jew.)
"One of the things that makes Sex such an important series is the enormous influence it clearly has in matters of style, lifestyle and attitude, especially for young women trying to figure out how and where they fit into things," said David Zurawik, author of the excellent new book The Jews of Prime Time. "And in Charlotte's case, we have the Jewish man, on one level, and Judaism, on a deeper level, being held up as possibilities for fulfillment. This time it is marriage to a Jew that promises transformation for a leading character -- the opposite of the reified TV narrative. And that is profound."
Sex and the City is too sassy to stay reverent for long, of course. Yet its satiric touches also convey a supple understanding of Jewish experience, with all of its internal contradictions. In one scene, for instance, Harry was holding forth on the importance of marrying a Jew -- while he dined on pork tenderloin. Another recent scene, set amid Charlotte's conversion process, found her stringing up one final Christmas tree -- in midsummer -- in a mournful farewell to her own traditions.
Most pointedly, last Sunday's episode followed Charlotte as she prepared her first Sabbath dinner for Harry. She fixed brisket and potato kugel and matzo-ball soup, donned a lace shawl to intone the blessing over the candles -- and then realized that Harry had flipped on a television set to catch a baseball game. "I gave up Christ for you," she said. "You can't give up the Mets?" With that, Harry stalked off, their engagement apparently broken.
Viewers and fans could not escape quite so readily. Through the ingenuous Charlotte, Sex and the City was throwing a dare at the very same American Jews it has admired. If marrying a Jew is so important, she essentially asked, then how come acting like a Jew seems so optional?