American Judaism explored in new Israeli TV show 'The New Jew'

This series about “new” Jews will likely enlighten, entertain, annoy and offend viewers in different ways, but it does present a varied and interesting portrait of American-Jewish life.

‘THE NEW JEW’ poster. (photo credit: MOSHE NACHOMOVITCH)
‘THE NEW JEW’ poster.
(photo credit: MOSHE NACHOMOVITCH)
 Armed with what he calls “the traditional weapons of the Jews – curiosity, doubt and humor,” Israeli comedian/television personality/actor Guri Alfi heads for the US to discover different ways American Jews have of being Jewish in the documentary series The New Jew on KAN 11, which runs Monday and Thursday at 9:35 p.m. and is also available on The series is in Hebrew and English with Hebrew titles.
Alfi presents himself as a typical Israeli secular Jew who does not know much about religion, a pose a bit disingenuous – he seems to know more than he lets on – but the gimmick works well.
In the first two episodes released to the press of the four-part series, his focus is mostly on Jews who are religiously engaged but not traditionally Orthodox, mainly Reform and Conservative Jews and others who practice non-traditional variations of Judaism. This makes sense because the Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox movements are far less prevalent in Israel and give Jews who do not feel comfortable within Orthodoxy – for all kinds of reasons, as the series shows – ways to live a Jewish life. While the non-Orthodox Jewish movements are slowly making strides with the Israeli public, they are not recognized by the government and Israelis may be surprised to see the diversity and vitality of these groups in the US.
The series, which has extremely high production values for a public broadcasting service documentary and features a bouncy, klezmer-infused score, follows Alfi as he crisscrosses America. The most intriguing concept he explores is the idea that Jews in America can be Jewish by choice and what that means for the future of the Jewish people, both in Israel and America. The first episode opens with perhaps the blandest encounter of the series, as he visits with a group of young people in a ski-resort town in Colorado who do a groovy kabbalat Shabbat communal dinner. Alfi does not seem to realize that this dinner is similar to many such gatherings that take place every week all over Israel, but are perhaps more common in Jerusalem and other spots than in central Tel Aviv, the part of Israel where Alfi is clearly most comfortable.
You may be tempted to ditch the series at this point but if you stick with it you will be rewarded with some more interesting segments. These include an interview with Angela Warnick Buchdahl, who is the rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, a large Reform congregation. Buchdahl, the daughter of a Korean mother and an American Jewish father, is also a cantor. She talks about a youth-group visit to Israel when she was in high school, where she felt alienated from Israelis who assumed she was not Jewish, although she had always identified as a Jew, and according to Reform practice, always was a Jew. Leading Hanukkah prayers at the White House in 2014, she asked president Barack Obama if he thought the founding fathers could have imagined that a female Asian-American rabbi would pray with an African-American president and she offers insights inspired by her unique background. A mohelet – a woman who performs circumcisions – in New York gives Alfi the opportunity you sense he has been waiting for to crack a couple of jokes.
Alfi seems shocked to learn in subsequent episodes that there are quite a few African-American and Latino Jews, some of whom have grown up Jewish and others who have converted, as well as Jews of other backgrounds, who speak movingly about their struggles to fit in and define themselves as Jews. One references the series Orange is the New Black, where an African-American inmate asks to convert so she can eat kosher food that is tastier than the regular prison fare, but ends up a sincere convert, saying, “I think I found my people.” 
He speaks with Jewish comedians, including Tehran Von Ghasri, a Jewish stand-up comic of Iranian descent, who jokes about being stuck with that first name. Visiting Iranian Jews in Los Angeles, he shows a more modest, vulnerable side to them than you would ever get to see on the famous show, The Shahs of Sunset.
Rachel Freier, the first hassidic woman to be elected as a judge in New York City, shows what is possible when a traditional Jew embraces the secular world. In discussions about the future of Judaism and how diverse Jewish life may become as it absorbs different influences, it is Freier who strikes a discordant note, saying that she feels there is no choice for Jews except to be Jewish, a position at odds with the idea that American Jews choose to be Jewish. She also emphasizes the need to root Jewish practice and identity in the Torah.
An upcoming episode will feature an interview with Bari Weiss, the former New York Times op-ed staff writer who courted controversy with her politically incorrect opinions about social justice warriors and published a book in 2019 titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism, which will likely be a fun interview for Alfi. Alfi is at his most engaging in the moments when he gets serious and Weiss should be a good match for him.
 This series about “new” Jews will likely enlighten, entertain, annoy and offend viewers in different ways and while at times it may seem superficial, it does present a varied and interesting portrait of the diversity of American-Jewish life.