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Art Imitating Life or Beating us to the Punch!

A question that has always boggled my mind is “How popular must a particular cultural phenomenon be before TV producers choose it for sitcoms?”

TelevisionThe CW’s hit series Gossip Girl recently aired an episode with an interfaith wedding, co-officiated by an Episcopal priest and a rabbi. The Forward ran an article about this episode.

The ceremony even had the traditional Hebrew phrase “Ani L’dodi…” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.

It’s one thing to have a Jewish wedding with an interfaith couple. It’s another to see television writers showing a co-officiated wedding with the clear expectation that the audience to get the cultural jokes made out of playing the stereotypes off each other. And, knowing that TV producers aren’t willing to risk airing a joke no one will get, it is clear that they know that co-officiated weddings are at least normalized enough to get people to pay attention to the jokes and not the be distracted by the scene itself. Unlike documentaries that often present information that may be unknown and interesting to the viewer in its distance from the life of the viewer, sitcoms rely on the already accessible audience connection to get to the punch lines. Something tells me that TV producers get it about where American culture is well before the religious world does.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if someday we, the religious leaders and active participants, were out ahead of the message rather than always the last to know! We are just beginning to grapple with the concept of co-officiation and TV already assumes its pervasiveness.

Over 40% of the nearly 110 requests for officiants we receive every month at IFF are from couples seeking a rabbi who will co-officiate their wedding with a clergy member of another faith. In the big cities, where Jews have typically flocked, I can often find rabbis or cantors saying “yes” to this request. In smaller towns it is near impossible and couples are forced to give up on their hope of rabbinic presence at their wedding or bear the expense of bringing one in from ‘away’. Christian clergy on the other hand are readily available to co-officiate from all of the mainstream Christian traditions including Catholicism.

Therefore, the joke is on us… the rabbis. If we would get with the ‘program’ (pun intended) we may find ourselves less worried about shrinking communities by focusing on engaging the Jews, and their spouses and partners, we often push away. It is, of course, going to be a challenge to figure out how to engage these couples and how to introduce Jewish learning and life to them. Better to have that problem than to preach to empty sanctuaries. Better to have children whose parents want to expose them to Judaism, then to have them only know that one parent “was raised Jewish” and then left after being turned away.

I know that every rabbi has to find their comfort zone and boundaries in what it means to be a rabbi and what it means to be welcoming. I only wish that we were more of setting the tone for inclusion and engagement rather than learning what it means from TV.

My mother worried that I would learn about life from TV. At least this time, I am ahead of the producers.

Mia Howard Tavan