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Set Your VCRs: Jewish Women and Their Hair Appearing on TV This Season

Returning to your TV screen this season are Jewish women, in series where they (and their families’ values, and their own unconventional hair) are in dramatic counterpoint to the gentiles around them.

In Fox Family’s charming State of Grace (far right), the Rayburn family moves in 1965 from Chicago to North Carolina to run a furniture factory. The European-born father, who lost his family in the Holocaust, and the American-born mother are uneasy with the local prejudiced Christians, their African-American employees, their very Southern Jewish neighbors, the Catholic school of their daughter Hannah, and Hannah’s best friend’s country-club family. All this cultural difference seems represented by Hannah’s uncontrollable frizzy hair.

Both ABC’s The Practice (with long-haired, Emmy-winning Camryn Manheim as Ellenor Frutt) and Showtime’s Queer as Folk featured hard-driving Jewish women lawyers and single-mothers-by-choice having conflicts with their sperm donors. On Queer As Folk, the Jewish heritage of the brunette lesbian Melanie Marcus was belittled last season by her non-Jewish partner’s gay male friends, who halted the brit of their son as a triumphant assertion of male homosexual rights.

Emmy-winning NBC comedy Will and Grace has earned kudos for its portrayal of a gay man and his best friend, a single woman with a mass of curly, auburn locks, but this show is also noteworthy because Grace Adler (top left) is different from any other Jewish women on TV Based on a childhood friend of co-creator/executive producer Max Mutchnick, Grace is played by Debra Messing (now doing hair product endorsements), who told USA Today she is “a Jewish girl from Brooklyn” whose grandmother used to speak Yiddish to her.

Audiences didn’t find out that Messing’s Grace was Jewish too until well into the first season, with Yiddishms then put into the mouth of proper WASP Will for comic incongruity, setting off gales of studio-audience laughter.

Grace has an unusual level of Jewish identity for women on TV. Over the past three seasons we’ve learned that she had 10 years of “Sunday school” and a bat mitzvah, and that she once broke her Yom Kippur fast with a cheeseburger. In one episode she also shared a “Jewess” recognition moment with guest star Sandra Bernhard.

While most hit shows blanch out ethnicity for wider appeal in case they go into syndication, the character of Grace actually takes pride in what she explicitly labels a “Jewish” emotional style. In an episode last season, Grace confronted Will after a dinner, featuring an endless discussion of the weather, with Will’s married dad and a flighty young woman who appeared to be his mistress:

WILL: My family is not like your family. There’s certain things that we don’t talk about, so if my dad says that she’s a colleague, that’s what she is.

GRACE: So, you’re just gonna deny the truth to avoid suffering? That is so . . . not Jewish. . . . the level of denial—I mean, you people should be studied! . . . I am serious! I feel like a Jewish Jane Goodall, and you’re ”goyim in the mist!”

Most unusual for a Jewish woman on TV is that Grace has a sex life. After recovering from a first-season break-up, she has since slept with, at least, a Buddhist, an African-American millionaire, a non-Jewish slob and a WASP (Will’s brother). While Grace says that when she has children she intends to raise them Jewish (over Will’s objections, should he be the sperm donor), she has not yet breached that last taboo for Jewish women on TV: dating a Jewish man.