In the 37 years since soap operas have been shown on American television, none of them ever had a Jewish woman character—until NBC’s popular “Days of Our Lives” featured the long-running story of Dr. Robin Jacobs and her interfaith romance.
The story line began in January 1986, when Jacobs arrived in “Days” fictitious town, Salem. She was young. Orthodox, serious about Judaism and family. Her father, Eli, and her uncle, Robert LeClair, were Holocaust survivors who argued about God, and who exposed a former Nazi doctor living in Salem.
Robin became chief of surgery at a local hospital, and it was there that she met then-resident Mike Horton, a Protestant. The two fell in love- Robin reluctantly, since she could never give up her religion or ever intermarry.
Mike felt love conquered all, but Robin was tormented, torn. She eventually married Mitch Kauffman, a Jewish pharmacist, hoping to forget Mike. (Kauffman even proposed in a sukkah.)
But Mike would not give up. He challenged Robin, even as she approached the chuppah on her wedding day. And while Robin went through with the wedding, her marriage didn’t last. Soon she left Mitch, never having consummated that marriage since she still loved Mike.
The couple got back together and planned to marry. Mike vowed to convert to Judaism and even began studying Judaism. But Robin still had vague misgivings, reservations. Did Mike really want to be Jewish, or was he converting solely to marry her?
Mike insisted that he cared about Judaism, but one day Robin caught him off-guard. She had been shot and wounded (this was part of another story line), and Mike had just learned she would live. He stopped by the hospital’s Christian chapel to pray—as luck would have it, just as Robin was wheeled by. At that point, she realized Mike could never convert—could never truly shed his Protestant roots.
She left the hospital, supposedly for a long recuperation, and never returned. She was, in essence, written off the show—but not before the story had run a year-and-a-half, ending this past June.
The interfaith romance story line was the brainchild of “Days” head writer Leah Laiman, who describes herself as “Orthodoxically inclined.” Laiman, 40, was educated at the Orthodox Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York, attends an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles, and keeps kosher.
Laiman acknowledges that the story was rather unconventional for daytime drama, traditionally reserved for WASPs and occasionally some token Blacks. “Days” is almost totally lily white—”we do have a few Catholics and one Black family”—and Laiman dreams of integrating Salem.
How could Laiman work Jews into this quintessential Gentile town? She was quick to answer that many U.S. cities have large Jewish populations, and Jews have become part of the American melting pot. Yiddish words have even made it into Webster’s dictionary so why not put Jews on an American soap?
Getting traditional practices right wasn’t always easy for the predominantly secular “Days” staff. Viewers complained about details—for instance, about how Sabbath candles were lit from right to left instead of vice-versa. Executive Producer Al Rabin says he once cut a scene when he noticed a mezzuzah hanging on the wrong side of a doorway.
Rabin insists that staff members went out of their way to make Dr. Jacobs as authentic as possible even though Derya Ruggles, the actress who played her, isn’t Jewish. Michael Weiss, who played Robin’s non-Jewish boyfriend, is. Additionally, Robert Clary, the actor who played Robin’s Holocaust survivor uncle, Robert LeClair, is himself a survivor of several camps.
When Ruggles had trouble pronouncing Jewish blessings, Rabin brought her tapes from his own synagogue. Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. For Robin’s wedding. Casting hired Rabbi David Baron from the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, while Wardrobe ran down to the Fairfax district for a crash course in Jewish wedding garb.
The interfaith romance of Robin and Mike was a risky story and the conversion would have been even riskier, but the audience didn’t seem to mind, beyond the occasional anti-Semitic letter.
Laiman, along with Rabin and Soap Opera Digest, was frankly surprised by the acceptance. In fact, Laiman says, viewers were impatient with the religious issue as just another obstacle toward getting their favorite characters to the church (or in this case, the synagogue) on tune.
Laiman enjoys quoting from irate viewer letters: “Why don’t you let Robin and Mike get together? If you don’t, I’ll never watch your show again!” And some fans even wrote condoning intermarriage: “I know two people of different religions who lived happily ever after, so why can’t you let Robin and Mike live happily ever after?”
There were some friendly, yet serious, office debates about the resolution of Robin’s and Mike’s romance, with some of Laiman’s Christian colleagues being vehemently against the conversion. Laiman says she would never allow an intermarriage on her show. “I don’t believe in it,” she says vehemently, “and no one would make me do it.”
Some fans, along with several of Laiman’s Orthodox friends, felt the plot condoned inter-dating. One Alabama viewer, in a letter to Soap Opera Digest, charged that “Days Of Our Lives” approached inter-dating in a bland non-confrontational way:
“Mixed marriages,” she wrote, “are a difficult social issue. You can’t dismiss them with cursory treatment and soulful looks between actors.”
Laiman disagrees with this criticism. Religion was quite important to Robin, she says, and was the major obstacle in her starcrossed romance. But she acknowledged “there is a certain blandness about putting anything on daytime TV.”
Bland or no, since viewers liked Robin and her interfaith romance with Mike, why was she written off the show? And why couldn’t Mike convert?
Rabin’s reply is that if Mike converted, he and Robin would live happily ever after, and that wouldn’t do at all, not in soap opera land. Furthermore, the story had simply played itself out, and it was time for Mike to meet another love interest to keep dramatic tension high.
Laiman, however, tells a slightly different story. She says she had introduced the Robin-Mike story, Ln outline form, during a “Days” NBC meeting more than a month before the story aired. This was part of “Days” usual routine: Laiman and Rabin meet with network executives every six to eight weeks to discuss story outlines in detail. Present at this meeting from NBC were Libby Beers, director of daytime drama (she also attends weekly “Days” story meetings); Susan Lee, vice president of daytime drama; and Brian Frons, vice president of daytime programs.
The network executives have final say over all “Days” plots. “If they don’t like a concept,” Laiman says, “I cannot do it.” NBC was enthusiastic about the Robin-Mike romance, though Laiman says “there was concern about the conversion from the start.”
Apparently, NBC was worried about offending non-Jewish viewers, and about “backing themselves into a corner” with Mike being Jewish forever. ‘They weren’t against the conversion,” Laiman says, “but as we got closer to the point where Mike would have converted, they did get a little more wary.”
At around this point, actress Derya Ruggles, who played Robin, decided to leave the show to pursue other interests and Laiman didn’t feel “Days” could recast her. Laiman adds that Ruggles left before NBC had time to say yes—or no—to Mike’s conversion.
“They were nervous but they never actually said no,” she continued, “and I don’t know if they would have. So when you get right down to it, we’ll never know.”
Nevertheless, Laiman is disappointed that the Robin-Mike story, conversion and all, did not pan out. There would have been so many possibilities to explore—how Mike would have related to his parents once Jewish; conflicts over child-rearing and over Christmas.
Laiman is also sorry Robin’s father and uncle, too, had to leave the show, since there’s no point in keeping minor characters around when major ones vanish.
So the Jacobs family is history.
Laiman indicates that the media attention paid to the Robin-Mike story line will make it harder for her to introduce new Jewish characters. She will have to wait awhile—and come up with some innovative stories—before she can bring more Jews on the show.
Nevertheless, Laiman did manage to come up with a story good enough to introduce a Jewish woman into the world of daytime serials, and that, in itself, is an accomplishment.
The Robin story, says Laiman, was special to her—a way to educate non-Jews about Judaism— and it’s a first for Jews on soaps. Asked if she considers it—as did some Soap Opera Digest writers—a “break-through” of sorts, Laiman hesitates.
“Well,” she says laughing, “it may be an aberration, not a breakthrough. They’ve never done it before—and I don’t know if they’ll ever do it again.”
Naomi Pfefferman is a staff writer for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.