What’s Jewish About Downton Abbey?

I started watching this show a few years ago. I’d seen documentaries about its real-life setting, Highclere Castle, and I’d been hearing rave reviews about it, but I’d never actually seen it. But I could not for the life of me get the commercials out of my head. So I checked Season One out from the library.

I was hooked. Wealth, servants’ gossip, and illicit affairs (Yes, I’m talking about you Lady Mary; you didn’t really think I’d forget the whole Mr-Pamuk-died-in-your-bed affair in a hurry, did you?) It was everything that a good story should be.

But the further in I got, the more it began to disturb me. Downton was uncannily similar to biographies I had read about the Hasidic rebbes. A passage in Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman particularly stuck out to me: “Where, I wonder, is the brotherly love that G-d commanded Jews to feel for each other, now, in this community that calls itself holy? Back in Europe, Zeidy says, no one would dream of fighting to be called a rabbi. In fact, they often turned down the position when it was offered to them. A man truly worthy of being a rabbi is a humble one. He is not in search of power or recognition. But in this day and age, rabbis are chauffeured in black Cadillacs and have private ritual baths built into their opulent homes. They are the celebrities of the Hasidic culture.Children trade rabbi cards and boast of having rabbinical connections. On Purim, the holiday of masquerades, they Scotch-tape long beards made of white cotton balls to their chins, drape themselves in faux-fur coats, and walk with the aid of a shiny wooden cane. What more does every child dream of than to grow up to be a rabbi, or at least a rabbi’s wife?”

Deborah is right. Modern-day rabbis have become entirely too damn much like the stuffy, English well-to-do Crawley family portrayed on the show. A man who really is worthy to be a rabbi is humble, modest and doesn’t try to climb up the social ladder.

What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “What’s Jewish About Downton Abbey?

  1. Agreed totally!

    Let me tell you a story. When I first met my rabbi, I was totally taken aback. I was fresh out of a Grade-1 listed Shul with an array of expensive hats every shabbos and rabbi who had a PhD. And suddenly I was standing, not one week later, in this tiny office building with broken wooden floors and a huge gash in the ceiling and no tablecloths and a rabbi who I didn’t dare even speak to because he looked so chassidic. I really couldn’t care less about how beautiful a shul is and how high-up in society a rabbi is. I didn’t care back then, and I don’t care now. I certainly didn’t look down on my rabbi. But it was as different as it possibly could be. And this new shul was by no means Downton Abbey, let’s just put it that way. For what it’s worth, there was also no minyan, and it was pouring with rain (Rabbi Y, if you’re reading this now, write me- surely you remember the day I’m talking about?). But guess what I found?

    Surprise, surprise- the hemische little office building with broken ceilings and broken floors and broken whatevers (oh, and Rabbi Y, if you’re still reading this, we’ve got to replace the mechitza!) is now my second home, and I love it much much more than the flat I live in and/or my massive Grade-1 Shul. And really I couldn’t care less what’s broken, all that matters is what’s totally undamaged, and that’s the warmth, generosity and general amazing-ness of the rabbi, rebbetzen and shul. And the other congregants are lovely, and did I mention we have a wonderful kiddush every shabbos? And, yes, the rabbi is exceedingly humble and wonderful and despite my first impressions, he’s not actually so scary and chassidishe after all. He’s been there for me through thick and thin (and by that I mean he answers my kvetching emails between the hours of 7 AM and midnight). So there you have it.

    … I think I wrote a bit much.

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  2. I had a Chabadnik come to my old shul to bake matzah, learn how to light an oil menorah, and even make a shofar, which I still have.

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