Beliefs Culture David Gibson: Sacred and Profane Institutions Opinion

Does ‘Downton Abbey’ downplay anti-Semitism – and Judaism?

(RNS) If God is missing from the hit television series “Downton Abbey” what about the other great religious oversight — the fact that the show glosses over the anti-Semitism that was also commonplace in turn-of-the-century English, especially among the aristocracy?

That lapse became apparent in this third season when the American mother of Cora, the U.S.-born Countess of Grantham, comes for a visit. Cora’s mother Martha, played by inimitable Shirley MacLaine, had married Isidore Levinson, “a dry goods multimillionaire from Cincinnati” – and a Jew, as should be obvious.

And yet … the official “Downton” guide says that although “Martha’s husband was Jewish, she herself is not, and their children were raised Episcopalians.” Problem solved?

Many Jewish viewers thought that was more than a bit too convenient.

“From the moment MacLaine’s hennaed and befeathered head peeks out from the door of her Rolls Royce Phantom, the J-word is never mentioned, never alluded to, never even euphemized,” Rachel Shukert lamented in the online magazine Tablet.

“The silence is not only glaringly anachronistic on a program so obsessed with accurate period details, if not accuracy itself.”

Worse, fans like Renee Ghert-Zand thought MacLaine was trying to play Martha as Jewish.

“With Martha Levinson’s brash demeanor and over-the-top wardrobe, I thought producers were signaling not merely that the character is nouveau riche, but that she’s nouveau riche and Jewish,” Ghert-Zand wrote in The Times of Israel.

In “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey,” the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes explains that Isidore Levinson “didn’t convert, but allowed his children to be brought up as non-Jewish for ease of life. This was quite usual then.”

Indeed, it was, though it’s still not clear why Fellowes wouldn’t use the opportunity offered by Cora’s Jewish father and surname to explore the issue of English anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, Jewish viewers may have another bite at the apple as the production company behind “Downton Abbey” is doing a series based on the novel “The Innocents,” about a wealthy Jewish family in contemporary London.

It may not be as sumptuous as the scenery at Lord Grantham’s period digs, but it is loosely adapted from Edith Wharton’s turn-of-the-century classic “The Age of Innocence.”

And anti-Semitism in England? Still there.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

ADVERTISEMENTs