On “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” plastic surgery and divorce are more common party discussion topics than religion or faith. But Kyle Richards, the very first Housewife cast in the franchise, is Jewish. She did an Orthodox conversion in order to marry her husband, Mauricio Umansky, whose family is Russian Jews via Mexico.
Kyle and Mauricio’s religion occasionally comes up on the show, but it mostly serves as interesting background material. Kyle’s real hook is her lineage: her oldest sister is Kathy Hilton, mother of Paris and Nicky, and her other sister is fellow cast mate Kim Richards. Both Kim and Kyle were child actresses, though Kim was much more successful, and the leftover resentments from the different ways they grew up are still causing problems between the two sisters today. Stir in the fact that Kyle and Mauricio’s marriage seems strong and their children are young, plus the fact that Kim is twice-divorced with adult children, and you have a recipe for conflict — which is exactly what “The Real Housewives” is all about.
Although we don’t see Kyle attending services or celebrating holidays, there are signs of the Umanskys’ Jewishness sprinkled throughout the show. There are mezzuzahs and other Jewish symbols in their home, and Mauricio’s mother Elsa makes references to the family’s Jewish identity. Right now, Kyle’s storyline is about being a busy wife and stay-at-home mom, so we get plenty of glimpses of Alexia, Sophia, and Portia, her three daughters with Mauricio. Sophia is 12, so perhaps a bat mitzvah storyline will be coming up?
Last season, “The Real Housewives of New York City” started to fall apart. Like many reality show participants, the Housewives were all too aware of their own roles and too obsessed with promoting their products and businesses. So Bravo, the network that airs all of the “Housewives” shows, fired half the cast and brought in three new women, one of whom was Aviva Drescher. Drescher, who is Jewish, was considered the replacement for fired housewife Jill Zarin, best known for sparring with more successful ex-castmate Bethenny Frankel. Both Aviva and Jill (who reportedly know each other and hang out in real life) are terrible, stereotypical examples of Jewish women, albeit in quite different ways. Together, they exemplify every bad cliché that exists about Jewish women on television.
Some of the things that made Jill a compelling person to watch on television were the same things that made her a terrible person to watch on television. She self-identified as a “yenta,” and during the first season of the show she was shown trying to matchmake on multiple levels (she introduced a cast member with young children to a friend who did admissions for a prestigious Manhattan preschool). But as we learned more about Jill and the show brightened her star, her negative qualities came more sharply into view. She was nosy, bossy and loud. She inserted herself into every possible storyline, including ones that had nothing to do with her. She lectured others about how to dress for a wedding, how to express sympathy, and how to have a fight. In one particularly cringe-worthy moment, she saved an angry voicemail message from Frankel and played it for anyone and everyone who would listen. Sometimes, watching Jill was like watching a cartoon character come to life.