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.
Some not-so-endearing news from our favorite Jewish fashion designers: Marc Jacobs tells Vogue that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in over 20 years (my mom launches a re-unification campaign if we don’t speak for two days), and Donna Karan gets in trouble for her new ad campaign set in Haiti. Hat tip to Jezebel.
Jewish mother Jill Zarin may have dealt with her share of divas on the “Real Housewives of New York,” but she still wasn’t prepared for Queen Bee Barbra Streisand. Radar reports that shortly after Zarin posted a video online of Streisand performing at a recent benefit for the Israeli Defense Forces, she was contacted by Streisand’s lawyers to take down immediately. “Someone from Barbra Streisand’s company just called my store to tell me to take down my YouTube video or they will sue me. Is that nuts? Sorry guys. I took it down!” Zarin wrote.
The Jewish Women’s Repertory Company, which produces work with all-female casts for the Los Angeles Orthodox community, is out with a new show, “Me and My Girl.” As The Los Angeles Times notes, this is one play where the actresses get the good parts.
• Bad-mommy news out of Israel is in abundance this week, between Jerusalem’s “starving mom,” whose arrest sparked street riots, and the child abuse conviction of “Taliban mom” of Beit Shemesh. Sure puts these “bad mommies” in perspective.
• In the wake of the ordination of Alyssa Stanton, the first black female rabbi, Moment magazine looks at the phenomenon of “post-racial” rabbis.
• Women make up 70% of the student body of Ma’aleh, the Orthodox television and film school in Jerusalem. The school’s alumnae are well represented at this week’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Tablet magazine reports.
• Nancy Goldberg, a California Jewish lay leader, writes about spending Shabbat with 30 incarcerated Jewish women; some of the women have been convicted of white-collar crimes, others drug offenses, still others murder.
• Israeli lawmakers met to address the gender gap in the Jewish state’s business, military and government sectors. Likud MK Miri Regev has proposed a bill to mandate that at least one army general position is filled by a woman.
• The National Council of Jewish Women officially threw its support behind the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayer. An email from the organization’s Action Center chastised the Senate Judiciary Committee — and its ranking member, Senator Jeff Sessions — for attempting to “obstruct a vote.”
• An Orthodox female rabbi will be known in Israel as a rabba, according to Kolech Religious Women’s Forum. Now all the group has to do is convince Israel’s rigid Orthodox religious establishment to train female clergy and recognize their rabbinic ordination.
• Jill Zarin, the nasally gala-hopping star of the “The Real Housewives of New York,” is writing a book called “Secrets of a Jewish Mother.”
• Britney Spears is reportedly converting to Judaism. Andy Borowitz’s imagines her “conversion diary” — and the result is side-splitting.
• What happened this week in Jewish women’s history? The Jewish Women’s Archive breaks it down.
My current guilty pleasure is “The Real Housewives of New York City. ”Watching their “reunion” on Bravo Tuesday night was like watching a sack full of expensively bejeweled, super-skinny, couture-clad cats in a sack claw at each other. But hilariously.
Going by their names, looks and mannerisms — hey, if we can’t stereotype ourselves, who can? — I’m guessing that two of the “housewives” are Jewish: Bethenny Frankel who’s single and a natural foods chef and cookbook author, and Jill Zarin (nee Kamen), a fund-raiser for several charities and mother of a teenage girl, Ally Shapiro.
Ally did this interview with New York magazine about her “Jewish momma.” Not only is Zarin the funniest of the bunch, she speaks with a bit of a Brooklyn brogue, which as a naturalized citizen of the best borough makes me like her even more. She’s kind of the hoity-toity super-rich girlfriend I’ve never had and hope one day might invite me for a shopping spree on her AmEx black card.
Part two of the catfight — I mean reunion — airs Thursday night. Tune in!