Wanna feel old? Consider this: ‘Sex and City’ premiered sixteen years ago today.
Now, I know it’s cool to hate on Carrie et al these days, what with Girls and Broad City bringing the sexting, q-tips and authentic Brooklyn hipster poverty to the small screen. But I still have a soft spot for SATC, and I have a feeling you, dear reader, might feel similarly. Before it descended into the slavish consumer-fest of the later seasons (and the movies, of which we shall not speak), it was really, really good. Edgy! Risque! It’s where I learned about anal sex! And vibrators! (Ah, the sheltered decade of dial-up internet: we were such innocent teens.) Don’t pretend you don’t stop and watch an episode when you’re channel surfing/illegally downloading in the liminal hours between updating your OKCupid profile and falling asleep. You do, and you love it.
Anyway! SATC had a number of good Jewish moments, mostly focused on Charlotte’s conversion to Judaism for husband #2, Harry Goldenblatt, who woos her with his menschy, honest charm—one of more engaging plot-lines in the harried, lackluster final season. Wrote Sala Levin in 2012:
Nebbishy, lawyerly Harry certainly seems to be cut from the same cloth as his anxious, uncool brethren. Harry knows that the “shiksa goddess” Charlotte seems to be beyond the reach of “a putz like me,” as he puts it. But while the stumbling nerds of the popular imagination typically win the affection of their crushes despite not knowing how to interact with members of the opposite sex, Harry gets the girl with his brazenness, a forthrightness that Charlotte finds difficult to resist. It’s his openness about his desire for her—coupled with a talent for coupling—that distinguishes Harry from his geeky cohort. Like the female characters of Apatow’s movies, Charlotte ultimately develops feelings of real depth for Harry, noting that if his warmth and kindness are part of his Jewishness, being Jewish might be something she would want for herself. But—unlike in Apatow’s films—these feelings emerge only after the ignition of a sexual spark.
Charlotte and Harry’s love affair is served up with a generous dollop of borscht belt vernacular—a lot of putzing and schvitizing on Harry’s part, which feels tonally off for a 30-something man in the early 2000s—but underneath the schtick, theirs is a love affair of equals: two people who really understand and accept the other for who they are, hairy back, WASP-y affectations and all.
The depiction of Charlotte’s conversion is fairly accurate by sitcom-land standards: she’s thrice turned away by the rabbi before being accepted as a candidate for the “Jewish faith,” she and Harry bicker over differing levels of religious commitment, and eventually we see her take a dip in the mikvah to complete the process. There are a few anomalies—i.e. the rabbi’s family members seem to have confused Shabbat and funeral attire, and the rituals are overly-formal, almost robotically executed—but for the most part it’s a faithful (if abbreviated, sentimentalized) depiction of a non-Orthodox conversion.
Back in 2003, Samuel G. Freedman wrote that Charlotte’s conversion to Judaism radically redefined interfaith relationships in American popular culture:
Until the HBO series, no television show had ever presented a conversion with such visual and theological detail. Even more important is what the approving portrayal represents: a reversal of the entertainment industry’s tradition of viewing Jewish identity as something to be shed in the quest to become American.
For nearly a century, ever since the Broadway comedy Abie’s Irish Rose, the standard narrative of love between a Jew and a Christian has pointed toward interfaith marriage, and the implicit abandonment of Jewish observance and continuity, as the epitome of the melting pot… Unlike all of those Jewish characters of yore, who were so ready to reinvent themselves with a gentile wife, Harry insisted that Charlotte convert; he wanted their children to be fully Jewish.
And Charlotte wanted to be fully Jewish, too: from the very first heartfelt ‘shalom’ she offers to the custodian of the synagogue, to her decision to stop celebrating Christmas (a ritual she loved), she’s in it 110 percent—she even chastises Harry for watching baseball during Shabbat dinner, leading to a massive fight and temporary break-up. But it’s OK! They reconcile at a depressing singles’ event at shul, and have a big, fat, disastrous (but happy) Jewish wedding.
So happy birthday, Sex and the City. I still love you, and I’m not ashamed to say so on the internet.