(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.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture, Institutions

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David Gibson

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.


  1. Julian Fellowes states that “it was quite usual” for rich Jews to have their children brought up as non-Jews. Not so. While it was not unusual, it certainly was not as commonplace as he implies.

  2. Perhaps a falling meteor triggered my incomplete submission, tho’ I fault only myself for my inept misspellings. To continue: DOWNTON ABBEY is a drama, a fiction, not a history. One might as well fault John Wayne’s FORT APACHE for not discussing Lebanese immigration in Arizona in the 19th century. Just enjoy the costumes and the emo, folks.

  3. David Gibson

    David Gibson

    Post author

    Mack Hall: I’d say “Downton Abbey” is a historical drama that turns on a very precise rendering of historical events — from the Titanic to WWI to the fate of great families like the Crawleys. And it deals with anti-Catholicism and the Irish very much in-depth. Given that anti-Semitism was such a prominent feature of the time and class, and that Cora, the Countess, is half Jewish, you’d expect at least some treatment of the issue. I think it would also frankly make a good plot point for revealing and perhaps developing character.

  4. Scarlett OHara

    “Exploring antisemitism” in Downton Abbey will only open the door to more “bash whitey” propaganda— which we get too much of in the media already. I find Downton Abbey a refreshing escape from the left-wing brainwashing and white guilt indoctrination. It is about time that White Europeans are allowed to proudly luxuriate in their own magnificence, in their own culture, their own great style, and in their own historical accomplishment.

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