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Television’s Forever Converts the Eternal Jew Into an Eternal Physician
by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
THE NEW ABC SERIES Forever, tells the story of Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd), a gifted New York City medical examiner who has found himself resurrecting, naked, in water ever since his first death 200 years ago, as a doctor involved in the African slave trade. Each of his deaths has been rather unpleasant, even violent. But he has emerged from all his experiences with tremendous scientific skills and insight into people, places and epochs. In addition to his forensic work for the City of New York, Dr. Morgan, who looks to be in his forties, partners in the running of an antique shop with a youthful senior citizen named Abe (Judd Hirsch). They both live in a nice apartment at the shop.
At the end of the first episode, we learn from writer Matt Miller that Abe was an Auschwitz baby and was adopted from a Displaced Persons camp by Dr. Morgan and his wife, Abigail, a nurse during the war. The 65-year-old Abe has a 240-something-year-old British father, whose secret Abe has guarded and whom he has assisted since his mother’s death.
It’s an interesting concept, but not terribly original. On the comedic side, there is precedent for this series in Mel Brooks’ and Carl Reiner’s “2,000-Year-Old Man.” It also reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode that fascinated me as a kid, about an ageless actress (Ida Lupino) visited by a cynical columnist. The actress is nasty to an old woman who lives with her, and whom we assume to be her mother. The old woman warns the visitor to leave while he can, declaring: “I am not her mother. I am her daughter.” Here, the Cleopatra-era actress, who is some 2,000 years old, remains alive with the help of an Egyptian beetle that she must use periodically to suck the life out of an unsuspecting victim so that she can live forever. Happily, Forever’s Dr. Henry Morgan has no such sinister instrument for his immortality. He is, in fact, stumped by it, and seeks to find a medical explanation. The only sinister aspect of his plight is another self-professed immortal who is stalking him for mysterious purposes.
I FIND IT STRANGE, even unsettling, that in this series the eternal and unceasingly resurrected character, with his fine-tuned, iconoclastic sense of right and wrong, is the British doctor who adopted Abe — whereas Abe, the Holocaust survivor, is the finite and often morally confused character. Whatever happened to the association of the Jew with eternity? Synagogues have been named after the biblical phrase, netzakh Israel, often associated with “the eternity of Israel,” which in its original context (I Samuel 15:29) is used as a synonym for God: “And moreover the netzakh Israel does not deceive or change his mind, for he is not human that he should change his mind.”
Netzakh Israel as a divine name probably denotes the Source of the People Israel’s endurance and permanence as something of moral and spiritual import and value. The concept may well be at the root of the medieval mystical expression that “God, Torah and Israel are one.” An eternal Jewish People studying and developing its sacred literature is supposed to fashion a cumulative ground for moral reflection and action. Forever stands this assumption on its head.
Abe has somehow emerged from his life as a ready-made, full-fledged ethnic Jew, despite his upbringing by Dr. Morgan. Abe even uses Yiddish expressions. Yet the writers have him engage with other Jews only to vie with them and to disparage them. When a wealthy socialite is murdered, Abe competes with rival antique dealers, the Berkowitz Brothers, to procure the estate sale. Writer Chris Fedak has one Berkowitz brother brag: “We’re not afraid of dead bodies [when it comes to procuring antiques to sell]. We’ll step right over them.” Those are the kind of Jews presented in this series, at least so far. Granted, the antique business can be cutthroat. In the episode about the murder of a phony British noble, writer Cameron Litvack sees that the term “tchatchkes” is used, and then has Henry comment on Abe’s ritual of “scavenging the deceased [that is, the New York Times’ obituaries] for antiques.” Abe protests: “Scavenging? This is market research.”
Abe seems to have gotten religion, but his gods and rituals emerge from the world of jazz. In an episode about the murder of a jazz musician’s son, writers Dean Carpenter and Matt Kester have Abe extol star musicians of that genre (“our classical music”) as “gods.” As for Abe’s moral instruction, it appears to have come from Sixties protests. In an episode about tainted elixir of youth, writer Janet Lin puts Abe in trouble with the law while helping Henry on a case, and suggests that his spiritual source of justice was the student protest movement of the 1960s: “Just like my old activist days at Berkeley. I feel forty years younger.” Yet Abe picked up some Jewish vocabulary: In this episode he is asked, while briefly jailed, whether he has eaten and replies, “I’ve had a nosh today.”
Abe seems to yearn for a moral compass and does suffer from guilt — at least sometimes, on both counts. In an episode about old high school friends who have a hit-and-run on their conscience, writer Zev Borow has Henry ask Abe what his biggest secret is. Abe confesses that when he first opened the antique shop, he sold a piece that he knew was fake for a hefty sum, looking the customer, a good customer, right in the eye as he lied. “I felt like it was them or me,” he rationalizes, since he was behind in his rent and in “everything, and hadn’t sold a thing.” Abe confesses: “I’m not proud of it.”
Later, however, Abe reveals to Henry his most heart-wrenching secret, from his service in Vietnam. He relates that just a few weeks into his tour of duty, he ran into an ambush and found himself alone and “scared as hell.” Abe says that he lay on the ground terrified until it was all over. Three of his platoon members had been killed. With genuine agony Abe concludes that he always wondered whether those men would still be alive had he joined the fight.
The writers put their Holocaust survivor infant both at Berkeley and in Vietnam. What is the message here? Maybe they will provide some insight in a bar mitsve flashback. Or is such a development to be dreaded, given the treatment of Abe’s “Jewishness” so far?
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.