By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
What happens when a white Jewish girl from Seattle falls in love with an African-American Christian man from South Carolina? In the case of Miriam Sternoff and O’Neal McKnight, shenanigans. As their cultures collided again and again, McKnight, a comedian, did the obvious thing. He pitched a reality show.
“Kosher Soul,” a docu-sitcom about the couple’s quirky, cross-cultural encounters, premiered on Lifetime on February 25. Inspired by shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “Kosher Soul” attempts to take an entertaining subject, but infuse it with information and inspire audiences to step outside their comfort zones.
“Sometimes the love of your life might be across the street,” McKnight told The Jewish Sound. “What do you guys have in common? We’re human, we’re in love. Our message is love.”
“Kosher Soul” follows the L.A.-based couple through various stereotypical scenarios. McKnight takes Sternoff to a “swamp meet” to get fitted for a gold tooth. Then she takes him to the beach to get over his fear of water. McKnight good-naturedly embarrasses his mother-in-law on stage in a comedy routine. But, oh, it’s worth it just to watch the discomfort on Sternoff’s face when she goes with his extended family to church.
Sternoff and McKnight met 10 years ago in an elevator, when McKnight was rap artist P. Diddy’s personal stylist, and Sternoff was a freelance stylist.
“We initially just started working together,” said Sternoff. “We knew there was some interest, but I wanted to keep it professional for a while.”
“She hates to admit it, but she was working for me,” said McKnight. “My late grandfather said, ‘If you’re able to give a beautiful woman you’re attracted to a job, give her a job.’”
He paused, adding, “That might be called sexual harassment now.”
Eventually, he started working for her, and last year they married.
Sternoff grew up in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood, attending Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath with her family and Seattle Hebrew Academy for school. She has fond memories of her friends piling into her home on Shabbat afternoons for lunch.
“Seattle is such a great place,” she said. “Our community was so tight, it was small…. It was a phenomenal place to grow up.”
In the early 1990s, her family migrated east, eventually ending up in Brooklyn. Her mother had a strict policy: Her daughter could never bring home a non-Jewish man.
“I’m from South Carolina, which is the Bible Belt — halleluyah, thank you, Jesus!” he said. Judaism was a foreign concept.
But for McKnight, who says he always marched to the beat of his own drum, Judaism “was one of those things I naturally gravitated to.”
He completed his conversion last fall.
“The whole conversion thing was sort of like therapy,” he explained. “In Judaism, it’s supposed to be a tug of war with God…. I was tapping into things I couldn’t express growing up a Christian in South Carolina.”
The Sternoff-McKnight home (Sternoff’s refusal to change her name is the subject of an entire episode) is mostly kosher, with no pork or shellfish. While McKnight is stepping back from his Southern cuisine roots, he admits he still loves fried catfish. And Sternoff, though winning the household religion, is willing to compromise for her husband. Except when he demands she change her name. Or when he compares their wedding day to meeting Michael Jackson. Or when he takes his time covering up the tattoo of his ex-girlfriend’s name.
Sternoff and McKnight might be called the fulfillment of the American Love Story: Two individuals from minority communities, fabulously successful, crashing through social boundaries for the sake of love. It wasn’t easy. But a decade later, they’re one year into marriage and airing their stylish laundry on national television.
The show is not without criticism. Ben Faulding, writing for Tablet, complains that the show turns his life into a “farce.” “I think the Jewish/Black divergence is a misconception perpetuated throughout our culture,” he writes, “mostly because of laziness: our laziness to try and find their binding attributes.”
Sternoff and McKnight brush off the critics.
“Stereotypes exist,” said Sternoff. “We just want to add a little humor. Some people have thought too much about it. This is how we joke. This is our real life.”
“At the end of the day, you can’t make everybody happy,” McKnight added. “There’s not a show talking about these issues…. I think our story is bigger than us. One guy said him and his girlfriend were having problems, and their therapy is tuning into ‘Kosher Soul’ every Friday at 11. At the end of the day, we just want to show people love is love. It doesn’t matter what color or race you are.”
“Kosher Soul” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. PT on Lifetime. See clips at www.mylifetime.com/shows/kosher-soul.