Eboni K. Williams, the first Black cast member on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New York,” is an exceptional star, shining some much-needed light on the long-running Bravo reality series. With a background as a lawyer, public defender, correspondent for CBS News and a co-host on Fox, she is an outlier — as far as reality TV stars go — because she often uses her platform to amplify Black voices and marginalized communities, in lieu of pure self-promotion.
Unlike many of her castmates — like Ramona Singer, who never misses an opportunity to mention her Ramona Singer Pinot Grigio, or Luann De Lesseps who promotes her cabaret, “Countess and Friends” — over the course of this season, Williams’s first, we witness her attempts to elevate the typical “RHONY” conversations. We see Williams donning a sweatshirt dedicated to the Exonerated Five and calling her castmates out over their “white fragility.” In one episode, she hosts dinner in Harlem to showcase Black culture and excellence — each guest at the table is assigned an icon from the Harlem Renaissance including Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Billie Holiday.
And, on Tuesday night’s episode of the show, Williams brought that sense of awareness to the Jewish community, hosting a Friday-night dinner that she dubbed “Black Shabbat.” Williams, who is not Jewish, describes the event as “an integration of shared humanity” — a demonstration of Black collaboration, awareness and allyship with the Jewish people.
“The Real Housewives of New York” has been on the air for 13 years (!) — and yet, despite having Jewish producers (including, of course, our favorite Jewish dad, Andy Cohen) and Jewish cast members (albeit not currently), this is the first time Shabbat has made an appearance on the show. This isn’t a little thing — this is everything.
“It took an Eboni K. Williams to pitch the idea of Shabbat [to the producers],” Archie Gottesman, the founder of the nonprofit JewBelong, explained during an Instagram Live event after the episode aired on Tuesday. (Gottesman hosted the Black Shabbat dinner with Williams; Gottesman had apparently hosted Williams for “a life-changing Shabbat” for prominent leaders within New York’s Black community several years ago, and the two have remained close friends.)
As a longtime fan of “RHONY,” and a Jewish mom who is raising my family’s first generation of Black Jews, I was very excited for this particular episode, which was billed as a celebration Jewish and Black convergence. I was optimistic that it wouldn’t be a stereotypical “Housewives” train wreck with the usual backdrop of glamour and privilege. Unfortunately, the opportunity to showcase this merge of communities was robbed by Singer’s ungracious behavior, rudeness and downright ignorance.
The Shabbat dinner — which was held in Gottesman’s New Jersey home — brought together Williams’s friends from the Black community and most (though not all) of the “RHONY” cast members. The idea was for Williams to introduce her castmates to a new experience — challenging their perspectives on the Black and Jewish communities, and expanding the reality stars’ understanding of what the tradition of Shabbat means.
“My work doesn’t stop,” Williams explains in the episode, adding, “Shabbat is the time to take a break and act as if our work is done.”
The evening of the event — which was filmed in December — Williams greets everyone with an enthusiastic “Shabbat Shalom!” Unfortunately, things quickly deteriorate from there. Castmate Leah McSweeney, who is in the process of converting to Judaism, has to Facetime into the event instead of attending in-person due to possible Covid exposure. Still, she sings the blessing over the candles and receives genuine praise from castmates. “Don’t blow them out,” McSweeney reminds Williams. But Singer had a different take: “She’s more of a pro than you are,” she yells at McSweeney, effectively minimizing her conversion efforts.
But that’s hardly the worst of it. When Gottesman takes a moment to celebrate Williams’s interest in learning about Judaism, and their shared concerns for the relationship between Black and Jewish people, Singer rudely interrupts, shouting: “But Italians and Jews have a lot in common too!”
In an attempt to justify herself, she explains: ‘I’m trying to include other people.”
It’s pretty clear that Singer’s white fragility is working overtime here — she actively steers the conversation away from the discomfort of sitting in a space, listening to lessons of oppression. Williams herself sums it up best in a one-on-one interview with a producer: “Ramona, like a lot of well-meaning people, have a hard time of sitting with the pain of marginalized Americans,” she says.
Castmate Sonja Morgan agrees, saying: “This represents a lot of people that get uncomfortable and defensive.”
Honestly, despite Singer’s abhorrent behavior, hearing such dialogue on “RHONY” was refreshing, and a step in the right direction, in my opinion. But I’d be remiss not to mention the work that the Jewish community has to do, too, in our relationship as allies to the Black community — namely, considering, reflecting and ultimately acknowledging the advantages of white-passing and white proximity.
Williams highlighted this poignantly on Instagram Live, that in order for Jewish and Black people to be truly aligned, “we want to know Jewish allies aren’t confused with white benefit.”
The dumpster fire of an episode ends with Singer being so uncomfortable in the discussion she can’t even stay seated — instead, she heads to the kitchen of Gottesmans’ home, in search of something to eat.
The Black Shabbat dinner will continue in next week’s episode, and it seems very likely it will continue to be an embarrassment for Singer. My hope, however, is that part two will shine a light on the work that needs to be done by white allies of the Black community, and maybe even challenge the Jewish community to create an action plan of how we can do better. While it’s unlikely viewers of “RHONY” will get to experience Black Shabbat as Williams and Gottesman intended — a celebration of Black and Jewish culture and compassion — we can, of course, use the show as a springboard for discussion and reflection on these important topics. Off the air, that is.