April 5, 2020

How is this year different from all other years?

By Amy Powell

The question, “how is this night different from all other nights?” takes on brand new meaning this Passover; nearly everything about this seder will be different from all other seders. Rather than celebrating our Exodus among friends, family –and even potentially strangers as the Haggadah encourages us to “let all who are hungry come and eat,” this year we are encouraged to celebrate alone.

Other years, we reflect on the 10 Plagues that occurred during the time of Pharoah, this year, we reckon with the real plague of Covid-19, ravaging communities around the world.

In this time of decreased trips to the store, shortages of all things except gefilte fish, we are learning of various rabbis relaxing hechshers and even restrictions on use of electronics for those who want to stream communal seders or Zoom with their family members.

To help you make the most of this strange moment, HBI has gathered a guide to some resources and readings.

How to Add Some Fun to a Strange Year

Did you ever wonder what comedian Lewis Black has to say about bitter herbs? Or, how Judy Gold’s annual dayyenu will explain this year, or want to hear Seth Herzog’s rendition of the 10 Plagues? The City Winery has you covered this Monday, April 6 with the Downtown Seder 2020. Yes, Cong. Jerry Nadler will be asking four important questions even though he won’t be the youngest and former Sen. Al Franken will be presenting from his shower. See the entire lineup of special music and commentary from The Lab Shul.

Do you need a Haggadah guide that pokes fun at the times we are in? Humorist Howard   Zaharoff, noting that Jews like to “find the humor”, published his Love in the Time of Coronavirus: Excerpts From a New Passover Haggadah in JewishBoston.com. Here you will find the seder re-explained with gems like, “Urchatz: We wash hands before opening a jar of Rokeach gefilte fish, since who knows who touched the jar before?” and “Maror: We eat bitter herbs to remind us that our portfolio declined 30% in the month of March.”

From Shalom Sesame, there is a riff on the afikomen,  Les Matzarables.

How to Conduct a Virtual Seder

Moment Magazine created a virtual seder guide, 2020 Seder Supplement “The Seder is Already Virtual: Reflections for a Ritual in Extraordinary Times” by Amy E. Schwartz.  The multi-denominational guide notes that it “draws on Moment’s popular “Ask the Rabbis” section, which includes rabbinical wisdom ranging from independent to Orthodox,” and includes “interviews with scholars and writers as well as articles and poems from the Moment archives.”

The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) produced Digital Content to Enliven This Year’s Virtual Seder with downloadable haggadot, playlists, children’s activities, recipes, thought questions and more.

The Washington Post created some variations on traditional recipes that offer a bit more immune boosting powers in A Passover like no other: Embrace a more intimate celebration of the Jewish holiday.

Hagdadot.com has a variety of downloadable and DIY resources, but this year added more on conducting virtual seders. Their webinar, The Art of Virtual Gathering: Passover 2020, is available as are other items to satisfy a range of needs and interests.

UCSJ (United Synagogue Conservative Judaism) published Passover Resources with helpful guidelines for many of the rituals and extra resources for conducting virtual seders that include grandparents and others.

JewishBoston.com’s How to Have a Kid-Friendly, Meaningful Virtual Seder, includes ways to incorporate the seder’s themes of resilience.

Readings to Help Make Sense of it All

For those who need or want permission to have a mediocre seder without fancy cooking, without creativity, Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick gives permission in Go ahead, have a shvach seder published in The Times of Israel. 

In The 11th Plague: Passover During Coronavirus, The Forward.com gathered opinions from 20 influencers, offering commentaries on Passover this year.

Also in the Forward.com, Abigail Pogrebin, author of The Wondering Jew, had conversations with six rabbis to reflect on this year’s Passover in Passover therapy: Our holiday expert asked 6 rabbis to reflect on this very different year.

In New York Jewish Week and the JOFA Blog’s The First Ever Seder Was Held In Isolation, Miriam Lorie relates our current moment to ancient times

In the Lilith Blog, Between Purim and Passover, a Plague, Rayzel Raphael, relates the Passover, Purim and Yom Kippur themes to the reality of today’s Passover.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI. 

Esther and the Pursuit of Likeability

By Rabbi Wendy Amsellem and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

In this election season, there has been a focus on whether candidates, especially female candidates, are sufficiently likeable. Likeability is a virtue as it indicates whether a candidate is attuned to others and can get them on board to work with them. Likeability can even be translated as חן, an ability to be found gracious by others.

Esther, a heroine of the holiday of Purim (March 10), is the queen of likeability. In Chapter 2 of the Book of Esther, Esther is described as נשאת חן בעיני כל רואיה, she is found graceful by all who see her. At first this seems like an ideal situation – Esther is liked by everyone! Yet, it is also kind of odd. Is it really possible to be liked by all people?

Rabbi Elazar in Talmud Bavli Megillah 13a explains that Esther appeared to each and every person as if she was a member of their nationality. To the Persians, she appeared Persian. To the Medeans, she appeared Medean. They did not see Esther for who she actually was. Instead she became, in their eyes, whomever they wanted her to be. 

Rabbi Yuda in the Midrash Esther Rabbah 6:9 takes this a step further. He explains that Esther was like a statue whom a thousand people can equally admire. In his understanding, Esther did not present as a distinctive personality with independent thoughts, opinions and predilections. Instead she was a blank canvas of a person upon whom others projected their idealized desires.

This is a familiar trap for women. In order to have חן, to move about the world in a state of grace, women are told to be everything to everyone, to blunt the more distinctive aspects of themselves in order to be likeable.

For Esther, this comes at the cost of an expression of selfhood. As long as Esther is a statue, everyone can like her. Esther is afraid that if she gives voice to her own ideas, she will sacrifice her likability. And so the real Esther, as her name implies, remains hidden. 

Esther’s pliability and willingness to be whomever others want her to be reaches grotesque expression in the continuation of the passage in Bavli Megillah 13a.  The Talmud cites Esther 2:17 The King loved Esther more than all of the other women and she found favor in his eyes more than all of the other virgins. Rav explains that Esther is favored above all the women and all the virgins because her body can transform into whatever the King desires. If he wanted the feeling of intercourse with a virgin, Esther could provide that. If he wanted the feeling of being with a sexually experienced woman, Esther could  provide that as well. She is the King’s fantasy, mutable according to his desires.

This is not true חן  .חן is not about scooping yourself out so that you become only a reflection of what others want. חן is about expressing yourself in a way that is cognizant of those around you, while still maintaining your personhood, in relationship with G-d.

Proverbs 31:30 warns  שקר החן והבל היופי, sometimes grace is false and beauty meaningless. חן is not an end in itself. חן that is only fixated on how others see you is שקר, falsehood. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to be well liked. The Ishbitzer Rebbe in Mei HaShiloach, writes that Proverbs 3:4 Find favor in the eyes of G-d and people is followed by Proverbs 3:5 Trust in G-d with all your heart and do not rely on your own wisdom. The Ishbitzer teaches that these verse are juxtaposed because if people are unduly preoccupied with finding favor in the eyes of others, they should focus their intentions on G-d, and fulfilling G-d’s will, and in this way they can achieve חן in the eyes of both G-d and people.

Indeed, this is what Esther does. When she realizes that G-d wants her to save G-d’s people, she is able to find the courage to express her distinctive self. Esther stands before the King as an out Jewish woman and makes a powerful argument to save her people. She asks for something real and important and the King can see her for who she actually is and finds her full of grace.

The story of the book of Esther is how Esther goes from the false חן of Chapter 2 to the true חן of Chapter 7. She stops trying to obey and please everyone and in doing so she finds her voice and her power. Purim celebrates the process of revealing the hidden truth and giving it expression to the outside world. As we read the Book of Esther may we be inspired to find true חן in the eyes of G-d and people, and the strength to persist in doing G-d’s work.

 

 

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

Leavening and Lusty Hearts: Reconstructing the Bible’s Levivot

By Esther Brownsmith

Most people, when they read 2 Samuel 13, are horrified by its tragic contents. Amnon, the firstborn son of King David, falls in love with his half-sister Tamar. He devises a plan to get her alone, then despite her vocal protests, he rapes her. Afterwards, he brutally rejects her and throws her out. The story is tragic from start to finish — and it sparks a widening spiral of bloody revenge.

In short, when most people read 2 Samuel 13, they are not reading it as a recipe. But I am.

Amnon’s scheme relies on feigning illness, then asking for his sister to prepare him a special food, which she would hand-feed to him. That food is variously called bread (לחם), sustenance (בריה), and levivot (לבבות) — the latter a plural term that does not appear elsewhere in the Bible. Yet this term is crucial to understanding the eroticized atmosphere of the passage, which paints for us a picture of Amnon’s lascivious point of view. Thus, when I examined this passage as part of my doctoral dissertation, I decided that one of my tasks would be to recreate these levivot to search for clues to their significance.

Of course, the Bible does not provide a recipe for levivot, nor do other ancient Jewish texts, while modern Hebrew uses it as a name for latkes. A Google search for מתכוני לביבות (levivot recipes) results in many delicious photographs of potato pancakes, none of which resemble what Tamar made for Amnon. Instead, I turned to a combination of textual clues and culinary history.

Here’s what we know about the levivot:

Their name had passionate connotations. The heart (lev), which seems to form the basis for the word, was the seat of thought and emotion to ancient Israelites. Meanwhile, the root word לבב (L-B-B) had definite connotations of sexual desire in both Song of Songs 4:9 and Ezekiel 16:30, and the heart was a metaphor for arousal in Mesopotamian texts, like an incantation to help a man whose “‘heart’ does not rise for him.” As final evidence that the levivot had indecent connotations, a careful reading of 2 Samuel 13 reveals that King David and Jonadab avoid using the term; only Amnon and the narrator (who reflects Amnon’s lustful thoughts) use it to describe the food.

… But they weren’t “heart-shapedas we know it. Many scholars explain that their name means they were “heart-shaped” — but the heart shape, familiar to us from Valentines and emoticons, only dates back to the medieval period. In the ancient world, “heart-shaped” would have connoted a vaguely conical lump.

They were boiled in water. The Hebrew Bible makes this clear, even though most English translations say that they were baked. When Tamar cooks the levivot, the verb is בשׁל (B-Š-L), “to boil”; once she finishes boiling them, she pours them out יצק (Y-Ṣ-Q) to drain them. Later Jewish writings, like David Kimḥi’s commentary on 2 Samuel 13:6, corroborate that they were understood to be boiled in water.

They were made of kneaded dough. As part of her preparations, Tamar kneads לוש (L-W-Š) the dough. From a culinary viewpoint, this step is important, as it distinguishes the levivot from modern American dumplings. Kneading activates the gluten in flour, which gives yeasted breads their springy, chewy texture; in contrast, American dumplings are kneaded as little as possible, so that they retain a fluffy, tender texture.

Their composition included flour and other ingredients. This clue can only be inferred from the biblical text’s description of “dough,” which generally comes from flour, and the fact that they were a sickbed delicacy (and therefore probably contained fat and sugar to appeal to the palate). However, Maimonides corroborates it in the Mishneh Torah when he gives levivot as an example of a boiled food made of flour mixed with “other things” (Blessings, ch.3).

Based on these clues, I began to research boiled breads. I discovered that although boiled bread is not typical in modern American cuisine — even bagels are baked after being boiled — it has a rich history elsewhere in the world. Boiled bread ranges from Zulu ujeqe to German Hefeklösse, not to mention steamed breads like Chinese mantou. These bread rolls are a hearty dish, yet light and fluffy from their yeasted dough. For instance, one cookbook writes that “Hefeklösse mit Zimmetsosse (yeast dumplings with cinnamon sauce) were considered a meal in itself. When the cooks took the time to prepare dumplings with cinnamon sauce, the usual meat course was not served.”

Armed with this evidence that boiled bread was a real culinary possibility, I found a recipe for Hefeklösse and got to work. I knew that many of the ingredients would have to be modified, as the ancient world lacked ultra-refined ingredients like white sugar and white flour. I substituted whole wheat flour and date paste, which was the main sweetener in the ancient Near East. Most biblical mentions of “honey” actually refer to date syrup.

Moreover, the fat to use was unclear. Butter was rare in the warm weather of ancient Israel, and animal fat adds an unpleasantly savory flavor to the bread, as I discovered in an early trial. Olives were abundant in ancient Israel, but there is some scholarly debate about whether their oil was used in this period for culinary purposes, as opposed to anointing, burning for light, etc. In Mesopotamia, sesame oil was the primary oil used in cooking, and I found it added a mild, pleasant flavor. I used untoasted sesame oil, not the toasted oil used in many Asian recipes, which has a much stronger taste.

The stage was set for my final culinary experiment — and the final clue in my theory. When Amnon asks Tamar to make him the levivot, he doesn’t merely ask for “some levivot”; he asks specifically for “two levivot.” So I went through the same stages of cooking as Tamar — I kneaded the dough, shaped the rolls, boiled them, and drained them — and then I put exactly two levivot on a plate together. Sure enough, the plump, pale brown orbs bore a distinct resemblance to a woman’s bosom.

My theory had held: not only did the name levivot contain a certain level of innuendo, but the very appearance of two levivot had an erotic flair. Amnon knew exactly what he was asking for when he requested two levivot from his sister, and it wasn’t just an innocent snack.

Despite their disturbing history, though, levivot clearly continued to be eaten in Jewish communities into the Middle Ages, as the writings of Kimḥi and Maimonides attest. With the tenderness of Chinese steamed buns, they are a mildly sweet, fluffy treat, as well as a way to make bread without turning on an oven. The recipe below makes twelve large levivot — perfect for feeding the people close to your heart.

Esther Brownsmith, a doctoral student at Brandeis, is an HBI Scholar in Residence.  She was recently awarded a prestigious post-doc at the MF Norwegian School of Theology and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters where she will work on the broader project, Books Known Only by Title: Exploring the Gendered Structures of the First Millennium Imagined Library.The title of her project is “‘But she said…’: (Para)biblical Expansions as Fan Fiction.”

Her lunchtime lecture, The Concubine in the Refrigerator: Objectifying Women in Comics and Scripture, will be March 30, 12:30-2 p.m., at HBI, 515 South St., Waltham. 

Reconstructed Levivot 

60g lukewarm water (1/4 cup)
57g date paste or well-mashed Medjool dates (1/4 cup)
7g active dry yeast (1 packet)
57g fat, such as untoasted sesame oil or butter (1/4 cup)
180g lukewarm water (3/4 cup)
6g salt (1 tsp)
395g whole wheat flour, ideally einkorn or emmer (3 1/2 cups)

1) Mix together the 60g water and date paste, then stir in the yeast. Let sit in a warm place for 5 minutes, until the mixture is very frothy.

2) In a large bowl, mix together the yeast mixture with all the remaining ingredients.

3) Using the kneading hook of a mixer, or your own arms, knead the dough for several minutes (at least ten if by hand). Add more water if necessary for a supple, tender dough. By the end of kneading, the dough should be stretchy and smooth.

4) Cover the bowl with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until the dough is doubled in volume.

5) Punch down the dough and knead it a few times. Divide the dough into twelve equal portions, then shape each portion into round rolls. Space out the rolls on a large tray and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes, or until very puffy.

6) Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring several inches of water to a boil. Reduce heat to a steady simmer.

7) When the rolls have risen, use a slotted spoon to lower six of them into the water, one by one. Cover, return to a simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not remove the lid while cooking. When done, the rolls should be firm to the touch. Remove with a slotted spoon, and repeat with the remaining six rolls.

8) Serve warm, with butter and optional honey.

Israeli Supreme Court Grants Protection from FGM

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

On February 9, 2020 The Israeli Supreme Court published a ground breaking decision in the field of legal feminism and the rights of asylum seekers in Israel. For the first time, the Court recognized applicants as meeting the definition of refugee and instructed the Population and Immigration Authority (PIA) to provide them protection as such. The applicants were applying for refugee status because they feared that their daughters, if returned to their country of origin, will be forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). This posts aims to explain the Court’s decision and discuss the implications of this decision. 

Receiving Protection from FGM

The applicants are a family from Ivory Coast. The parents have arrived to Israel in 2004 and 2005, and applied for asylum based on their own persecution. PIA rejected their applications, but they were able to remain in Israel under Temporary Protection status. When Israel revoked the Temporary Protection of Ivorians in 2012, they applied for asylum once again, saying that their daughters, who were born during their stay in Israel, would be forced to undergo FGM. They had shared with PIA that the grandmother of the girls had conducted FGM to one of her granddaughters without her parents’ consent, when the parents were away from their home. Their asylum application was rejected due to the “internal flight alternative”, since the immigration authorities assumed that they would be able to protect the girls from FGM if they reside in an area of their country which is remote from their families. The family appealed this rejection. The parents were concerned that they would not be able to protect their daughters from this practice, which is culturally important to their tribe, even if they move to a different part of the country.

As the case was pending before the Court, PIA decided to give the family status which would grant them a humanitarian status, allowing them to stay in the country while emphasizing that this is done despite the fact that the family does not meet, in their professional opinion, the standards for asylum. 

The Court decided to rule in favor of the applicants, making this the first case that the Israeli Supreme Court instructs PIA to grant an individual refugee status. The Court has generally refrained from determining whether asylum seekers meet the requirements of the definition of refugee, and leaving the question of what their status is obscure. It is interesting that the first decision of this sort is in a case of women fleeing FGM, and not in one of the cases of asylum seekers who were fleeing political or religious persecution. I have argued elsewhere, that this was a strategic choice for the Court, in an effort to evade a full confrontation with the legislative and the executive branches of government. These other branches are already threatening to pack the Court and to take away its judicial review powers by enacting an override clause, since the Court has previously issued numerous other decisions in the context of immigration law and policy. Perhaps notably, the leading opinion in this case was given by Justice Daphne Barak-Erez, who before her appointment to the Israeli Supreme Court was one of the leading feminist legal scholars in Israel. 

The decision also stands out among multiple decisions on protecting asylum seeking women from gender-based persecution in Israel. Most of the decisions given to date failed to apply a gender-sensitive definition of the category of refugee, and therefore were not instrumental in providing protection for asylum seeking women in Israel. While other countries have recognized women who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted by different forms of persecutions typical to women such as rape, FGM, forced marriage, etc., Israel has been slow and reluctant to adopt a similar approach. This decision brings Israel closer to the standards of other western democracies. 

Public Response to the Decision

Immediately after the decision was given, the former minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked, tweeted that the decision creates “a radical and dangerous interpretation to the refugee convention”, and that FGM, as appalling as it may be, cannot be grounds for refugee status in the Middle East. However, there is actually nothing radical about this decision. The US acknowledged that fear of FGM can be grounds for asylum in 1996, and so have multiple other countries. Gender-based persecution in its many forms is widely acknowledged by different countries and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In fact, in the course of the litigation of this case, PIA did not argue that fear of FGM could not justify asylum: the legal debate was only on whether it was sufficiently proved that the family could be safe in other parts of their country of nationality.

The Minister of Interior, Arye Deri, said that the decision could have harsh consequences, and may create a situation in which Israel has to include many African women, which he saw as unacceptable. This concern seems far-fetched at best. While the “fear of numbers” is typical to the immigration context, it really has no factual grounding in the case of Israel. Since the erection of the border fence along the Israel-Egypt border in 2013, the long continental border which Israel shares with Africa, it has become impossible to enter Israel in an undocumented manner. In such a situation, it is hard to imagine a phenomenon of large-scale migration from Africa. Also, research indicates that the inclusion of gender-based persecution in the definition of refugee had little or no impact on the number of women seeking asylum in other countries, so there is no reason to think this will make a difference in the case of Israel. There are so many barriers preventing women from fleeing and seeking asylum, that favorable changes in immigration norms are not key determinants of whether they will arrive to a country to seek asylum.  

The decision given by the Israeli Supreme Court puts Israel on the same line with many other western democracies, and contributes to the international efforts to combat violence against women in its various shapes, including FGM. As an Israeli woman, it is a proud moment to see that Israel lives up to the lesson of “never again”, a lesson learned by the suffering of the Jewish refugees, and extends it to African children refugees. 

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She is a 2018 GCRL Scholar in Residence and a current Research Associate at HBI.

 

Suffering, Stereotypes, and Psychosis: The Representation of Jewish Femininity in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

By Samantha Pickette

The CW Network’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend finished its final season last spring.  Throughout its four seasons, the series—a hybrid musical/romantic comedy that plays with and satirizes the tropes of both genres—has been lauded for its progressive discussion of mental health, gender, and politics.  The series has also been praised for its depiction of protagonist Rebecca Bunch’s Jewish identity; The Forward, The New York Times, and countless other publications have declared Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as one of the most “explicitly Jewish” series on contemporary television (along with other female-driven vehicles such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Broad City, and Transparent).  Yet, while it is certainly true that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an “explicitly Jewish” show in the sense that its central protagonist is Jewish and does not shy away from identifying as such, the series’ relationship with Jewishness is more complicated than the critical reception of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would suggest.  

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend revolves around the story of Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom), a successful, Ivy-League educated lawyer who abruptly leaves her job at a Manhattan law firm and moves across the country to West Covina, California, the hometown of her unrequited girlhood crush, Josh Chan.  Once there, she actively pursues Josh despite the fact that he is in a committed relationship, manipulating, scheming, and lying to get what she wants in the name of “true love.” The only real connection to her Jewish identity that Rebecca displays while in California is through memories of the old life that she rejected on the East Coast and the two Jewish women—her overbearing and manipulative mother, Naomi (played by Tovah Feldshuh), and her entitled, hyper-competitive childhood rival, Audra Levine (played by Rachel Grate)—who put her on the path to self-loathing, leaving her with a desperate need for attention and love.  In the episodes where Naomi and Audra appear, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend not only perpetuates classic stereotypes of Jewish women and of Jewish culture in general, but actually seems to make the case that Rebecca’s Jewish heritage is at least partly responsible for the personal and mental health problems she faces.

Rebecca’s relationship with her Jewishness, then, is tangled up with her feelings about her past life in New York, and both her memories of and interactions with Audra Levine and Naomi Bunch inform the way that Rebecca understands what it means to be Jewish.  As a result, Jewishness is something that Rebecca views negatively, and, through the relatively one-dimensional depiction of Audra Levine as a stereotypical Jewish-American Princess (JAP) and Naomi Bunch as a stereotypical “Jewish Mother,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does little to challenge Rebecca’s negative, stereotype-driven reading of the two women who, for her, personify her Jewish heritage.  The series makes the direct connection between Jewish identity and misery several times throughout its four seasons, but never more explicitly than in the season two episode “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” during which Rebecca brings Josh Chan (by then her boyfriend) home to Scarsdale to attend a family bar mitzvah.  She articulates the binding legacy of genetic, intergenerational Jewish suffering by telling the non-Jewish Josh:

…you are, forgive me, a non-Jew from the West Coast.  Let me explain how this goes. East Coast: dark, sad.  West Coast: light, happy…these people, they don’t understand what fun is.  Trust me…do you remember the ceremony? They made a 13-year-old boy say the Kaddish.  That’s a prayer for the dead. People like us only know how to be miserable.

This episode embraces the dichotomy between the dreary, depressing Jewish East Coast and the sunny, optimistic non-Jewish West Coast even further through the musical number “Remember That We Suffered,” a hora-themed, klezmer-style number in which the Bar Mitzvah party guests sing about how being happy is “selfish” and that even when celebrating, Jews are expected to acknowledge the Holocaust and the historical legacy of Jewish suffering in general.  Rebecca blames her lifelong malaise on the fact that “Jewish people’s DNA is literally imprinted with our past trauma,” and while the Bar Mitzvah concludes with a conversation between Rebecca and her Rabbi about the importance of self-love and taking responsibility for her own happiness, Rebecca’s assertion that her unhappiness stems from her Jewishness makes sense given her interactions with the series’ only other Jewish characters: Audra Levine, who, as Rebecca’s major rival, is able to find fulfillment and success in the Jewish life that Rebecca rejected when she moved to the non-Jewish haven of West Covina and who appears throughout the series as a reminder of Rebecca’s past self as a New York JAP (a term that the series uses both in dialogue and in two major musical numbers); and Naomi Bunch, who uses guilt as a weapon and capitalizes on Rebecca’s mental health issues in order to pressure her into job opportunities and romantic relationships that Naomi believes will increase her own social standing amongst the other Jewish mothers in her circle. Rebecca’s unhappiness, therefore, is an intergenerational inheritance that she can only escape by removing these archetypal Jewish women from her life and embracing a non-Jewish existence.  

This symbiotic relationship between Rebecca’s mental health and her Jewishness is troubling on multiple levels.  Most importantly, it plays into the historical connection between Jewishness and psychosis that pervaded the study of psychology in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries, a myth cultivated by racial scientists in an effort to further “other” European Jews living within assimilated European society.  Additionally, the specifically gendered villainization of Naomi and Audra, as well as Rebecca’s desire to separate herself from anything that tethers her to the women of her Jewish past, contributes to the idea put forth by Sylvia Barack Fishman that “Jewish femaleness is pictured as a kind of pathology” in American film and popular culture.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, of course, does not fully attribute Rebecca’s mental health problems to her Jewishness in the same way that European psychologists racialized the diagnosis of psychosomatic diseases like hysteria and neurasthenia in Jewish patients as “proof” of their difference.  But, by drawing a connection between Rebecca’s Jewish background and her struggle with anxiety and depression, by investing in the East Coast/West Coast dichotomy of Jewish misery and non-Jewish happiness, and by confirming the role that Rebecca’s stereotypically Jewish Mother has played in making her “crazy,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does essentially endorse the idea that there is something about the Jewish mind that sets it apart from the minds of “normal” people.  

In the middle of season three, when Rebecca is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), her perception of the world around her begins to change.  It becomes clear that much of her erratic, destructive behavior throughout seasons one and two was the result of her undiagnosed and largely untreated mental illness, and the latter half of season three and season four introduce a new Rebecca, one who still struggles with her mental health, but who is keenly aware of the fact that she needs to take responsibility for her actions.  Consequently, the series’ representations of many major and minor characters shift as it becomes clear that Rebecca’s subjective point-of-view (largely driven by her fluctuating mental health problems) shaped the way that the audience was encouraged to see her friends, colleagues, and romantic partners. As Rebecca moves forward with her treatment, her perspective becomes less skewed, and the people around her become rounder and more three-dimensional.

However, Rebecca’s post-diagnosis clarity does very little to shift her perception of Naomi or to challenge the stereotypes embodied by Audra, and the representation of both women as flat, stereotypically Jewish villains persists throughout the duration of the series.  And, since Naomi and Audra are the only conduits of Jewishness that the series provides, the fact that they remain largely unchanged puts forth the message that while Rebecca’s perception of everything else was skewed when she was struggling with her undiagnosed and untreated BPD, her negative feelings about her Jewishness were accurate and justified.  Naomi and Audra personify Jewishness in their stereotypical qualities and the negative impact that their “Jewish” behavior has on Rebecca’s life. The version of Jewish femininity that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend upholds presents Jewish women as stereotypical Jewish Mothers and Jewish-American Princesses.  And, as a Jewish woman herself, Rebecca has inherited some of these same traits. Moreover, her hysteria, anxiety, and need for control are all further exacerbated by the biological reality of her Borderline Personality Disorder.  Rebecca, Naomi, and Audra are actually very similar in nature—each of the three women are hypercompetitive, over-dramatic, manipulative, and self-centered, all of which the series portrays as characteristics that are “Jewish” in nature—but the crucial difference that sets Rebecca apart is the fact that she rejects the negative parts of herself that are coded “Jewish” while Naomi and Audra embrace them wholeheartedly.  In other words, Rebecca rejects “Jewishness” by rejecting “craziness”—her BPD is a manageable illness that she can control with therapy and self-care, but her Jewishness, and the craziness that it brings into her life, can only be controlled by suppressing it and running away from it.

Jewishness in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, then, is less of an ethnic or even cultural identity and more of a series of stereotypes underscored by the implication that there is, in fact, an innate difference between “normal” people and “hysterical” Jews.  While Rebecca is “Jewish” in the sense that she was raised by a Jewish Mother in a Jewish environment, she becomes increasingly less “Jewish” as the series goes on and she is more entrenched in her life in West Covina, more aware of the negative impact her Jewish Mother has had on her life, and more cognizant of the Jewish misery, survival instinct, and “craziness” that is her ethnic birthright.  The fact that any attempt on the part of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to explore her Jewish heritage results in a negative portrayal of Jewish femininity that draws a connection between Jewishness and misery is inherently problematic.  Furthermore, by endorsing the caricatures of the Jewish Mother and the JAP and by only exploring Rebecca’s connection to Jewishness through the lens of her toxic relationship with Naomi or through her girlhood rivalry with Audra Levine, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ultimately plays into the same stereotypes of Jewish femininity that have dictated representations of Jewish women for the past 50 years.

 

Samantha Pickette is a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston University and the intern coordinator for the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.  Her work focuses on the representation of Jewish women in American literature and popular culture, and her dissertation explores female-driven responses to the Jewish-American Princess stereotype in literature, film, and popular culture from the 1960s and 1970s.

This essay is based on an article published in Vol. 19, Issue 1 of The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies (January 2020).

HBI is currently accepting applications for our 2020 Gilda Slifka Summer Internship. Apply today.

 

 

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