Jews have a complicated relationship with seeing ourselves on TV. “That’s not my kind of Judaism,” we might say. Or, “They pronounced those Hebrew phrases wrong.” Or, in hushed tones, “But weren’t those stereotypes a bit offensive?”
Today’s Jewish characters are more than just “Hanukkah Jewish.” They identify with Jewish culture and occasionally even Jewish observance. But many Jews still watch tentatively, afraid that something will jump out and yell “Jew!” at a volume or frequency that makes us uncomfortable.
All of this is prelude to the return of one of the Jewiest shows on TV: the widely lauded, Amazon Prime Video goldmine that is “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Season 2 became available for streaming on Dec. 5.
If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, most of your friends have loved “Mrs. Maisel,” while a few outliers have found it offensively stereotypical or were critical as to how Judaism was portrayed.
In Season 1, for example, Midge Maisel (played by non-Jewish actress Rachel Brosnahan) was jubilant about finally snagging the rabbi for a Yom Kippur break-fast meal in her home, and then she bought meat for that meal at a non-kosher butcher shop.
In Season 2, Midge and her mother, Rose, again snag the rabbi for a break-fast do-over. “We got the rabbi!” they yell on the stoop of the butcher shop, where a sign advertises the sale of pork. “We said that so loud,” Rose says. While she seems surprised, those of us who devoured last season aren’t surprised by the overall “loudness” of Midge and the people who surround her: characters who are loud, brassy, spoiled and undeniably Jewish.
Season 2 also includes, in varying doses: Tisha B’Av; Ashamnu, the listing of sins at Yom Kippur; and a Jew-by-choice demonstrating pious adherence to Jewish ritual (and annoying the Jewish-by-birth family members).
Also, the series always has a strong New York Jewish accent: not just in the cadence of the speech but in its volume and guilt-laden, sarcasm-laced content. And for Jewish geography extra credit, check the synagogue scenes to see if any of your Facebook friends are extras (at least one of mine is).
In addition to portraying Catskills culture — which it does vibrantly and hilariously, but I’m still waiting for my father to verify its accuracy — Season 2 shows that declaring one’s independence from society’s script can be a contagion. Rose, for example, reconnects with her past passion for Paris, living frugally and becoming part of the rhythm of the city. Meanwhile, her husband, Abe, lands on a path to transformation as the hold on his career and academic/professional identity begins to erode. Even Joel, who has self-defined for much of the series as Midge’s ex, finds himself on a path to becoming himself toward the end of Season 2.
As all the characters follow their respective blisses, they step away from the defined social roles they had been expected to follow. Indeed, Midge’s Season 1 declaration of independence is the catalyst for the changes that ripple through her family.
At one point, a bohemian artist (read: hopeless drunk) reminds Midge that self-actualization has a price and a reward. “If you want to do something great,” he says, “you want to take something as far as it will go, you can’t have everything. You lose family, your sense of home, but then, look at what exists.”
We’ll have to wait for Season 3 to find out how far these “renegade” characters are willing to go, and what they’re willing to sacrifice to become the person they’re only now discovering they want to be.