“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has earned rave reviews from critics and superfans for its brilliant blend of song-and-dance numbers, commitment to feminist conversation and its approach to mental illness and diagnosis.
But Jewish fans of the TV comedy are also obsessed with the main character, Rebecca Bunch (an R.B. just like genius series co-creator Rachel Bloom), whose Jewish cultural identity is out and proud in some way in nearly every episode, from mentions of kugel and Jewish guilt to remembering the Holocaust and rapping about seder plates.
Some episodes — like the season 2 show about Rebecca’s visit to a bar mitzvah with her non-Jewish boyfriend, “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” — are Jewish in an overt and central way. But other moments are more subtle.
So as this unique show heads into its series finale on April 5, here’s a look back at some of CExGF’s Jewier themes and moments.
1. Rebecca’s constant conflicts with and quest for approval from her mother, Naomi Bunch, played by Tovah Feldshuh
While some Jewish mothers might show up with chicken soup, Naomi shows up with shrill criticism and unrealistically high expectations. She even, appallingly, medicates Rebecca without her consent. In the song “Where’s the Bathroom,” Naomi rants about her daughter’s bathroom, critiques her lack of a bathmat and interrupts herself: “Oh, did you hear? A bishop in Wisconsin said something anti-Semitic; so the temple has decided to boycott cheddar cheese.” Used as a comedic aside within the number, it is also perhaps a commentary on people (from a parental generation, maybe) who react quickly (and maybe disproportionally) to anything approaching anti-Semitism.
And even as her mother wounds her with words, Rebecca is engaged in an ongoing quest to earn her mother’s affection and the family heirloom (the Garfinkel ring) that represents approval. Part of her journey is moving beyond that need and accepting her mother for who she is.
2. “Remember That We Suffered”
In the bar mitzvah episode, Rebecca visits her hometown in Westchester County, New York, and has a Jewish identity conversation with the community rabbi, played by Patti LuPone. Rabbi LuPone (technically “Rabbi Shari” … fine) explains that even in happiness, Jews always must remember the pain of the past.
“Nights like these are filled with glee; noshing, dancing, singing, wee!; But we sing in a minor key; to remember that we suffered!” Future verses criticize Jewish artists like the Beastie Boys and HAIM for not mentioning in their songs that they’re Jewish, and talk about “the sweet and the bitter; Streisand and Hitler,” while always returning to the admonishment to “remember that we suffered.” (Fun fact: this song’s previous iteration, on Bloom’s “Suck It, Christmas” album, is titled “Think About All the Dead Jews.” You’re welcome.)
3. The J.A.P. Battle
Jewish cultural references make this rap masterpiece between “two hard-as-nails Shebrews from Scarsdale … getting salty like the Dead Sea” one of the most Jewy things to appear on TV in recent memory. The rappers identify as “liberal as hell but of course I support Israel,” and diss each other by stating “Think your verse is tight?; Then you’re trippin’ like Birthright.” And that J.A.P. label is explained and then dismissed. “A Jewish American Princess; Daughters of privilege; Find that term offensive?; Too bad, yo!” It’s well-worth watching this tour de force again, listening for the “sheket b’vaka-shut-the-hell up” (in the explicit version, “hell” is replaced by another word.)
4. Rebecca presents and resists against casual and sometimes even benevolent anti-Semitic stereotyping
When Rebecca agrees to represent her sweet and lovable boss Darryl Whitefeather, he boasts that “his Jew” is better than “his wife’s Jew” (-ish lawyer) because Rebecca went to Harvard.
In another episode, a celebratory duet with her friend Paula’s father takes a brief turn when Paula’s dad says, “I like you! You barely complain for ‘a Jewish.’” At first Rebecca continues with the song, then suddenly hears it, interrupting herself with, “Wait, what about Jews?” In the next line of the song, it’s back to business, but the fact that creator Bloom writes it into the show for character Bunch to call out feels groundbreaking, especially in our current ongoing conversation about what is and isn’t anti-Semitic.
With only a few episodes left in season four, there may not be space for another full-on Jewy episode. But Jewish fans of the show expect some Jewy notes that will reach some of us, while going completely over the heads of others.
When “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is over, we’ll raise a glass to toast Bloom and whatever she does next. And immediately afterwards, we’ll remember that we suffered.