Alright. Since I’m apparently making it my mission to get everyone to watch Crazy Ex Girlfriend, I’ve gotta finally tackle the part nearest and dearest to my heart. A few months ago I wrote about the oddities of jewish representation in media. Namely, that even in its heavily limited representation, only male characters were allowed to actually evince jewishness, while women were toned down to more of a “jewish in name only” character. Where are all my Yiddish-speaking, ball-busting, overbearing, intensely anxious jewish women at?
Well, many of you told me where in the comments section: in Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where the goddamn protagonist is not only unabashedly jewish, but her entire character is informed by her very fractured and messed up relationship with the jewish mother to end all jewish mothers.
Naturally, I was skeptical. Then I watched the pilot episode. From Darryl telling Rebecca she didn’t look jewish because of that “little button” nose of hers, to Rebecca’s mother (Naomi) yelling at her on the phone about how this better not have been another suicide stunt of hers since that was very inconvenient (dark!), to even just the general neurosis Rachel Bloom evinced in her acting… Yes. It was spot on and perfect, and something I never knew I needed to see.
Wait, wasn’t that Kate Kane for me too? Yeah, you don’t have to do too much digging around here to see that I’ve been clinging to every single one of the Batwoman’s ‘vey iz’mir’s’, because that is how stupidly rare authentic female jewish representation is (and how damn skilled Bennett is at writing it). However, and I mean no offense to Kate…there’s something just a tad more relatable about Rebecca. You know, it’s a driven, type-A, miserable lawyer who leaves a job to impulsively pursue an old flame out of a desperate attempt to find happiness, as opposed to a military-trained vigilante fighting global wars (even if she, too, has flaws we understand). Though in fairness, I really am no more likely to move to the Inland Empire as I am to take up the cape, now that I think about it.
Still, that’s the thing. Crazy Ex Girlfriend has always been a story about Rebecca trying to find her place in life, and doing so while lacking traditional heroic qualities. The mental health aspect of her journey has been masterful to see unfold, but I should note something: her jewishness is not separable from that journey.
Being jewish, particularly a white jew in America today, is…complicated to say the least. I can’t speak for all of us, though I can note some commonalities I’ve at least found. There’s sort of a sense of always being hit from both sides; we’re simultaneously discriminated against and privileged. We’re criticized politically across the spectrum at best (we’ve seen at worst a bit too much lately). There’s a kind of inherited anger, which given the generations of cultural scars coupled with a strong emphasis on oral tradition/remembrance, is kind of inevitable. And then there’s this sort of mentality of overachievement stemming from survival. The values placed on us tend to prioritize hard work as a pathway to making ourselves indisposable to the world that at large has, well, wanted to dispose of us. Because the shoe always drops on, eventually, so you better prepare.
I should note my own experiences as a jew is rather atypical. The town I grew up in had exactly one other jewish family, I have a non-jewish father, and I was raised secular, only having stepped in a synagogue for my cousins’ bat and bar mitzvahs. While I’m currently on a trajectory where that last bit will change, what I’m trying to say is that I grew up feeling as though I didn’t understand anything about jewish culture at large. And yet somehow…I still experienced it; these values were pounded into my head, and every single joke made at the expense of the Scarsdale community on Crazy Ex Girlfriend was, incredibly enough, immediately accessible and understandable to me.
It’s not just that the show provides an authentic portrayal of jewish women. It’s that it’s a brazen portrayal in every aspect. It’s in the damn fiber of every episode. It’s how Rebecca Bunch navigates the world.
God, it’s just the way she talks. A sharp and fast honing in on details, or her the logorrhea-filled ramblings when she’s cornered. Even small things, like saying “ich” (with the ‘ch’ as a guttural noise) when she’s voicing displeasure. I understand it’s what Rachel Bloom brings to the role, as well as her very jewish writing team, but never would I have expected a show like this to actually be picked up. This…exists??
There’s a “JAP battle.” A JAP Battle. For those unaware, the abbreviation stands for “jewish American princess,” a common stereotype for spoiled, affluent jewish women (well…usually older teenagers or young adults). And lo and behold, Rebecca faces off with her nemesis from back home dropping lyrics about common stereotypes, Israeli political commentary, Hebrew puns, and references to multiple jewish organizations.
Truly though, it’s Rebecca’s relationship with her mother that puts the icing on the cake of this representation. Look. The overbearing, intractable jewish mother is 100% a stereotype, and of course there are jewish mothers who are incredibly warm and kind-hearted. I’ve even met one, and she makes a pretty rad acorn squash dish.
However at the same time, holy guilt-tripping, poop-fixated, boundary-violating hell. Naomi Bunch simply oozes jewishness, and it’s in ways I didn’t even understand anyone else would have experienced. From the second she bursts onto the screen, demanding to know where the bathroom is in lieu of a “hello,” every single damn line was something I’ve heard before. After all, as a jewish mother there’s two things she always has: indigestion and all the answers.
It’s really the last bit that makes the relationship spring to life. Rebecca is desperate to please her mother, at the same time understanding that her negativity isn’t constructive to be around, and that she has to take ownership of her own life. At the same time, Naomi can see what Rebecca needs, if only she can force her will onto her. It’s something that’s absolutely relatable for gentile viewers, but for it to be set against Rebecca hiding Christmas decorations (a holiday she considers happy, unlike anything jewish), Naomi bemoaning what must be five pounds of lox as not being enough for Josh to eat on a plane, and the entirety of the song “Maybe She’s Not Such A Heinous Bitch After All,” it becomes something so close-to-home it’s just shy of a personal attack.
Crazy Ex Girlfriend may only have a handful of episodes where Rebecca’s jewishness is purposely put in the spotlight, but much like her mental illness, there’s never a moment where it isn’t fully palpable. Because really, why wouldn’t it be? That’s the question other shows with jewish characters have to answer; meanwhile, I’ll be fully happy having at least one unabashedly jewish woman on my screen.