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Remember That We Suffered: “Crazy Ex” and Jewish Consciousness

“Crazy Ex Girlfriend” is a series created by Rachel Bloom, a Jewish-American comedian and producer, famous for her clips on feminine sexuality, Judaism, women geeks, among other topics. The song Chanukah Honey is a nice example to start with. Bloom uses a Christmas carol and converts it hilariously (warning: the clip contains sexual references as well as comparison between ritual articles and some private organs, so if that offends you, skip it):

The t.v. show first aired three years ago, and last week it was announced that shootings of the fourth and last season begun, and it’s going on air in October. In the show, Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, who’s a little bit like herself: a Jewish neurotic east coast Woody-Allen like 30 years old single woman, who has an excellent job in the best law firm and yet is so unhappy. In the beginning of the series she meets her teenage sweetheart, Josh Chan, an American of Philippine origin. She decides to quit her job and move to West Covina, California, a small suburb in the far periphery of Los Angeles – the ultimate opposite of New York. Along the series Rebecca has to deal with various difficulties, and it also includes great songs, which are the show’s main uniqueness and strength.

So what’s Jewish about “Crazy ex”? Well, what isn’t? Rebecca’s character, much like Bloom herself, is a Jewish girl, a fact that’s being stressed in every episode, especially the ones dealing with her family relationships. In the series, Rebecca is only Jewish on her mother’s side, whereas her father, who left when she was little, is a Catholic Irish. Since it is both comic and dramatic at the same time, the Jewish topics in the series are handled with Jewish humor as well, for example common stereotypes among Jews. And yet the show manages to form a meaningful insight about Jewish millennial identity. However, this is not a series about Jews, or at least – not only about Jews. First and foremost, it is a comic-dramatic show about womanhood, relationships, self-fulfillment, friendship, the absence of a father figure, and mother and daughter relationships, to name just a few.

Now let’s talk about the song Where’s the Bathroom, performed by Tovah Feldshuh, who plays Rebecca’s mother. In this episode Rebecca tries hard to please her mother, who is never satisfied, and to conceal from her that she gave up a good job and moved to a far up town just to be close to her teenage crush. The song compiles all the familiar stereotypes of the Jewish mother – babbling, taking over the conversation, never stops complaining, nagging, goes on and on about antisemitism, prays for a Jewish son in law, and grandchildren – all this 3 punch filled minutes of a delightful song.

At the end of this episode, after her mom drives her mad, Rebecca snaps at her and says she hates her because she’s half catholic. Mom says she loves her because she’s her daughter, and that she cares about her, and when Rebecca will have children she’ll understand. Rebecca replies she only wishes her children to be happy, and mom says “Happy? What’s happy? That’s a term for stupid people. I want you to survive! Our people are not about happy, we’re about survival. And that is why I am glad that you stood up to me because that means that when the Cossacks come, you can fight back.” This does not mean mother is senile or something, but rather reflects a significant state of mind. Though Rebecca’s mother represents the older generation, of Jews who carry the collective trauma of the Holocaust, for Naomi this is a real inner truth of the collective Jewish conscious. Indeed, we all know that Cossacks have nothing to do with West Covina, California, nor with the search of a lost love – this is absurdity at its best, but also an expression of the most profound collective Jewish anxiety.

Later on the show, Rebecca and her law firm decide to sue a large water corporation. Much to her surprise, the corporation is represented by her old firm in New York. To her greater surprise, the head of the opponent team turns out to be Rebecca’s Nemesis from childhood, Audra Levine, herself a Jewish-American with similar characteristics as Rebecca. The song JAP Battle describes the conflict between the two and includes numerous wits regarding the world of liberal Jewish Americans, for example puns like Sheket Bevaka-Shut the F**k Up, as well as lines implying a more complex situation, for example:

“We’re both cool with black people
‘Cause we’re liberals
Duh, progressive as hell
Though, of course, I support Israel”

These rhymed lines reflect some of the inner conflicts of American Jewry today: the affiliation to Israel, who is not considered the peak of liberalism, and the belonging of most Jews, especially New Yorkers such as Rebecca and Audra, to the liberal left in America.

The most direct and bald situation that Bloom created is found in the second season, in the episode when Rebecca and Josh go together to a Bar Mitzva of her relative from the east coast. Rebecca is moody about having to meet the family and the woman-rabbi of the synagogue, whereas Josh, who is Philippine-Catholic, is having a great time. She tries her best to prove to him how awful the whole situation is: “They made a 13-year-old boy say the Kaddish. That’s a prayer for the dead.”

The viewers realize that Rebecca has some unfinished business with her family, and she doesn’t even make an effort to reconcile with them. Then comes the perfect song Remember That We Suffered, in the Jewish Hora style. In the song, Naomi and the she-rabbi both remind Rebecca that we can celebrate – but should not forget that we suffered. Though Hitler and the holocaust are repeatedly mentioned – it is beyond funny. Think about it – Jews indeed mention their sufferings in every happy personal event, such as the Bar Mitzvah, the wedding, where they remember the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and it seems that every single moment of Jewish joy is mixed with a sad – sometime horrific – collective memory. This mixture actually constructs Jewish identity.

There’s plenty to go wild about, naturally. But Rachel Bloom, through Rebecca Bunch, gives us another alternative to cope with Jewish catastrophic day to day. There’s plenty to go wild about. There’s plenty to cry about. But there’s plenty to laugh about, too. To laugh with awareness, with an understanding that the future is not bright.

 

The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot presents: “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World” – a first comprehensive exhibition, funny and interactive. CLICK HERE

Dor Saar-Man