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2019 Annual Assessment

This year, three American television series have engaged with the Jewish experience in interesting ways: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-), Transparent (2014-), and Broad City (2014-2019).

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amy Sherman-Palladino) is set in the colorful New York of the 1960s and tells its story from the point of view of a young and talented upper middle class Jewish woman. On the one hand, Miriam “Midge” Maisel is the quintessential American Jewish woman. The ease with which she occupies her place in society, the confidence with which she navigates the streets of New York while buying kosher food for the post-Yom Kippur shed light on American Jewry’s integration into the larger society. Midge Maisel’s serene and family-oriented daily routine reflects American Jewry’s sense of being at home. On the other hand, the crisis precipitated by the separation from her husband Joel, who shockingly falls in love with a “shiksa” secretary, and her surprising transformation into a stand-up comedian, reflect other aspects of her life. As a woman, a Jew, and a comedian, Midge also symbolizes Jewish otherness, the sense of marginality that has preoccupied Jewish creative people in the United States and elsewhere. In this sense, Midge’s double life – typical American Jewish housewife by day, racy stand-up comic by night – represents the duality of the American Jewish experience – integration/merging versus insularity and otherness.

In contrast to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Jill Soloway’s Transparent revolves around a present-day American Jewish family. The differences between the Weissmans (Midge Maisel’s family of origin) and the Pfefferman family are great, and illuminate the Jewish integration process in the United States. While Midge Maisel embodies a robust Jewish identity and a relatively conservative orientation toward family life (alongside a feminist story of personal fulfillment), the Pfefferman family tests and breaches the boundaries of identity, embodying a liberated model of general and gender identity that also encompasses Jewish identity.

The spirit of feminism, sexual freedom, and women’s liberation are also present in the television sitcom Broad City, whose co-creators and costars are two young American Jewish comedians, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Though covering some familiar ground with its New York setting and Jewish protagonists, its contemporary feel contrasts with the 1960s of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Ilana and Abbi depict today’s twentysomething women as self-absorbed and hard put to find meaning in their lives. In one fourth-season episode they ridicule the now-common Jewish-American custom of taking lengthy and meaningful trips to Israel. Criticism is directed at US Jews who need Israel to validate their flimsy Jewish identities. Comparison reveals the major generational shift in Jewish-American attitudes toward Israel. In the 1960s Israel was regarded as a young desert nation light-years from New York. In Transparent, the Pfeffermans criticize Israel, which functions as a metaphor and a stage set for the exploration of boundaries and their shattering. Ilana and Abbi show that, in the global era, Israel is closer than eever, but not everyone embraces this closeness.

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