November 17, 2018

For Jewish Scholars Analyzing TV’s ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,’ the Rest Is Commentary

Harvard University offers a “Game of Thrones”-inspired history class. UC Berkeley has a philosophy class on “The Simpsons.” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” inspires classes, academic journals and conferences, and universities are teaching classes on everything from “Star Trek” to “South Park.”

So it’s not surprising that pop culture was featured at the 2017 Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) conference — the largest annual gathering of Jewish Studies scholars in the world — perhaps most notably in “Playing with Canon: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Creative (Re)presentation and (Re)construction of Jewish Identity in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ and Ancient Jewish Textual Traditions,” featuring abstracts of five papers inspired by the CW network’s quirky musical dramedy fan favorite.

In “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” matrilineally Jewish protagonist Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom, who in 2016 won a Golden Globe for the role), a high-achieving New York lawyer with mental health issues, moves across country to West Covina in pursuit of the ex-boyfriend who made her happy as a teenager in summer camp. The series features two to three musical numbers per episode, and nary an episode elapses without some sort of Yiddish or Jewish reference.

The December AJS gathering in Boston brought together academics specializing in both contemporary and ancient Judaism to present on aspects of the show, noting some of its recurring themes as “humor, gender, intertextuality, conformity and difference/deviance.” In this “lightning session,” academics gave presentations of about seven minutes, leaving time for some clips from the show and robust discussion. About 30 people of diverse ages and genders attended, the organizers estimated.

Jennifer A. Caplan, assistant professor of religious studies at Towson University, who presented on “Rebecca Rabbah: Jewish Storytelling and Stereotype,” first became aware of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” as a space to explore Jewish themes during an American Jewish Humor class she teaches. Her students wanted to talk about one of the show’s songs, “The J.A.P. Battle Rap.” She “was amazed,” she said, to find lyrics referring to two rapping characters as competitive “Shebrews from Scarsdale,” which included phrases like “we were egged on like seder plates” and “you’re trippin’ like Birthright.”

“With our acculturation and assimilation into American society, pop culture is a comment on how Jews view themselves.” — Samantha Baskind

After Caplan participated in some online conversations about the show, adding ideas about cultural studies and humor theory, professor Shani Tzoref of the Abraham Geiger College/School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam in Germany, asked Caplan to be on the panel. Caplan then invited Jonathan Branfman, a Ph.D. candidate in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University.

“ ‘[Crazy Ex-Girlfriend]’ captures how Jewishness can shape a person’s life, feelings, relationships, sexuality and gender performance even if that person isn’t religious at all or actively pushes away their Jewish identity, like [the] ‘CEGF’ protagonist,” said Branfman. “Sometimes Jewishness isn’t only a conscious identity, but also a sense of difference — sometimes positive, sometimes stressful — that permeates a person’s whole experience of life and their way of interacting with the world.”

“For me, the most Jewish thing about the show is how real Rebecca’s journey is,” said Caplan, calling the protagonist “an excellent exemplar of what it is to navigate the world trying to figure out who you are as a woman, a professional and a Jew when you don’t come from a frum [religious] background. Rebecca’s Jewish identity is very important to her, even if she doesn’t appear to be especially observant, and I think that is an important thing to see. ‘Seinfeld’ cannot remain the image of what an ‘assimilated American Jew’ looks like because that show was nearly hostile to religion. ‘[Crazy Ex-Girlfriend]’ is not, and Rebecca values being Jewish, and I think that is so important for people, especially other millennials, to see represented.”

In Branfman’s presentation “Where’s the Bathroom?! ‘Jewing’ Race, Gender & Sexuality in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” he compared Rebecca’s attempts at achieving normative femininity with her mother’s deviant femininity, placing that discussion in another conversation about Ashkenazi American assimilation into whiteness.

Other sessions included “And in the Eighth Day, God Laughed: ‘Jewing’ Humor and Self-Deprecation in John’s Revelation and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Sarah Emanuel of Oberlin College), “Law Like Love: Rebecca’s Legal Prowess and the Jewish Legal Tradition in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Chaya Halberstam, King’s University College, University of Western Ontario) and Tzoref’s “Eros and Thanatos: Recontextualization, Gender, and the Songs of Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, and Rebecca (Bunch).”

So, why is Jewish academia embracing pop culture as a lens for study?

Eddy Portnoy, academic adviser and exhibitions curator in YIVO’s education department, said pop culture is a “useful reflection on certain aspects of Jewish society,” noting that today’s TV shows are “infused with Jewish content” and represent “a concerted effort on the part of writers to insert richer Jewish content than had existed previously.”

Mentioning that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” seems less concerned about what the audience thinks and praising “Transparent” for making “a concerted effort to hire writers and consultants to ensure accurate representation,” Portnoy noted that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is especially interesting. “Its Jewish content is critical and created by writers knowledgeable about American Jewish life and culture. It’s not entirely clear how audiences handle their commentary, but because it’s filtered through humor, it’s easier to deal with.”

Samantha Baskind, professor of art history at Cleveland State University, who edited a book about the Jewish graphic novel, said this very serious conference included pop culture because of Jews’ prominence in entertainment.

“With our acculturation and assimilation into American society,” Baskind said, “pop culture is a comment on how Jews view themselves.”