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Friday, June 5, 2020

‘Being Erica’ TV character transfixes Toronto Jews

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A young woman with long auburn hair sits surrounded by friends and family in her mother’s living room while holding a tiny baby on a pillow in her lap.

She is the sandek at the brit of her cousin’s son, having agreed to take on this honorary role—the one who holds the baby—to please her father, a Reform rabbi who is the mohel. But just as her father is about to perform the circumcision, the young woman faints. Her father moves in just in time, grabbing the newborn before she falls to the ground.

Meet Erica Strange, a bright and attractive Jewish woman in her early 30s living in a hip neighborhood in downtown Toronto and working in book publishing.

Erica is the fictional, time-traveling, eponymous lead character played by Erin Karpluk in the hit Canadian TV series “Being Erica.” The show begins its third season on CBC Television on Sept. 22.

With much of the character derived from the life experience of the show’s creator and executive producer, Jana Sinyor, this fictional 30-something Toronto Jew is resonating with many young Canadian Jews who see in her something of themselves.

“Erica is Jewish like I’m Jewish: It’s not in your face, but at the same time it’s not just by the way,” said Ramona Carmelly, a professional opera singer in Toronto. “You really feel her Jewishness, even though ‘Being Erica’ is not a Jewish show.”

But some Jewish viewers are irked by the Jewish portrayal of Erica. One viewer, Pearl Gropper Berman, said the laissez-faire way in which the show treats Erica’s dating non-Jewish men and her sister’s intermarriage is not representative of Canadian Jews.

“I believe the daughter of a Toronto rabbi would be more engaged in the Jewish community,” Berman said. “Toronto’s Jewish community is much more conservative, and the decision-making surrounding dating someone non-Jewish would be more prominent.”

Regardless of how accurate a portrait “Being Erica” paints of the contemporary Canadian Jew, it gives the larger Canadian viewing public some idea of what it’s like to be young and Jewish in Toronto—and that has inspired pride even among many of the show’s Jewish critics.

Rabbi Erin Polonsky of Toronto’s Temple Sinai said she watches “Being Erica” despite her disappointment with how the show handles certain Jewish topics.

Berman also admitted to liking the show despite its Jewish shortcomings.

“It’s very cool to have a character on TV who is Jewish but also smart, pretty, complicated and funny,” she said.

Sinyor, Erica’s creator, said this was intentional.

“I purposely make characters as specific as possible in every way in order for them to be universally appealing,” Sinyor told JTA. “Everyone comes from somewhere, and I chose to make Erica Jewish because that is where I come from and what I know best.”

On the show, Erica deals with the ups and downs of romantic relationships, dramas with friends and lots of family mishegas. She sees a therapist who, rather than prescribing Prozac or employing standard psychoanalysis, uses time travel to treat Erica, sending her into the past, future and alternate realities to work through her issues.

Several episodes in the first two seasons of the show had heavy doses of Jewish culture, from one set on Yom Kippur to another that flashes back to Erica’s bat mitzvah. The way Erica’s Judaism is weaved into her identity is typical of modern Canadian Jews, some fans say.

Moshe Saadon, a sound technician in the film and TV industry who also happens to be a cantor, is one of several rabbinic advisers Sinyor has used to help her stage Jewish scenes and episodes. Saadon arranged for his historic Beach Synagogue to serve as a location set, supplied religious items, and played a gabbai and a rabbi in two different episodes. In one he officiated at the intermarriage of Erica’s sister.

Saadon said he is impressed by the earnestness with which the show’s actors take on the Jewish aspects of their portrayals. Jewish cast members have helped other actors with Hebrew pronunciations.

Sinyor emphasized that she is “not speaking for Jews as a whole,” but she said the show purposely addresses Jewish issues, such as interfaith dating and opposition to circumcision.

In the brit episode, Erica tells her father in an emotional outburst, “It’s awful! You’re cutting a baby without anesthetic for no good reason. I don’t get it! I should never have agreed to participate.”

Sinyor counts herself among the small percentage of Toronto Jews who refused to have their sons circumcised.

Marci Stepak O’Connor, a Jew from Toronto now living in Montreal and married to a Catholic, says she is a fan because Erica is not complacent about her Jewishness—or anything in her life.

“Being Jewish means constantly questioning,” she said.

“Being Erica” is distributed in the United States and 85 other countries through BBC Worldwide.

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