by Jay Michaelson
On a Tuesday night in April, millions of people will gather together for the tale of four Jewish children, each of whom embodies contemporary Jewish consciousness in a different way. The evening is filled with song, multiple narratives and insights into Jewish identity. I’m talking, of course, about the award-winning Fox television series “Glee.”
For those of you not in the know, “Glee” is the TV show of the moment. At once an escapist fantasy and the most realistic depiction of high school angst this side of Claire Danes, “Glee” is also – thanks largely to co-creator Brad Falchuk, son of the current Hadassah national president – among the most “out” Jewish shows to grace the small screen. Like the show’s gay, disabled, multiethnic and differently sized kids, what’s interesting about its Jewish characters is how their difference marks them as “other,” but, precisely as it does so, includes them in a very 2011 world in which difference is the one thing we all have in common.
As it happens, the four Jewish characters in McKinley High School’s glee club map quite neatly onto the four children of the Passover Seder, and the way each of them performs his or her Jewishness shines a different light on American Jewish identity, and on the themes of the Passover holiday.
Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is the “Wise Child” – to a fault. She endlessly touts her Jewishness in one way or another, from Barbra Streisand songs to protests at Christmastime. She is also an irritating control freak, just like the unctuous Wise Child, who asks annoying, detailed questions about the statutes, laws and ordinances that God has commanded. The Haggadah obviously wants us to praise this kid, but most years I just want to slap him. Just like Rachel, he’s a know-it-all and a drama queen. “Look at me!” the Wise Child brags, just as Rachel does. Look how smart and good I am! Like Rachel in her goody-two-shoes sweaters, the Wise Child is intolerable. Rachel is a quintessential Jewish stereotype – smart, Semitic-looking, Magen-David-wearing – and yet she performs her Jewishness in the same way she performs her many solos on the show: in your face, turned up to 11. The Wise Child is the same way.
Noah “Puck” Puckerman (Mark Salling) is the “Wicked Child.” His is the most original of the Jewishnesses on “Glee,” contradicting every stereotype that Rachel serves to uphold. Puck is a bad kid: in and out of juvy, dumping geeks in trash cans and impregnating another guy’s girlfriend. He’s a big, strong kid who doesn’t act or “look Jewish” in stereotypical ways. Yet for all Puck’s badness – and maybe because of it – there’s something irresistible about him. He has his sensitive side, which he shows in his singing and in his love affair with the plus-sized Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fink), yet every time his sensitivity is revealed, it is undermined by his latest outrageous comment or action. Puck is the bad boy with whom many of us can’t help falling in love even though we know he’s bad for us.
Puck, like Rachel, is also very upfront about his Jewishness. Often this is played for laughs, since his character is so un-stereotypically Jewish that his high level of pride and Jewish knowledge seems out of place. One moment he’s insulting disabled people (in front of a disabled person), the next he’s singing Neil Diamond. As Puck says at one point, “I put the Jew in ju-vy.” Oh, and trivia fans, according to an interview in Hadassah, the Puckerman family’s Simchat Torah custom – eating Chinese food and watching “Schindler’s List” – is actually based on that of the Falchuk family.
Puck’s “wickedness” also highlights an egregious flaw in the Passover liturgy, where the wicked son is defined solely by his supposed self-exclusion from the Jewish people. The question he asks is, “Mah ha’avodah hazot lachem?”: “What is this service to you?” For this, he is to be reproached. But is the Wicked Son’s inquiry really so awful? Maybe he’s just trying to learn what meaning the Seder ritual has for someone else so that he can understand it better. To me, the wicked son is really the Listening Son. And even more outrageously, is there no other way that wickedness is manifested? Surely Puck is an example (as if we needed another) of a self-identifying Jew who is nonetheless a rasha, a wicked person. By defining wickedness solely in terms of Jewish identification, the Haggadah comes off as ethnocentric.
Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) is the “Simple Child.” He’s not unintelligent, but in terms of Jewishness, his is the simplest and the least interesting. Obviously, Artie is Jewish: Not just his name, but his brown-haired-white-guy-with-dorky-glasses nerd look marks him as stereotypically Jewish in every way Puck is not. Yet unlike Puck and Rachel, Artie hasn’t performed his Jewishness in any way whatsoever. There’s nothing to Artie’s Jewishness; it’s just there. Like the simple son, he shows up at the Seder but does little more.
For years, characters like Artie would be the only visibly Jewish ones on certain TV shows. Anyone remember Arvid (played by Dan Frischman), the nerd from the 1980s sitcom “Head of the Class”? We’re used to this character; we’ve seen him so many times. Probably Jerry Lewis invented him: the nutty, nebbishy professor who never has to say he’s Jewish, because we all know it already. There’s even another character like him on “Glee”: Jacob Ben Israel (Josh Sussman), the creepy, geeky loser who stalks Rachel. (Jacob’s not in the glee club, so he isn’t a “son” here. He’s also one of the slimiest characters on the show.)
Artie’s clichéd Jewishness might be insulting were it not juxtaposed with Rachel’s and Puck’s. As it stands, it’s another instance of how American Jewishness is performed today: vapidly, with an emptiness that leads to assimilation. Many in the institutional Jewish world think that the rebellious Puck is the problem with American Judaism today – but surely it’s the apathetic Artie who will sooner drift away from Jewish life.
Finally, Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz) is the “Child Who Does Not Know There’s a Question To Ask.” Like Artie, Tina is no dummy – but her Jewishness is completely invisible save for that double-barrel, presumably interfaith name. Because she is Asian, and because her Chinese heritage is central to her identity (she is now dating Mike Chang, the “other Asian,” and they commiserate about their ethnicity often), her Jewishness has effectively vanished. As with Artie, it’s not mentioned. The priestly name is there, but that’s as far as it goes.
This, too, is an important way that Jewishness is performed today: as absence. Most likely, Tina is Jewish according to Halacha, if we assume that Cohen is her mother’s name. (By the way, the Internet tells me that Ushkowitz herself is Catholic.) But she celebrated Christmas – as did Artie, now dating the blond “über-shiksa” Brittany Pierce – and has never responded to the Jewish comments made by Rachel and Puck. If Artie is on his way out of Jewish identity, Tina seems already gone.
At the same time, neither Artie nor Tina seems to be missing anything. There’s no hole in their lives where Jewishness used to be. In the grammar of the show, they have other distinguishing marks of “otherness”: Artie is in a wheelchair, and Tina, in addition to being Chinese, is a bit of a goth. This is true for Rachel and Puck, as well: She has two dads and is a nerd; he has a Mohawk and is a part-time juvenile delinquent. Jewishness figures into these four lives as just another optional feature of identity. It can be major, minor or entirely absent. It can be religious, cultural or even physical.
The days in which one is either In or Out are over. The binarism of Wise and Wicked, “With Us” or “Against Us,” is no longer operative in American Jewish life, even though many Jewish leaders pretend that it is. In the age of the iPod, Jewishness is one genre among many that may be incorporated into a young person’s playlist. It’s fruitless to try and lure every Jewish kid into an all-or-nothing ghetto that defies the grammar of the rest of his or her life. Rather, as on “Glee,” Jewishness is meaningful not as platform, but as content. If it resonates, it endures, and if it doesn’t, there are hundreds of other streams available.
As for me, I’ll catch “Glee” Wednesday night on Hulu. Happy Passover!
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.