Jewish jokes fill just a few minutes of GLOW, a Netflix show about female wrestlers in the 1980s, but they made for a central episode arc: Alison Brie’s character decides she wants to learn as much about Russian culture as she can, so she attends the bris of an 18-year-old Russian immigrant.
“In Russia, it wasn’t option,” the poor schmuck’s relative explains to her. “We had to live in secret. Now he is in America; he gets to be who he is.” If Russia is so bad to Jews, why did the government let the boy leave the country at all? As the man says earlier, “Russia likes Jews at least slightly more than fa–ots.”
Blunt and offensive, funny with echoes of truth. This is trademark Jenji Kohan, an executive producer of the series, whose golden touch is proving more powerful with each show she gets involved in.
It’s worth noting that the Jewish gags in GLOW are constrained entirely to the sixth episode, the only one written by Kohan. I can’t say which came first, her story input or the Jewish slant, but it doesn’t matter; her Jewish influence is no coincidence.
Kohan is the driving force behind Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, and while neither show is as Jew-dominated as, say, Transparent or even Broad City, they still featured Jewish themes, characters and moments. The rabbi in Weeds played a hefty moral role, while Lolly’s second-season introduction in Orange created a whole host of story opportunities revolving around kosher meals and religious conversion.
But what’s striking from a Jewish perspective is how quietly Kohan’s religion permeates her work. This isn’t the case for our most famous Jewish comedy show creators: Simon Rich, Rachel Bloom, Larry David, Amy Schumer, the Broad City duo – all these mainstream Jewish representations, all writing main characters who are inevitably, neurotically Jewish. Their Jews are, let’s say, conventionally, even expectedly, Jewish.
Just to be clear, this isn’t surprising, or even bad. Comedians are going to draw from their lived experiences. (God knows Larry David does.) But while all these comics are distinct Jewish icons, none strike me as particularly religious. I’d be surprised if Schumer goes to shul.
But Kohan’s characters are different. They aren’t super-Jewish, and the Jewish jokes are often restricted to moments and subplots.
Why would this be? I have a theory. Unlike other show runners and creators, Kohan is more than just “culturally Jewish.” Her family spends High Holidays at synagogue, they enjoy Shabbat dinners together, her husband converted to Judaism, she’s studied the Talmud as an adult. She’s religious and takes Judaism more seriously, I suspect, than many celebrity Jews.
It is for these reasons, perhaps, that she feels less compelled to make a farce of it. Her representations tend to be more nuanced, subtly integrated and authentically Jewish than most. This isn’t to say someone like Rachel Bloom writes worse representations of us, just that Kohan’s characters tend to be more thoughtful.
Now, I recognize the comparison isn’t totally fair. The aforementioned names make flat-out comedies, while Kohan’s style injects more drama into the mix. But she’s not writing Transparent here. Her esthetic is still light and goofy. Her shows are mainstream and funny, yet somehow she’s also never banked on stereotypes without some thoughtful justification.
“You want an easy answer?” asks Rabbi David Bloom in Weeds. “Go Jesus, go Allah, go atheist. I’m a Jew. My obligation is to wrestle, it’s to engage. It’s not just to simply, blindly believe.”
And those few lines in GLOW, while fleeting, ring true. They touch on a real predicament for Russian Jewish immigrants during the Cold War. There isn’t much else about the show that appeals specifically to the Tribe. Aside from starring the maternally Jewish Alison Brie and nebbish-as-they-come Marc Maron, the connection is slight.
Of course, that scene at the bris is followed up by the 18-year-old mistaking Brie for a singer who’s going to emulate Barbra Streisand in Yentl. Brie obliges, and all the Russians gather around in joy. It’s the lone Jewish example from a show that indulges in all manner of broadly offensive stereotypes when these women take the stage and wrestle. After all, when in front of a crowd, stereotypes are easier than real life.