Yas Kween: Broad City, Millenials, and a New Jewishness
It is not unusual to meet someone who introduces themselves as Jewish, but immediately qualifies it with a phrase like, “But, really, only Jew-ish. I wasn’t raised very religiously.” I am certainly one of these people; we never kept kosher or even had an intentional family dinner on Friday evenings. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, we only went to synagogue at best twice a year, I didn’t know the Hebrew aleph-bet, and I hadn’t even heard of many of the more obscure Jewish holidays.
I certainly identified as Jewish, and yet I had very little knowledge or experience to ground that claim, past my grandmother’s matzoh ball recipe (we put nutmeg in ours), and a slew of cultural references about worrying mothers, bagels, and neuroticism. While I have since studied far more about Judaism, learned Hebrew, lived in Israel, kept kosher (temporarily), and generally achieved many of the benchmarks of a more traditional Jewish identity and practice, to my family’s utter bemusement, I still see my Jewish identity as primarily grounded in these cultural touchstones of shared worries, stereotypes, recipes, and jokes — as is the case for many American Jews.
The flagbearers of this cultural Jewish identity are the likes of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Their body of work focuses on sexual obsession and malfunction, discomfort with their inability to fit into a white and WASPy America, and dysfunctional families. The average American Jew, it follows, is deeply uncomfortable and deeply unhappy; in fact, that’s the very thing that makes him Jewish. Men who struggle with their masculinity, who are weak and bookish and deeply uncomfortable with themselves — smart and perhaps successful yet constantly an outsider, an Other — are the quintessential Jewish men. And while Allen, Roth, and their ilk have a heavy cultural impact on America at large, they remain misfits, defined by their constant discomfort with themselves and their surroundings. Jewish identity, then, outside of traditional religious definitions, seems based on being an outsider, forever in diaspora, and in a constant feeling of discontent and some level of societal dysfunction. The quintessential Jew is a bad Jew, for not being religious enough, and yet still a bad American for being too Jewish. They are defined by their inability to thrive and a constant struggle for an impossible authenticity in both Jewishness and Americanness.
But there seems to be a new cohort of flag bearers of American Jewish identity — women. Shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Transparent, and Broad City feature women who loudly identify as Jewish. They are clearly secular; this is not a reinvention of Jewish identity from a religious stance, reconnecting with the pride and beauty of their roots through mikveh immersions or a modern reinterpretation of shabbat, or a push against Orthodox Jewish practice with a feminist religious practice. This is a reinvention of Jewishness pushing aside the male — who has been, unsurprisingly, the center of Jewish secular identity just as much as Jewish religious identity (and the center of history in general) — and led by women. Some of these shows, like the above alongside Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel still play into these existing stereotypes of Jewish identity being intrinsically connected to pain, outsider status, and an inability to thrive. But Broad City, with its brash, unapologetically sexual, unapologetically loud, and unapologetically Jewish pair of twenty-something women in Brooklyn, is inventing a new form for Jewish identity.
Abbi and Ilana are constantly struggling — to make enough money, to survive their tiny apartments, to get fulfilling jobs, to find sexual partners who can satisfy their desires — yet they are also absolutely thriving, supporting each other, with strong communities and lives full of fun adventures. They may not know who they are, but they are comfortable in their acts of becoming, and do not seem to feel the cultural dissonance that has defined the past leaders of Jewish identity; they are comfortable being many things at once. They do not allow themselves to be held back by anything. Is this a new face of Jewish identity for our modern, millennial generation — will it displace the assumptions built by Allen and Roth? How does this play into the current cultural scene in America, generally, and what might enable this picture of Jewishness to succeed?
Cultural Jewishness is a strange animal. How can you be culturally religious, without any practice or knowledge of the religion in question? But, of course, while Judaism is certainly a religion, Jewishness is an ethnic or racial category, or has at least been treated as such for much of history — leading to discrimination, pogroms, ghettos, and the Holocaust. It comes with distinctive last names and physical stereotypes about large Jewish noses or frizzy Jewish hair. And, of course, it comes with cultural stereotypes. Those applied to Jews by outsiders are historically negative — Jews are stingy, corrupt, the men are feminine and women are mannish, both overly sexual and sexually impotent, and plenty more. Perhaps to escape persecution, or perhaps just because the secular life was appealingly freer than a world defined by strict dietary (and every other variety) laws, many Jews historically became quite assimilated and much less likely to practice traditional religion outside of major holidays, if that. But due to their racialization by the majority, as well as a constant worry about losing group identity, they never fully assimilated and managed to maintain a strong identity — but one that is more cultural than religiously based. More recently, Jewish stereotypes might include more positives, such as an association with dry wit, intellectualism, and success in medicine, law, and Hollywood. - plus strong associations with homey deli foods like brisket and bagels, and running gags about our worrying mothers. Many of these stereotypes have been accepted into the Jewish community’s own definitions of what constitutes Jewishness. The worry about maintaining a group identity has remained, but often without the strong religious practice that traditionally builds and demarcates it. So, instead, cultural Judaism was born.
There have been plenty of faces of cultural Jewishness throughout the years, but recently Allen and Roth have been the giants on the billboard for what it means to be a Jew. They are neurotic, fast talking, and self-loathing. They are New Yorkers (or from the tristate area, at least). And, they are loudly Jewish. Allen is “awkward, a bit self-loathing, void of much religious connection” in his portrayals of seminal characters such as Alvy in Annie Hall, and while he may have meant to exaggerate these characteristics, what was “ironic has become more akin to iconic” (Rosenbaum). Though times have changed, and with it the New York Jewish intellectual culture that Allen is portraying, high schoolers are still shaping their identities around his portrayal of the 1970s version. The above quote is from an article written by a high school senior, entitled Raised on Alvy Singer’s New York in which the author details the way she shaped her understanding of Jewishness around Annie Hall and other Allen films.
Philip Roth’s depictions of Jews are less aspirational, on the other hand; not that Allen’s characters are paragons of success, but he’s relatable and his movies are often seen as love letters to a certain era of New York. Roth was called an anti-Semite for his depictions of his Jewish characters, which detractors saw as reinforcing all of the most dangerous stereotypes. But regardless of how you felt about his work, it was deeply, unavoidably Jewish — by a Jew, about Jews, and overtly asking the question of what it means to be Jewish in the US. And it is the model Roth and Allen built, of miserable, neurotic, sexual, intelligent Jewishness, that still dominates the cultural scene today in shows like Transparent or Girls, or simply passing comments from friends or comedians.
But, what is actually Jewish about the culture of Jewish pain built by Roth or Allen? It’s deeply colored by Jews’ recent experience of horrible persecution — but Roth and Allen are the generation after those that went through the pain, and their work and legacy reflects this. Instead of being grateful to be alive, and drawing together in community in response to the tragedy, they are the generation that has inherited the trauma of the Holocaust; they are defined by a frustrating inability to escape the suffering of the past despite their desires to assimilate. Alvy dates the midwestern Annie Hall, and Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman has a University of Chicago degree and ballet-dancing shikse girlfriend. More contemporary examples include Rebecca Bunch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with her desire to move to and thrive in a California suburb as the only Jew they’ve ever met. And of course, there is Transparent with its constant flashbacks to the family’s Holocaust trauma and dead relatives, used to remind the viewer that all of their current family and relationship dysfunction is rooted in this inherited trauma. Nathan still fantasizes about a romance with Anne Frank and Alvy is rejected by Annie’s family, who imagine him as a Hasid at their dinner table; Aly imagines her Aunt Gittel’s lynching. Their Judaism is something to escape, yet inescapable. And it is Jewish by grounding itself deeply, unavoidable — despite characters’ best attempts to avoid it — in recent Jewish history of persecution and the Holocaust. Instead of being based in religion, this Jewish culture is one of a constant low level fear of history repeating itself, expressed in neuroticism and overbearing parents and an obsession with death or illness — all leading to an inability to assimilate or thrive.
Broad City is a comedy sitcom that, on the face of it, has been done hundreds of times before, in some form or another. It follows two twenty-something women through their early adulthood in New York City — their dating, their jobs, their foibles and adventures. It isn’t too far off from something like Friends or How I Met Your Mother in its basic concept, but its reality is far from these basic sitcoms. First of all, Broad City follows two women; male characters are sidekicks, never leads, and tend to be pastiches of a certain type: Trey, Abbi’s overly chipper gym-bro boss; Lincoln, Ilana’s easygoing pediatric dentist boyfriend; Bevers, Abbi’s annoying unofficial roommate who steals her food and never cleans. Besides this, the show is often raunchy and crass in a way that a more mainstream sitcom could never manage, and often goes into semi-hallucinatory flights of fancy in its mission to carry out various scenarios as far as they can be taken. Abbi’s trip to pick up a package from a far away depository leads her on a fanciful journey to a package witch on an island; Ilana hooks up with a woman who looks just like her.
It is this brashness and whimsy that allow the show to break out of the existing Jewish mould leaned on by everything from Seinfeld to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and birth a new Jewish identity. Abbi and Ilana are too wonky, too raunchy, and simply not wealthy enough to fulfill a Jewish-American Princess role, the only existing template for young Jewish women (the other female template, for older women, is the Nagging Mother). They are too loud, wild, and generally exuberant to fit into any the stereotypes of Jewishness that we’re used to, even for men. When they struggle, they grieve but learn from the experience, then bounce back and move on, relatively undamaged. The Judaism we are familiar with from most other representations we receive are full of self-loathing, especially after something like a breakup or being fired. But not Abbi and Ilana. They’re too happy, and too supported by their highly successful friendship.
And they’re too comfortably, healthily, uninhibitedly sexual. There is a stereotype of Jews as being sexually obsessed, yes, whether it is Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman lusting after a fantasy version of Anne Frank or the various characters of Transparent aggressively pursuing a whole catalogue of partners. But the stereotype is not just that Jews are sexually obsessed, or somehow overly sexual, but also that there is something off about their sexuality. It’s a sexual obsession, not sexual success; it’s unrealized or, alternatively, dangerous. History is peppered with “images of Jews as corrupt and corrupting sexual subjects” (Siegel, 158). Something is off about a man that lusts after a young girl who died in the Holocaust, like Roth’s Zuckerman. Or, more contemporary, we could look at Transparent. Any of the characters from this show would serve us — Maura, who is unable to remove her underwear during her sexual encounter with another partner; Josh and his age-inappropriate relationships to his older baby-sitter or younger charges; Aly, who seems unable to process her own emotions except through sex; or Sarah, who leaves a succession of partners due to her constant sexual dissatisfaction. Woody Allen’s alter ego of Alvy in Annie Hall is obsessed with women from age six, and immediately shamed for it by his teacher and classmates — “For God’s sake, Alvy, even Freud speaks of a latency period” a little girl yells, in response to his assertion that it was a “healthy sexual curiosity.” Sexuality is not allowed to be healthy, if you’re Jewish.
It’s not that either Ilana or Abbi are exactly characterized by their sexual prowess — their sexual encounters run the gamut from hysterically awful to satisfying — but instead that they are open and comfortable with their sexuality regardless of the success of the individual encounters. The failure of any given one here or there doesn’t knock them sideways. This is the source of their sexual success — no experience destroys or depresses them. Sexual deviance is praised, not a source of shame, or a proof of dysfunction. If Jews are decried as sexual deviants traditionally, then Abbi and Ilana embrace this and turn it to their own uses. When Abbi is asked to peg her crush, Jeremy, she freaks out deciding whether or not to do it — but Ilana encourages her to do so, encourages her to step outside the box of normal and explore her limits. In Broad City, operating outside the norm is not a sign of being a misfit, but instead a sign of being unique and courageous. The sexual encounter is successful and lauded not only by Ilana, but even by her family. “Good for you, for trying something new” says Ilana’s mother. Even when Abbi and Jeremy have a falling out later in the episode, Abbi’s sexual boldness still manages to bring people closer together and make them happier — Ilana and Abbi snuggle and laugh about the incident even after the breakup, and Ilana’s parents decide to try pegging too. Sexuality in Broad City is a source of connection, not alienation and boundary crossing is considered an exciting kink, not proof of sexual deviancy — a source of pride, not shame.
And all of this proud sexuality is explicitly laid overlaid with Jewishness. If Jews are going to be sexual deviants, we might as well enjoy it, proclaims Broad City. In the pegging incident, the recounting and celebration of the sexual event takes place at the shiva for Ilana’s grandmother Esther, certainly an explicitly Jewish event. And not only is Abbi’s sexuality celebrated by all there — no one seems to bat an eyelash at Ilana’s loud and joyful screaming about pegging — but Esther’s own sexual experience is part of what is being remembered joyfully by all sitting shiva. She sang at the Cotton Club and slept with Little Richard, the group reminisces, all things to brag about. “That bitch did everything she wanted” says Ilana, arguing that there’s no point in mourning Esther since her life was lived so fully and successfully.
Esther’s funeral makes clear another difference in Abbi and Ilana’s experience of the world. Their Jewishness is not rooted in the Holocaust and the Jewish history of persecution and Otherness, unlike many modern portrayals of Jewishness — even in our contemporary era, which only grows more removed from the Shoah. Transparent roots the Pfefferman’s family issues in the trauma of their ancestors fleeing the Holocaust, and the death of their great-aunt Gittel for her misfit identity — expressed both by her Jewishness and her transgender identity. “The show never allows viewers to forget that to be a Jew is to be in danger and to be a Jew who refuses heteronormativity means one is always on the brink of being killed” writes Carol Siegal. The Pfefferman family’s Jewishness is what explains their consistent failure to thrive. Similarly, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a musical number entitled “Remember That We Suffered”, placing suffering and the Holocaust at the center of Jewish identity. “Being happy is selfish” the singers declare to Rebecca, who feels unable to be fulfilled or successful due, in part, to her background — her overbearing and impossible-to-satisfy mother, another Jewish trope, and her culture and family as a whole. “The sweet and the bitter, remember that we suffered” it continues; any happiness must remain attached to the history of suffering that defines Jewish identity. Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman is held back in his artistic expression by his family and his community as they demand he only write in a way that will protect the Jewish community from persecution. They cannot ever disconnect from past Jewish oppression, and will not let Nathan do so either. Woody Allen in Annie Hall declares that life is “full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness.” Over and over, the representatives of Jewishness declare that life is quintessentially unhappy — perhaps caused by Jewish identity, perhaps a simple side effect of a Jewish outlook on life, but either way, unavoidably depressive.
Perhaps this misery was originally rooted in the history of Jewish persecution and the Holocaust, but it has taken on a life of its own. An article in The Forward, entitled What is Annie Hall’s most Jewish Scene? posits that the winner is the bookshop scene, in which Alvy recommends several books with death in the title to Annie. He explains that life is either horrible or miserable, and one should be happy to be merely miserable. The article argues that Jewish humor is not “funny despite our history but because of it.” This scene gets at the heart of Jewish comedy because Jewishness is always rooted in the darkness of life. In fact, it is saying, Jews could not be funny if they were happy — we are only funny because of the darkness that is there to make ironic light of, and without it we would have nothing to laugh about at all (though maybe also less to cry about).
But in the most Jewish moments in Broad City, such as Grandma Esther’s shiva, all we see is joy and a portrait of unadulterated success. Esther lived a life so full of joy that she doesn’t need to be mourned, even at her own funeral — the exact opposite of a constant orientation toward the Holocaust. Instead, Esther’s shiva becomes a place of laughter and celebration. The only crying features tears of joy at Abbi’s successful, pleasurable experience pegging, which is done in memory of Esther. To be beholden to one’s Jewish ancestors in Broad City means to be committed to living fully and joyfully, not tainting every act with bitterness, nor ever holding back.
Not only do Ilana and Abbi embrace whatever Jewish stereotypes might exist about sexual deviancy, but they are actually only able to access such pleasurable experiences thanks to their Jewishness. This frees them from the need to conform to the social norms that would limit them. Instead of their Jewishness being a limiting force, it is a force for expansion of experience, and a tool used to help them thrive.
This is particularly clear when comparing Ilana to Abbi. Ilana is a New York Jew, with full frizzy hair and speech patterns to match the stereotypes. Abbi, meanwhile, has a “perfect nose” and Ilana struggles to believe that she could be fully Jewish, or Jewish at all. Abbi is a “high class, WASPy Jew” who lacks much of the knowledge of Judaism that Ilana has — who doesn’t have all that much herself — and often does not fit the stereotypes of being Jewish, whether it be with regards to sexuality or ability to hustle in New York. But where a Jewish character from Roth or Allen might happily accept this ability to “pass,” Abbi nearly always wants to be more out of the norm, and more strange. In the nose incident, she insists that she is Jewish, fully, no matter how she seems. She wants to be more sexually free and experimental, more comfortable with herself — like Ilana — not more vanilla in bed. Her family is the divorced one, and she is far less close with them, much though they seem to be fine people. Ilana, on the other hand, embraces her family with all of its quirks and overbearingness, not finding them to be a burden; it is her more stereotypically Jewish family that is the healthier relationship, not the more dysfunctional one. For characters from Roth to Transparent, Jewish family is a source of inherited trauma, or feature overbearing parents that limit their children, but Ilana’s mother Bobbi is a source of fake handbags and good advice on safe sex — not abstinence, but condoms. They are fully realized and comfortable in themselves. And it is their very Jewishness that allows them to be like this. Abbi constantly strives to bring herself closer to that ideal than to the white, American, assimilated ideal that she is easily able to fit in with.
Broad City implies that Woody Allen’s depiction of Jewishness is out of date by associating him with a stuffy Florida retirement community. Of course, anti-Semitism still exists, both abroad and in the US; yet this discrimination neither exempts the Jewish community from privilege nor does it isolate them — other groups are in a similar minority, outsider position. Jewishness does not have to be a guarded place of isolation, like this retirement community Abbi and Ilana’s Jewishness is more assimilated, and yet at the same time rejects the desire to assimilate. The women want to praise misfits, as they themselves proudly are.
This seems to get to the heart of the contemporary struggle to define Jewish culture. Jews today are generally assimilated and accepted in American culture. Your average Jewish American is not discriminated against, or at least not heavily, and especially as religiosity wanes, they do not live lives that look remarkably different from non-Jews — no black hats, no kosher kitchens. Yet, now, they want to look different. Perhaps it is simply a part of the age of the hipster, in which it has become cool to be different or weird, or maybe the rise of the hipster ideals is a reaction against a mainstream that has become increasingly conservative. But Jewishness can now be a liberating difference. It is no longer as dangerous as it once was, and its very danger can be radically freeing; “identifying oneself as a ‘dirty Jew’ in the 21st century has become attractive as a means for signaling one’s opposition…to the banalities of a ‘sanitized culture’” and a way to fight for liberalism,” according to Joshua Lambert in his book Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture. “The postassimilationist, postfeminist premise of Broad City envisions a pastiche of references bent on normalizing difference rather than sameness,” taking a political stance of siding with the societal outsiders, whether they are forced to or not. Abbi and Ilana’s Jewishness embraces its outsider status, while simultaneously acknowledging that they do not need to be outsiders. It is primarily open-minded, queer, and liberal and as such supports their values as liberal, feminist New Yorkers.
Importantly, Ilana and Abbi are able to choose what Judaism means to them. Most Jews in America can likely pass as white, meaning they often don’t suffer from persecution, or not unless they out themselves. This frees the girls to choose what their Jewishness will mean and look like, and to engage in conversation with, and build on, the existing tradition of Jewishness. Whether or not it is “authentically” Jewish is a moot point; they are able to decide what is and is not an authentic fulfillment of their identities. “In modern culture, where identity is open, affirmations of the given and traditional are as much dependent on choice as more dramatic creations of new identifications and commitments…. identity, formerly objective and imposed, has become constructed and chosen — Jewish identity, like all others” (Charme). They are Jewish precisely because they loudly proclaim themselves to be, because they own their identity and their history proudly. They back it up from time to time with various cultural touchstones by way of speech patterns or scraps religious knowledge and practice — such as when both fast for Yom Kippur, keeping each other responsible via video chat. But even in these instances, they are choosing the way they manifest their Jewishness. They decide not to fast, breaking it with bagels with bacon, emphasizing their ability to decide what is and isn’t right for them in their Jewish identity. “I don’t feel bad!” Abbi proclaims after devouring her bagel and breaking her fast. This seems like a perfectly acceptable form of observance, because they have decided it is right for them, in conversation with the existing history and traditions of Jewishness.
In contrast, Transparent’s Josh expresses his Yom Kippur rebellion and struggles in life by out-of-control binge-eating non-kosher foods straight from the shelves in a grocery store; his act of flouting Jewish law and tradition is done in pain and rage, at it’s heart a destructive act to both the world around him and to himself. But one cannot imagine Abbi or Ilana rebelling through binging non-kosher goodies. They don’t feel anything good is forbidden to them, breaking their own Yom Kippur fast by eating bacon, a non-kosher food — yet completely without rage or guilt; simply because it is nourishing and delicious. Their Judaism is authentic and guilt-free in whatever form they choose to live it.
Being Jewish has become almost appealing in the millennial era. Gone is the 1950s era of conformity, picket fences, and matching lives. Instead, we have Lady Gaga and Sia as pop stars whose brands depend on their unique oddness; Lady Gaga even calls her fans her “monsters,” and means it entirely affectionately. We value self-expression and people being true to themselves, whether that be by coming out of the closet or openly acknowledging mental illness. These identities, no matter how intrinsically difficult and unpleasant they might be — such as depression or other mental health that makes day-to-day function a struggle — have become rallying cries and banners that people proudly gather under. Jewishness is the least of this generation’s issues.
And besides, the Jewish stereotypes that made Allen or Roth such misfits, however lovable, have become mainstream. Mental health issues are discussed increasingly openly, and people are proudly going to therapy; it is no longer a source of shame. Millenials are loudly and proudly neurotic; if anything, it demonstrates a true understanding of the worrying state of our world. Kink is past merely socially acceptable, almost into fashionable in some circles — a year or two ago, the popular retailer Urban Outfitters was selling stylized leather harnesses in its accessories section. Nearly all of these Jewish stereotypes are in vogue — it’s almost as though it’s in vogue to be Jewish.
Broad City does not deny the history or traditions involved in Jewish identity; they do not reject or ignore the past persecution or struggles of Jewish people, nor do they throw out the jokes and mannerisms and stereotypes that have come to frame a cultural Jewish identity in America. But, they do reframe all of this in terms of the present day. Other minorities have it worse, and Jewishness is no longer the defining struggle. They are building a Jewishness that is defined by a social orientation, a sort of cultural panache, and a wacky freedom to be Other.
There are multiple, equally authentic ways to be Jewish because there are multiple lived experiences, throughout history, in which one might live Jewishly. It’s not that the other, older forms of Jewishness are wrong or lesser, but Abbi and Ilana are living in a new paradigm — they are queer, female, Jewish millennials; their context is not the same as a straight Jewish man in the 1970s. Each is equally authentic, and perhaps was equally suited to its time and to the problems, community, or paradigm that they are trying to speak to — including, even, contemporary shows such as Transparent or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which continue to promote an image of Jewishness defined by struggle and an inability to thrive.
This context is still real today — plenty of people’s Jewishness is still defined by their relationship to the Holocaust, or to other forms of Jewish persecution, depending who their family is and where or how they were raised. Those raised religiously Jewish might have a different relationship to their cultural Jewish identity, to anxieties about legitimacy or issues like sex and intermarriage than those raised secularly. And for them, Jewishness likely does not help free them to enjoy kinky sex — even if they are free of the dominant American Protestant moral framework around sex, they’ve been raised with their own. Generally speaking, those raised religiously within Judaism will have a wildly different relationship toward what comprises their Jewish identity than a secular Jew. But the point is that all of these are legitimate ways to construct Jewish identity; the religious identity isn’t automatically more Jewish than the secular for being more religious.
In addition to sharing the same cultural history as figureheads Roth or Allen, Broad City’s cultural references include those icons themselves. It’s possible to trace the evolution of the cultural norms written into the newest player, and follow the way each builds on the next in this constant process of writing and rewriting identity in context. Broad City’s Jewishness absolutely comes from the history of Jews’ constant struggle for multiple authentic identities, whether it be during pogroms or Roth’s characters’ struggle for sexual potency. But the new generation can relate to it however they wish. “A person’s understanding of his or her identity is inauthentic when the person either denies the historical, cultural, and political contexts of that identity or denies the variety of possible ways of assuming it on an individual level. An inauthentic person, one who lives in “bad faith,” either denies the context of identities by focusing only on the generic humanity of all individuals or tries to find a transcendent essence of group identity that determines who he or she is”, writes Charme. By this logic, it is equally inauthentic to try to be as Jewish as possible, distilling it down into one supposedly “true” Jewish form coming from religious law or weighty and inescapable history, or to try to be American and assimilate. The only authentic answer is to do as Broad City has done, and unapologetically do neither.
To anyone who might argue that Broad City is nominally Jewish at best — gaining its Jewishness from a collage of holiday references and accent work — I call to stand the Talmud. This central text to Jewish practice holds as an essential tenet that there can be more than one right answer to nearly any question. There may be a dominant answer, one more often accepted, but many arguments do not resolve. The Talmud is not a work of God’s own hand, coming down to decree one way or another. It is a work by Jews, for Jews, full of unresolved arguments about what it means and what it looks like to be a Jew and live Jewishly. “Authenticity is not about finding one’s “true self” or the “real tradition” but about maintaining an honest view of the process by which we construct the identities and traditions we need to survive…Authenticity is surely not present when it is claimed to have been located, fixed, or acquired. But it may be glimpsed in moments of self-awareness of the inevitable process of deconstructing and reconstructing all cultural identities”, writes Maria Damon.
Perhaps Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer are able to access this new vision of Jewishness by being women; after all, the figureheads which anchor the idea of the Jew as neurotic and witty but miserable are all men. “As much as [Woody Allen, Larry David, and Mel Brooks] represent a Jewish voice, they represent an exclusively male voice. The hallmarks of Jewish humor — witty, cynical, paranoid, self-deprecating, intellectual — were reserved for the male comics, writers, and actors who honed the style” (Edelhart). By not being allowed into the all-boys club, maybe Broad City was more free to develop its own style. Maybe women, subject to fewer commandments in Judaism in religious life and to fewer of the presumptions of Jewishness in society, have always been more free to define their Jewish identity — though the trope of the Sexy Jewess is not new. But maybe Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobsen were simply just bold, outside-the box, intelligent thinkers.
If nothing else, Broad City participates in this historic process as much as any other Jewish work or community; they are writing a new script for what Jewishness looks like by proudly claiming the identity and constantly questioning what it means to live well. Does it mean to stand against racism? To be politically active? To have lots of sex or a monogamous relationship? To work awful jobs while pursuing passions? To question and change is innately, fundamentally Jewish, and the whole point of Broad City is following Ilana and Abbi as they do just that.
I do not intend to imply that Broad City’s Jewishness is more legitimate, authentic, or better in any way than that depicted by Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Transparent, Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or any other work by someone who identifies as Jewish that expresses their interpretation. What is remarkable is how different it is. It has managed to escape the tropes of Jewishness that have defined the genre or identity for decades, and instead represent a Jewishness that does not conform to any of the stereotypes — while still coming across completely authentically as Jewish. It is not more or less wrong to subscribe to one or the other Jewish identity. Yet isn’t it nice that Ilana and Abbi have provided a model that allows happiness, a model in which you might be able to thrive and be joyful? It’s always better to have choices.
What is cultural Jewishness, then? Whatever you make of it — whatever makes sense in your context, provided you are consciously taking the journey toward a Jewish identity, and always ready to keep changing. Cultural Jewishness is, simply put, the culture of Jews, in all its facets.
Mira Fox is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a writer covering religion and culture, in all its facets. You can find her thinking too hard about television @crazylikea_fox and on Medium.