Fiddler on the Roof Meets Nice Jewish Girls in The L-Word / New Voices Magazine

Jenny from the L-Word TUMBLR

Jenny from the L-Word TUMBLR

Season Two of The L-Word, Showtime’s lesbionic answer to HBO’s Sex and the City and its own male-oriented Queer as Folk, moved beyond dramatizing the sexual exploits of a group of Los Angeles friends and started tackling, of all things, Jewish identity.

Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) is the show’s darling (though insufferable) writer, a mentally unstable, Jewish, bisexual woman who uses her writing to cope with all her identity-related angst. Last winter, Jenny extended her scope beyond sexuality to uncover her own childhood trauma and, inexplicably, her grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust.

For a character obsessed with her identity, turning to Jewish heritage seems a logical move. But was Jenny truly exploring her relationship to her heritage or was she, like so many American Jews, blinded by the Holocaust as the only access to Jewishness?

In one episode, “Land Ahoy,” we see Jenny sitting at her desk creating chaotic collages of old family pictures. The scenes flash to hallucinations of fantastical carnival scenes and voice-over chanting of the Mourner’s Kaddish, while Jenny talks to herself, asking “why did Zayde lose his mind when he began to translate the Torah by hand?” The scene fades out as the klezmer soundtrack infuses a potentially emotional moment with pure kitsch.

The L-Word is not alone in its bizarre recreations of Holocaust-era trauma. In an era in which Jewish characters on television turn as many heads as a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, what kind of Jewishness is being represented? Why are imagined traumatic recurrences of the Holocaust Jenny’s only way of exploring her Jewish identity?

In her article “America, the Holocaust, and the Mass Culture of Memory: Toward a Radical Politics of Empathy,” Allison Landberg explores the phenomenon of “prosthetic memory,” wherein indirectly affected generations seem to “remember” the Holocaust as if it were part of their own histories. “Prosthetic memories,” she writes, are those that “circulate publicly [and] become part of one’s personal archive of experience, informing…one’s relationship to the present and future tenses.” So even though neither Jenny nor the average viewer lived through the Holocaust, we are all subject to the cultural” prosthetic memory” as an attempt to grapple with identity.

Though the absurdity of Jenny’s exploration of her Jewish identity differs only in degree from that of her sexuality, its implications are perilous for Jews with tenuous connections to Jewishness.

While it may be unreasonable to ask for sensitive and insightful characters on a glossy soap operalike The L-Word, its portrayal of the Holocaust as the core of Jewish identity erases the dynamic web that actually comprises the Jewish world. We want more than gas chambers and fiddles.

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