The twisted Torah of Broad City
In the video, the camera cuts between two young women, in their separate apartments, talking on Skype during the last hours of what is revealed to be Yom Kippur. Both are weak from fasting. Both have a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on their respective beds.
“Okay,” says one. “We got four hours until the sun sets. We can do this!” “I don’t get this. I don’t get Yom Kippur,” says the other.
As the conversation continues, the two question the very premise of fasting, and fess up to the small sins they’ve committed during the past year (“Sometimes I pray that the subway breaks down or there’s a big disaster in midtown so I don’t have to go to work,” says one). Finally, they can stand it no longer, and talk each other into eating their sandwiches.
“And we’re still Jewish, okay? We’re still Jews!” says one of the friends.
“No, we’re not,” says the other.
If this scene offends you in any way, you are probably not going to enjoy Broad City, the Comedy Central series created by and starring the two young women in the video, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. On the other hand, this scene offends me in every possible way, and I love the show, which returns for a third season this week.
Playing two single women living in a gritty New York, Abbi and Ilana work dead-end jobs and show few ambitions other than meeting guys, smoking pot, and enjoying one another’s friendship. Abbi is looking for romance, while the polyamorous Ilana, like so many male characters in other comedies, seems content with a series of casual encounters.
One can draw a straight line from the taboo-breaking Joan Rivers to the intentionally offensive Sarah Silverman to the sexually charged women who are defining humor in the second decade of the 21st century: Jacobson and Glazer, Amy Schumer, and Lena Dunham. All were born in the 1980s, all are proud but unapologetically secular Jews who find humor in the sexual exploits, and travails, of young women.
All refer to their Jewishness casually but explicitly. In interviews, Jacobson and Glazer both refer to themselves as “culturally Jewish.” “Although my observance has dissipated, I really do love the culture and I’m proud of the culture,” Glazer told Forward. “I think growing up in NYC, any of the boroughs, makes you a double Jew and comedy makes you a triple.”
Their Millennial Jewish identities track with the 2013 Pew study. It found that while more than nine-in-10 American Jews ages 18 to 29 say they are proud to be Jewish, a third of them don’t identify with the religion. Among all the Jews surveyed by Pew, 43 percent said that having a good sense of humor is “essential” to their Jewish identity — the same percentage who said the same thing as “caring about Israel.”
Similarly, the “pick-and-choose” nature of Abbi and Ilana’s Jewish observance is typical of their generation. The women are proudly Jewish and seem to want to live up to some of Judaism’s religious obligations — including the mitzva of seeking atonement — but only within the secular cultural boundaries that they set for themselves.
The two are “good for the Jews” in that they puncture the still prevalent JAP stereotype. Although Glazer’s character is often portrayed as shallow and acquisitive, neither woman is a Brenda Patimkin, the chilly, pampered Short Hills princess from Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. Instead, they suggest a contemporary Jewish type who is confidently but indifferently Jewish, and sexually active without defining herself in relation to the men in her life. In one sense, their characters behave like Jewish men, and have more in common with another Roth character — Alexander Portnoy — than they do Brenda Patimkin.
But they are also warm and nurturing, especially toward each other. Before there were JAP jokes, there were Jewish Mother jokes. The way the two lean on and support each other (and occasionally guilt one another over food and other vices) suggests that the tradition of the Jewish Mother has not been completely abandoned.
So in one sense, watching Broad City gives a boomer like me a heady sense of what the “kids” are up to. If you want to understand the challenges of and opportunities for engaging Millennials in Jewish life, you need to watch Broad City and understand its enthusiastic Jewish fan base.
If that makes you feel like you are staring into the abyss, note that the portrayal of a specific Jewish ritual or holiday is still rare in popular entertainment, despite a preponderance of Jewish characters and situations. In that sense, the blasphemous “Yom Kippur” segment is more “Jewish” than the typical treatment of Jewish characters on TV.
I will admit, there are better — although few funnier — Jewish role models out there than Abbi and Ilana. (For starters, there is Mayim Bialik, currently speaking Yiddish in a video that’s burning up the Jewish Internet.) And yet, amid the raunch and sacrilege, I hear Abbi’s declaration — “We’re still Jewish, okay? We’re still Jews!” — and I take heart.