Arts & Culture

Growing A New Breed of Jews on “Weeds”

Toward the end of the first season of Weeds, an episode begins in a rather extraordinary manner: With a close-up of an Orthodox rabbi chanting a Hebrew prayer. The camera quickly moves to the gravestone, engraved with a Magen David. … Read More

By / August 31, 2009

Toward the end of the first season of Weeds, an episode begins in a rather extraordinary manner: With a close-up of an Orthodox rabbi chanting a Hebrew prayer. The camera quickly moves to the gravestone, engraved with a Magen David.

The body in the grave is Judah Botwin, late husband of Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), the pot-dealing, mildly psychotic mom around whom the show revolves. She stands alongside the grave, with sons Shane and Silas, and her brother-in-law, Andy, all of them looking mildly uncomfortable in the crystalline California sunshine and inappropriately dressed for a religious ritual. Judah died-a heart attack during his morning run-sometime in the nebulous past, before the start of the show. His death sent the family into financial ruin and Nancy into her new, er, career path-so this clearly isn’t his funeral, but, as any Jewish viewer instantly realizes, his unveiling. The other 98 percent of the population, well, who knows what they made of this scene, because-and here’s what makes the scene and Weeds, in general, so brilliant-the writers refrain from explicating it until midway through the episode, when Nancy meets Peter Scottson, the DEA agent whom she eventually marries, at a karate tournament in which Shane is competing. Their ‘meet cute’ is Nancy explaining why Shane went crazy and bit Peter’s son while screaming the sh’ma. "We just came from his father’s unveiling," she rambles, in classic Mary-Louise Parker intonations. "Do you know what that is? It’s where they unveil the gravestone. It’s a Jewish thing. I know you’re thinking, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I come from Welsh stock…I’m not Jewish. My husband. He’s dead now. He was Jewish. "

Though the show is over-the-top and even cartoonish in its coverage of topics from evangelical Christianity to casual sex, when it comes to things Jewish, Weeds tends toward the subtlety, irreverence, and occasional iconoclasm of real life. Rather than over-explaining-or apologizing for-the inclusion of a not-immediately-recognizable religious ritual, Jenji Kohan and her team of smart writers allow the story to unfold as if unveilings-and, later, rabbinical school, the IDF, circumcision, Yiddish, Jeffrey Goldberg, and a host of other Jewish ideas and references-are as much a part of mainstream American life as, well, watching television. And that in and of itself-the lovely casualness with which the Botwin’s Jewishness (or lack of it) is simply a part of the texture of their lives-makes Weeds unusual in the deracinated world of the cathode ray tube.

In a way, that lack-the fact that Nancy isn’t Jewish, and Silas and Shane are half-Jewish (or, in the eyes of that Orthodox rabbi, not Jewish at all)-makes the show that much more realistic. Despite the best efforts of the sperm-meets-egg school of Jewish philanthropy (hello, Birthright!), intermarriage is the norm in the United States among secular Jews, and those mixed marriages (to use my mom’s term) are forging ahead–not, as the old guard likes to think, eradicating Jewish life and identity, but simply changing them. It’s telling that both of the show’s central families, the Botwins and the Hodes, are mixed and that religio-ethnic differences are barely acknowledged, much less a source of conflict. For the couples and their kids, at least. For their parents, it’s another story. Celia Hodes’s mother speaks viciously of her granddaughter Isabelle’s "Jew hair" and, conversely, Judah’s father, Lennie, introduced last season, hates his gentile daughter-in-law so much that he refuses to utter her name. Instead he calls her "not-Francie," meaning that she’s the utter opposite of the pretty Jewish doctor Judah was "supposed" to marry.

But these oldsters are represented as anything but sympathetic. Both are monsters who alienated their children with their outmoded views of the world and their general hardheadedness. All of this was part of Kohan’s vision for the show from the start, even before she knew that her heroine would be dealing pot. "There are more and more mixed marriages in this country," she told me last summer, soon after the launch of Weeds’ fourth season, which began with the Botwins fleeing to the seaside home of Judah’s famously cantankerous grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz, only to find her in a coma, being tended to by Lennie, a gambler with a serious mean streak. "I think it really reflects a reality and I like having that discussion available."

What Kohan means, of course, is that the potential conflicts of intermarriage allow her and her writers a larger bag of tricks from which to pull plot threads. However, there’s a sense in which she’s also, clearly, contributing to the larger discussion of what it means to be Jewish and American in this day and age. Toward the end of this season, Kohan pulled the Jewish card again: when Nancy’s Mexican gangster boyfriend, Esteban, refuses to put his name on the birth certificate of their newborn son, almost-a-rabbi Andy steps in and agrees to play father to the child if Nancy will agree to raise him Jewish. The baby, who doesn’t actually have a drop of Jewish blood, is given a Hebrew name. The family holds a bris, and suddenly the baby is Jewish in the eyes of everyone around him, including his enraged biological father, a Catholic. ("He’s pissed about the Jewish thing, huh?" says Andy, mildly.)

Is the child Jewish? Not in the eyes of that rabbi from the first season, or the government of Israel, but in the emergent American Jewish community, with all its confusion and contradiction, well, maybe. And we should, I think, be glad to have him.