I always freeze up whenever I’m asked to describe myself. From introducing myself at the beginning of each elementary school year to writing college essays in high school, I consistently clam up in confusion when forced to encompass myself in a short paragraph. While basically everyone I know has experienced this sudden sort of panic, for me, it felt different. As I got older, I came to increasingly associate my internal ambiguity with religion, something that I was constantly surrounded with in my hometown. The majority of my classmates followed different sects of Christianity, often talking in class about their church programs and trips. I, on the other hand, was a barely practicing Jewish atheist. Though there were other Jewish kids in my school, the ones I was close to were not very religiously inclined either. I wasn’t close enough with the others to discuss that aspect of our identities.
The struggle to define my own Jewish identity was mostly self-imposed as an adolescent. Certainly I was privileged to not have personally faced antisemitism in school. But my Jewishness was often treated as a punchline by myself, my friends, and my family. When I received my acceptance—with a scholarship—to an overtly Christian college in Nashville, my mother and I made sardonic comments about how religious diversity might have played a role in their offer.
Different events in history pushed me to further consider that aspect of my identity. From a young age, I was taught about World War II and the Holocaust. My grandmother often told me stories about my grandfather, who immigrated to Ellis Island from Germany as a teenager. He was rejected from the army multiple times because he was an “enemy alien,” though he ended up getting drafted anyway. Books, too, connected me to that time: Over the years, I wrote different school papers on novels about the Holocaust like Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Night by Elie Wiesel, and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
The scale and horror of the Holocaust was inescapable in the books I read for school, as well as the countless other films, TV shows, and theatrical works that came generations later. It wasn’t something that I wanted to ignore, or thought should be ignored, but I found it depressing that almost all of the Jewish stories I heard as a child all tied back to the era of World War II. When I spoke with Eddie Paul, a senior librarian at the Jewish Public Library, he explained that the trends in Jewish literature and media I was noticing were not circumstantial, but quite intentional.
“Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was, I think, a professed trend to try to define Jews as being heroic, or possibly tragic, which is just the opposite side of the same coin,” Paul said. “I think what happened in the 1930s and 1940s is what’s primarily responsible for that.”
Paul explained that a substantial amount of contemporary Jewish literature in North America focusses on the Holocaust. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, more authors seized on a trend of portraying heroic Jews, with the goal of establishing a greater sense of agency and value in Judaism. This type of media formed a common thread in my own reading, at least in terms of what kinds of Jewish stories were most accessible to me. For a long time, I was content to relate to Jewish culture through these different portraits of the Holocaust rather than try to find a more literal reflection of myself—until I learned what I was missing.
Theatre, in particular, was one of the first places that I saw and heard more modern stories of Jewish identity. While in high school, I was the sound effects operator for multiple plays, including the play Letters to Sala by Arlene Hutton. The play is based on the true story of Sala Garncarz Kirschner and her experiences in labour camps during the Holocaust, told through the letters that she wrote to her loved ones and secretly kept with her. As one of the very few Jewish kids in my school’s theatre department, I felt particularly proud to help put on and see such a powerful work. To me, theatre is one of the better mediums for cultural representation because of its fundamental intimacy, a sentiment that I realized resonated with others in the Montreal community.
“[Theatre] expands ideas of Jewish identity and it also creates opportunity for curiosity and rapprochement with other communities,” said writer and Segal Centre’s Jewish Programs Manager Sivan Slapak in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “It is a lot of the work we do at the Segal—that is, to reflect different Jewish experiences and identities in our productions, and to find common ground through the arts.”
Slapak is the Jewish Programs manager of the Segal Centre, a performing arts organization that works to present and exhibit artists from Montreal and Canada. Given their commitment to telling Jewish stories, it is no surprise that the organization also firmly stands against antisemitism. The centre also includes the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, the oldest Yiddish-language theatre in Canada.
Theatre, however, wasn’t the only place where I connected with Jewish stories. I felt a lot of kinship with certain films growing up, even if they were as historically distant as some of the novels I read in school. The 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof has long united my family even though none of us relate exactly to the story. Based on the 1964 musical of the same name, the film follows Tevye, a Jewish milkman living in an Eastern European shtetl who grapples with the marriages of his three eldest daughters while external political forces loom over the area. My brother and I often break out into bits of song and dance from the film while cooking, typically to the amusement of our parents.
As a musical and a film created to appeal to wider audiences, Fiddler on the Roof fits with the trends of stories about heroic or resilient Jewish characters. But it does it well. Although the film closely follows Tevye’s journey and reconciliations with his Jewish faith, the creators depicted the characters and plots responsibly and authentically, avoiding a descent into offensive parody.
“When the respect and commitment to authenticity is there, the portrayals work, and the story becomes universal rather than niche and ‘Other,’” said Slapak. All too often, the only stories explicitly characterized as Jewish include stereotypes and tropes like overbearing mothers, nice Jewish boys, and spoiled Jewish-American Princesses. Though these stereotypes might be rooted in fact to some degree or another, they are nevertheless reductive and should not be considered the end-all-be-all representation of a Jewish identity or community.
“Perhaps the most reliable stereotype is [...] the angst-ridden Jew, the [one] who is almost obsessed with the fetishes of identity,” Paul said. “[Stereotypical stories] might have entertainment value, but I don’t think these stereotypes are going to [last].” Despite Paul’s salient points, the so-called “angst-ridden” Jew who struggles with their identity definitely rings true when it comes to my own journey in defining my identity.
Recent films have turned more toward this trope, to varying levels of effectiveness—at least in my opinion as a somewhat angsty, identity-unsure Jewish woman. I’m thinking of 2020’s An American Pickle, starring Seth Rogen, which didn’t quite resonate with me even though the protagonist’s complicated connections with his heritage were technically familiar. Ultimately, the messaging in the film that should have made me feel the most seen were bogged down by the convoluted mix of other subplots and tones throughout the movie.
Where An American Pickle mostly failed, Shiva Baby, directed by Emma Seligman and released in the same year, more than succeeded. I had a lot in common with the main character: Religious insecurity, apathy, as well as an unclear life direction. What I love about the film is that it is unapologetically Jewish. It takes place almost entirely during a shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual where loved ones gather in the deceased’s home to find community and support. The power and resonance of the film, to me, rests on the relatability of the protagonist’s issues and the fact that her own expressions of Judaism form the backbone of the story.
Shiva Baby exemplifies a shift toward more contemporary and progressive portrayals of Jewish characters. Jewish stories are being told more explicitly than ever, explained Morton Weinfeld, a professor of sociology and the chair of Canadian Ethnic Studies at McGill in an interview with the Tribune.
“[There is] a slight tendency now to see more overt shows about Jewish issues or religion,” Weinfeld said. “Certainly if you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I do, the most recent episode was extremely Jewish [....] You would not have seen that 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.”
But what makes a story Jewish? Having Jewish characters? The broader question of what makes Jewish stories meaningful doesn’t really have an answer—though the cultural ties of geography have a large role, both for myself and for other Jewish individuals across Canada. Weinfeld noted that in the 20th century, television programming was the major source of Jewish representation in North American comedy.
“The most famous Jewish comedians were a duo named Wayne and Shuster,” Weinfeld said. “I think they held the record for the most appearances [on the Ed Sullivan Show].”
As Weinfeld recalls, Wayne and Shuster were beloved by Jews across Canada. They “had double naches,” Weinfeld said, using a Yiddish word meaning pride at the achievements of one’s children, since the duo was not just Jewish, but Canadian. “[They] made Canadian Jews feel very heard.”
Wayne and Shuster showed that meaningful representation didn’t necessarily have to involve tragedy; it could also be comedy. While the tragic stories of Jewish history are equally important to tell, it’s important to show more individuals and characters with agency and pride in their Jewishness to explore and reveal the expansive beauty of Jewish cultures to wider audiences. That, in other words, is what makes a Jewish story meaningful.
“One way to look at that is through [characters] that wrestle issues of modern Jewish life, wrestle with Jewish identity, wrestle with Jewish themes. If the answer to that is yes, then the characters are probably more relevant,” Weinfeld said.
It’s not enough, though, to just throw in Jewish people into a narrative. Weinfeld brought up television shows like Friends, which had several Jewish characters, but none of them ever had substantial plots focussing on that aspect of their identities. It’s not enough to just have characters who are explicitly Jewish in name or appearance. Their stories should involve their Jewish identity beyond the superficial.
Regardless of the medium, it’s important to tell Jewish stories that actually showcase Jewish culture. Everyone deserves to experience the naches of seeing their culture represented in media. That’s the value of storytelling.
As Paul puts it, “People remember stories. People are not going to remember dates, they’re not going to remember names of rabbis, or kings, or queens, or princes, or so on, but they’ll remember stories. So the narrative is what sustains the myth, and the myth is what sustains identity, and identity is what allows these populations to find meaning in their life.”
Hearing and telling stories have been the most important way of exploring and discovering my own sense of Jewish identity. For a long time, I felt conflicted about defining where my Judaism fits in with my identity. Because of my distinct lack of religious ties, I sometimes felt that it wasn’t a label I could fully own. But throughout the last few years of my life, I’ve started to question that belief.
I am eternally grateful for the Jewish creators—Emma Seligman, Larry David, Beanie Feldstein, and others—who have helped me feel more seen and validated in who I am, even without religion. While my identity is informed by many things—my hometown, my family, my education, among many other things—getting to live in new places, like Montreal, has been invaluable in expanding the world of Jewish culture, media, and identity for me. The media I’ve consumed has allowed me to fully see that there is no one way to be Jewish. Connecting with myself and my Jewish culture through media is a phenomenon that I will never be able to curb my enthusiasm for.
Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor