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I Don’t Care. I Love It.

October 15, 2013 – 10:16 am5 Comments

girls3By Arielle Perlow:

For the 10 weeks the second season of Girls aired this year, the TV show was the topic of conversation at my shul (www.shira.org.au). There are certainly many superficially Jewish components of Girls.

One of the Girls is named Shoshana Shapiro and 30 seconds of air-time is devoted to a description of a Camp Ramah kitchen raid. But the aspects of Girls informed by Judaism run deeper than those. Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham (a la Dennis Waterman of Little Britain), is set in Brooklyn, New York, following four twenty-something girls and their guys as they try and establish themselves in the City.

In the first episode, Hannah Horvath, an aspiring essayist played by Dunham, is told by her parents that they are cutting her off financially: “No. More. Money.” In response, Hannah shows up to her parents’ hotel room, high, and declares that she may be the voice of her generation. “Or at least a voice, of a generation.”

Following the show’s release, Dunham was criticised for portraying the white, privileged world of Girls. In an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Grose, Dunham addressed this criticism. “I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.”

The experience that Dunham can and does speak to with authenticity is her own. Within this, Dunham often returns to the idea of being half-Jewish. Earlier this year, Dunham presented a Purim Spiel at the Jewish Museum Purim Ball. Before she began her spiel, Dunham warned, “If anything I say offends you, please don’t fucking tweet it. It’s going to be so stressful for me and I was told to come here and make jokes about Jews. I’m a Jew, it’s all coming from a really good place.”

Yet, during the spiel, where she tells the story of Purim as experienced by a six year girl, Dunham remarks “I suppose I’m Jewish, depending which way you look at things. For instance, my mother is Jewish, and you are a Jew if your mother is one too — at least that’s what the Jews say.” Here, she precisely articulates that disconnect between aspiration and reality; striving to be the perfect version of yourself, and sometimes forgetting that you are nowhere near your goal is a core theme in Girls.

Hannah is “busy trying to become who [she is].” She at once sees herself as a talented essayist and as someone who believes that no one could ever hate her as much as she hates herself. Similarly, her best friend, Marnie sees herself as being sophisticated and making her way in the art world, but continually tries too hard , attending a warehouse party wearing cringe-worthy bar mitzvah-appropriate clothing.

Conversely, much of halakhic Judaism is seemingly binary: Jews are told that they must perform certain mitzvoth in certain situations. But this paradigm often results in a gap between the mitzvoth we believe ourselves obligated to fulfil and the mitzvoth we actually fulfil; between the way in which we believe the mitzvoth should be performed and the way we actually perform the mitzvoth. As in the world of Girls, in the world of halakhic Judaism, there is often a tension between how we see ourselves, what we are and what we believe we can be. To give an example that would horrify Hannah: we may be Jews who believe that we should say a blessing before eating food, but we may actually only say a blessing on certain occasions, if at all (or maybe we gorge ourselves standing next to our parents’ open fridge) . In this way, Girls is a deeply Jewish TV show and perhaps, a voice of a religion.

Ari Perlow will be speaking on a panel about Girls at Limmud Fest, which is happening this year from November 22-24. http://www.limmudfest2013.com/

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