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Jewish Manhood on Canada’s “Rookie Blue” Series
by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
IN MY last piece for Jewish Currents I wrote about the depiction of Jewish manhood on Royal Pains (2009-2016). A contemporaneous TV show, Rookie Blue (2010-2015), shot in Toronto by a mostly Canadian crew and cast, touches on the same theme with its one Jewish character, Dov Epstein (Gregory Smith), a rookie cop who in some ways has the look and demeanor of an earnest yeshiva bokher.
This well-written, popular ABC police-in-training series (which can still be viewed) is blessed with a superb cast. The episodes are irresistible in their combination of suspense and sweetness, and can be quite moving at times.
Throughout its six seasons, Dov Epstein represents different paradigms of Jewish malehood and masculinity.
In the first season, he is depicted as overeager with firearms, somewhat vigilante, and out to prove something — an overcompensating Jew. In the very first episode, he is all too anxious to handle his revolver. “Could I take my gun home with me overnight,” writer/co-creator Tassie Cameron has him ask, “just to have it, to get used to it, to clean it?” When a woman rookie dubs the diminutive Dov “big man,” he responds seriously, “Yes, I am.” He rhapsodizes once more regarding his gun, saying that he feels “naked” without it.
Dov comes across, at this point, as a zealot. When a fellow rookie tells him that he is small for an officer, Epstein shows him that he knows self-defense moves. When Epstein encounters an escaped criminal on a university campus, a big, powerful man who has jumped out of a window like a superhero, Dov tells him, “Hey, calm down . . . I know what you’re thinking right now . . . You’re thinking you can tear my head off with your bare hands, right? You’re thinking, Where are the real cops? . . . Guess what, ass box, I am the real cops.” Dov disables the guy with a martial arts move.
Yet Dov proves himself in other, non-spiteful or macho ways. He has a natural eye for enhancing clerical cooperation at the station, and is quickly deemed “resourceful” by a superior. He is also a natural at giving others credit and at reconciling with colleagues.
In another episode, a suspect asks Dov if his parents are cops, not realizing that the question would elicit autobiographical details from a rookie who takes pride in being self-made. Dov gushes, “No, actually, my parents were hippies. They hated cops -- about the only thing they ever agreed on. I’m not supposed to be talking to you.” Later, we learn that Dov’s grandparents put him through an elite high school (which may have made him a bit of a gossip) and that he used that experience to help break a case of teenage prescription drug abuse.
Fascinated, the suspect asks, “So you went against your family’s wishes? Why was that? So you can catch a bad guy like me?” Dov responds that he always knew he wanted to be a cop: “maybe to catch bad guys, maybe just seemed like a way to help people out.” His answer gets the criminal to open up and to ask Dov to help a younger brother.
Dov can connect with others, sometimes in spite of himself. In the 2011 season opener, he is selected to fetch a heart for a transplant, though he would prefer more “action.” This straightforward assignment, aggravated to a frenzy when a female rookie, Andy (Missy Peregrym), is shot while trying to protect others at a rock concert, culminates in Dov’s recollection of his brother’s suicide, which led to his parents’ splitting “for good.” He empathetically comforts Andy by telling her that everyone else in the world will continue to lead their lives, and that she must do so, as well. He figures out how to find her shooter through Facebook and tweet. His intelligence, whether or not touted as an example of the yidishe kop, Jewish brains, is certainly highlighted by writers and producers, and not only in this episode, along with a certain sensitivity on his part. Yet the episode does end with Dov urging his roommate and best friend Chris Diaz (Travis Milne) to expel the latter’s girlfriend, rookie Gail, from the apartment shared by the three.
By the third episode of the second season, Dov had put off most of the squad with his zeal, but after a time out he can work well with others. He has a strange bond with brash, cold Gail (Charlotte Sullivan), who at one point is the only one willing to ride with him, even though Dov has tried to banish her from the apartment and, in a fit of jealous ambition, had “outed” her top brass family connections. In an unusually dangerous situation, Dov’s impetuosity saves Gail’s life as well as his own. At first she chides him for his recklessness: “Do you think you’re impressing the TOs [training officers] with this whole diving in first thing? You’re not. You’re just proving [that] you’re not ready.” But she ends up hugging him for tackling a psychotic who, they discover afterwards, had every intention of shooting them.
THE IMPLICATION of these episodes is that Dov has issues, family issues, and that he might be utilized effectively to deal with suspects or fellow rookies who have similar issues, if he does not shoot himself in the foot first, behaviorally speaking, by succumbing to overzealousness, pride, and impetuosity.
For by that second season, Dov has become the Impetuous Jew -- and at times the Deceptive Jew.
He can be deceptive even when he tries to do the right thing. When he does not like the way a man is treating a girlfriend, he violates confidentiality, and the woman reacts with hostility, falsely claiming that Dov made improper advances toward her. Appalled, feeling vulnerable, Dov asks Chris to say that Dov was in the police car even though he wasn’t. In the end, he apologizes to Chris, acknowledging that he should never have asked Chris to lie on his behalf.
Dov even tries to seduce Gail while she is dating Chris, implying to her that Chris is a simpleton. True, Dov is a bit high on painkillers that he’s taking for an injured back. But his act of betrayal extends beyond impetuosity or the effects of medication. At one point he tells Gail that the only thing wrong with his girlfriend is that she is not Gail: “I’d marry you, I would. And we’d open our presents on Christmas morning, not Christmas eve. And I’d take a desk job.” Do the pills make him forget that he is Jewish, or is he simply fantasizing, as is suggested, about being Chris? At the very least, Dov has Gail on the mind. But he does possess saving self-awareness: Describing how he succeeded at betraying a drug dealer during an undercover exercise, he announces, in front of Chris, in a kind of preliminary apology: “I made friends with someone, got him to trust me, and then when he wasn’t paying attention, stabbed him in the back. Turns out I’m pretty good at it.”
In the 2011 finale, Dov Epstein is jealous that a new rookie bonds with Chris, ostensibly because Dov feels guilty about betraying him. But to Dov’s credit he befriends that new rookie, while also re-bonding with the good-natured Chris, who has forgiven Dov, especially after the latter confesses, “I really screwed things up with Gail.”
It seems that Dov has to apologize regularly to Chris and other friends. But he may not be the only Deceptive Jew on Rookie Blue. Poor Chris may have another scheming Jewish friend, or at least another friend with a Jewish-sounding name. Chris’s best buddy from the police academy, Aaron Samuels, requests, as he has done before, that Chris lie on his behalf. Other male characters with Jewish-sounding names are also treated unflatteringly, including Gabe Lessing, a drug dealer, and Professor Mark Stern, who is deemed a bad witness because he tries to hide an addiction.
IN THE THIRD season Dov moves from Overcompensating Jew and Impetuous Jew to Guilt-Ridden Jew, always with a touch of Deceitful Jew.
The writers make a point of reiterating that Dov Epstein is Jewish. Chris is fascinated to learn that Dov’s middle name in Ezekiel, and that Epstein’s first and middle names mean “Bear With The Strength of God.” Earlier, Dov told a female officer rescuing him from a bomb that his “manly” name is Hebrew for “bear.” But Dov does not show strength of character when he wants to break up with a girlfriend: He shuns her for ten days out of guilt and avoidance, until Gail prods him to speak to her.
Do his guilt feelings simply come from a sense of being “that guy” who has “more screw-ups . . . on me” than anyone else?
At the beginning of the third season, Dov finds himself in a convenience store and face-to-face with a black young man who appears to be robbing the place. When Dov identifies himself as a policeman, the young man brandishes a revolver and Dov fires. The youth later dies in the hospital, and it would appear that there never was a weapon were it not for the fine detective work of one of Dov’s colleagues. Writer Greg Nelson does a fine job of crafting a suspenseful and poignant episode, which makes it clear that Dov is not guilty of any wrongdoing.
Dov refuses to see a psychiatrist (out of a false sense of strength?). He tries to buy groceries for the dead teen’s family. The deceased youth’s sister demands a ride from Dov, insisting that he tell her what happened when he shot her brother. He violates propriety by complying with that request and becomes emotionally, even romantically, involved with her, and is beaten up by friends of her family. A training officer suggests to Dov that dating the girl whose brother he shot and getting beaten up because of it may be a “twisted way” of dealing with what happened. Are his guilt feelings impeding his good judgment? Is this supposed to be a “Jewish” thing?
In the final two seasons, Dov becomes the paradigm for a Compassionate Jew. (After all, rabbinic lore refers to Jews as “compassionate ones and the children of compassionate ones.”) Not that Dov has not already demonstrated compassion and empathy and a capacity to connect with others: In addition to examples cited above, he had dealt firmly but kindly with an African-American superhero/police wannabe, empowering him to help the police, and with a woman in childbirth who was afraid to leave her home. Even when he comes across to Chris as a complainer, Dov provides him with valuable perspective in an awkward conversation. And Dov shows kind sympathy to Training Officer Shaw, whose wife is divorcing him becomes she loves someone else. In this episode, a female colleague describes him as possessing “a nervous energy.”
That “nervous energy” finds outlet in compassion. Dov is helpful to this female colleague in her guilt over a justified shooting, sharing with her that watching wildlife documentaries and reading certain novels helped him to sleep after he had to shoot someone. In the same episode he devises a rooftop “camping” option for Chris, who is a new parent about to bid farewell to his colleagues before accepting a position in another town.
Despite quirky preoccupations with germs and major trust issues, Dov slowly but surely brings himself to forgive his colleague-girlfriend, bubbly Chloe Price, who has been critically shot, leading, much to Dov’s shock and anger, to the appearance of the husband with whom she had a brief, impetuous marriage, and whom she had never legally divorced.
In the show’s final season, Dov’s compassion wins out over his overcompensation, impetuosity and deceptions. But we never see any kind of spiritual or moral compass in him as a Jew. He seems to have no connection to family, except to blame his brother for dying because of a drug addiction. In a pivotal episode, he tells Chris: “I love you, I do. You’re like my brother . . . You’re better than my brother. My brother was a bit of a dink.” Dov conducts the intervention for Chris that Dov was not able to do for his brother. He also shows remarkable valor and presence of mind by rescuing Chris and a wounded youngster from a gas-leak.
In a significant encounter, Gail tells Dov that the only person who regards Dov as “the rookie screw-up” is himself. Is Dov a Jew only in relation to his fellow rookies and to his mentors? Was it his job to provide “nervous energy” while they helped him to develop some of the strengths they valued in him, and to value himself?
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for thirty-five years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.