Playing Jewish

The Jewish Currents staff discusses Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal.

Jewish Currents
September 19, 2022

Still from Nathan Fielder's The Rehearsal

HBOMax

The Rehearsal, the new HBO reality series by comedian Nathan Fielder that recently completed its first season, begins from a modest premise: What if someone orchestrated the conditions under which you could practice for a nerve-wracking life event? But where Fielder’s previous project, the cringe comedy classic Nathan For You, mostly sticks to its simple conceit, The Rehearsal soon spirals out of control; as Fielder endeavors to manufacture every detail of his participants’ worlds, he soon winds up building a postmodern dreamscape (or nightmare) that has been aptly compared to Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder and Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York.

As Fielder shifts from mastermind to participant in the later episodes, the show suddenly turns toward an unexpected theme: Jewishness. To make sense of this curious pivot, Jewish Currents staff and Contributing Writer Raphael Magarik gathered to figure out what the show has to say about being Jewish.

Arielle Angel: How does Jewishness function on this show?

Nathan Goldman: It comes up in the most sustained way in the fifth episode. Angela, who is rehearsing for motherhood by “raising” a series of child actors with Nathan, is a fundamentalist Christian who believes that everything from Halloween to Google is satanic. Nathan is perturbed by this and decides—at the suggestion of his real-life mother, who has come to visit—that he wants to raise their fake son, Adam, with Judaism; Angela pushes back, and Nathan ends up sneaking Adam out to synagogue and to a Jewish tutor. It seems important that Jewishness only comes up because of a context that is in some way anti-Jewish. Nathan is not really interested in being Jewish for its own sake; at one point he says flatly, “I haven’t been to synagogue in a long time, because it’s very boring.” But Jewishness becomes visible and even appealing when it generates conflict, and therefore contains comedic potential.

As soon as Jewishness was explicitly named, I started seeing it everywhere: in Nathan’s passivity and nebbishiness, and even in the very premise of the show. The whole conceit of “rehearsing”—anxious deliberation without action—comes to seem Jewish.

Mari Cohen: The idea that his parents came to visit him while he was filming and were so affronted by the idea of their Jewish son raising his fake child Christian that they had to protest—it’s just an incredible piece of comedy. And crucially, it’s his mother who says it, so it’s a classic setup: the passive son who lets non-Jewish women walk all over him, and the mother who says, ”Look, this is how a family needs to be raised.” Of course, we don’t know to what extent it was unscripted.

AA: To me, the question of whether he planned all this from the beginning feels important. Because the show presents this sort of Judeopessimist view, in which antisemitism is ubiquitous and the defining feature of Jewish life, and no matter what Jews do, they’re always ultimately the victims. If he planned it, it’s parody. But if not, it’s more complicated. In that case it’s as though, as soon as he’s in rural Oregon, he can’t stop Jewishness from coming in. Suddenly, he’s encountering casual antisemitism, and therefore he has to counter it—which includes this absurd image of lighting the hannukiah in the basement in secret. But of course, he chose these people to begin with! The fact that they are devoted Christians is what makes it okay for us to laugh at them; that’s his justification for making them marks. And at the same time, he frames himself as the victim, because he’s the one experiencing antisemitism. It’s a brilliant enactment of the ways in which Jews are invested in antisemitism.

Ari Brostoff: In his review, Richard Brody mentions Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, another quasi-documentary where a cosmopolitan Jewish performer goes on the road into the hinterlands and makes fun of the people there. Borat and Nathan enact what we might see as a specifically antisemitic vision of Jewishness: A foreign presence swoops in and sets the social order on its head—maybe for profit, maybe just as a weird, quasi-satanic shtick.

The first time antisemitism comes up in The Rehearsal is in the third episode, where Nathan’s trying to help a guy in Oregon rehearse a conversation with his brother; he has to convince the brother that his girlfriend is not a “gold digger” in order to get the inheritance left by their grandfather. At one point in this rehearsal, the guy tells the actor playing the brother, “She’s not a gold digger; she’s actually more of a Jew,” meaning a penny pincher. Nathan has been observing their conversation and taking notes, and at this point he politely steps in and says, “Excuse me, that might be considered antisemitic.” And the guy says, “I don’t mean it that way, that’s just something me and my brother would say.” Nathan thinks about it and is like, “Okay, I guess that’s fair”—reasoning that, if the rehearsal is meant to simulate an actual exchange, then the participants’ prejudices are part of that.

It’s an amazing moment in part because it seems to catch Nathan by surprise—although of course one never knows—but also because of the way it calls attention to Nathan’s Jewishness, both literally and archetypally. He’s an alien who’s rehearsing what it means to be a person among real people, and he’s doing it with unlimited resources from Hollywood and New York cultural capital behind him. He’s the living embodiment of a lizard person.

NG: Wow, that gives a whole new meaning to his fake bar, Nate’s Lizard Lounge.

Nora Caplan-Bricker: The show’s Judeopessimism felt to me like a byproduct of its all-encompassing pessimism. Its underlying assumption is that the social realm is one of threat—that the only way to prevent people from hurting you and situations from blowing up in your face is to rehearse until you have perfect control. Then again, I’m tempted to read that nervousness and anxiety as Jewish—and same with the dark comedy of the way rehearsing consistently backfires, creating bigger problems than any off-the-cuff conversation could have introduced.

Raphael Magarik: For me, the moment that really read as Jewish was when we learn that they’ve been manufacturing the seasons, including blowing fake snow around Angela’s house. Nathan’s in this Irving Berlin role, creating the white Christmas for them. He’s the Jewish culture industry figure behind this goyish pastoral landscape.

AA: But he’s creating it in order to destroy it.

NG: Right, he’s creating a snow globe to inhabit. He’s arranging precisely those circumstances in which the Jew is Other.

RM: The real Judeopessimist figure is Miriam, the tutor Nathan hires to teach Adam about Jewishness, who’s a Romanian-born Israeli.

MC: Yes—and we should talk about Miriam’s big Zionist speech at the end of episode five. It’s a classic hasbara diatribe. She clearly doesn’t even know what she’s talking about, but she hits all the talking points, rattling off Israel’s accomplishments: “the Intel . . . the microchips!” I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about how they loved Miriam until the end of that episode, and then they were like, never mind.

AA: First you think she’s not a mark, and then suddenly she’s revealed to be a different kind of fundamentalist.

RM: It’s also a classic experience, where the assimilated, secularized American Jewish parent decides they want their child to have a Jewish education and tries to outsource it to a gig worker, and is made uncomfortable when it turns out that person has a radically different conception of Jewishness—often more traditional or conservative.

MC: Right. Nathan seems pretty reluctant to sign on to what she’s saying about Israel, and it’s clear he’s uncomfortable with her, and that she’s the butt of the joke at that moment. It feels like a cultural shift you can also see in Transparent and Broad City in terms of how younger Jews engage with Israel advocacy.

AB: It’s funny, the episode is cut so that Miriam’s Zionist rant comes up in the very last moment of the show, and Nathan is stammering and not replying as we cut to the credits. He says something amazingly mild, like, “It’s a controversial topic.” It’s a punchline that felt like a good snapshot of where Israel is on television right now: Hasbara can be lampooned, but it can’t be responded to, because that would go too far.

NG: I thought Miriam’s Israeliness was actually most noticeable in the scene where Nathan is bringing her to confront Angela about letting the kid be Jewish. He asks Miriam if she wants to rehearse, and she says, “No, I like to shoot from the hip.” I thought that was very diaspora Jew vs. muscle Jew: He wants to endlessly deliberate, she wants to tell this antisemite “fuck you.”

AA: Oh, I didn’t read it that way! I read her as “city Jew in rural America.” It’s hilarious how her confidence that she can convince Angela almost instantly devolves into her giving up and declaring Angela an antisemite.

MC: When Angela brings up loving that Mel Gibson movie, it’s almost too perfect. But when Miriam calls Angela an antisemite to her face, Angela insists she isn’t one—she says she just can’t accept raising a Jewish kid because Jews don’t accept Jesus. It raises the question of whether she’s an antisemite in a racial sense or just a fundamentalist Christian, and whether there’s a meaningful distinction. Is Christian exclusivity inherently antisemitic?

RM: One way this show is different from Borat is that religious Judaism is at stake, as opposed to cultural or ethnic Jewishness. It raises theological questions. In the last episode, Nathan tries to deprogram a kid who has been confused about reality through the rehearsals, and he does so by parroting back the most unsympathetic version of Christianity—that the kid should love being a Christian because Christ is the truth, and that Nathan’s going to burn in Hell because he’s not a believer. Unlike with, say, “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” here the Jewish viewer is sucked into objecting to a punishment in an afterlife we think of as strictly fictional; the religious content of the show pulls us into puzzles about belief and make-believe.

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AA: Again, I felt uncomfortable about all this Christian-baiting! And I’m a longtime Nathan Fielder stan and a big apologist for him! It feels like he’s made a decision about who we are allowed to laugh at. The only time in the whole show where I felt like he was actually being his true self was the moment when he and Angela are fighting, and he mocks her, saying, “You’re going to have to make me a list of all the things that are satanic.” Something about the way he said that conveyed his actual contempt for her belief system—which I also find ridiculous, to be clear. But he’s brought her there in order to enact his contempt.

RM: But I’m not sure the show has as much contempt for her as he does. The show represents this bleak, neoliberal world, where you sign away all your rights when you enter. What they do is explicitly circumscribed by child labor laws, which felt very Dickensian; limiting the child actors to four-hour shifts proves insufficient to protect them from emotional damage. In a way, Nathan becomes a Fagin figure, surrounded by this unnatural family of Christian kids he’s “adopted” but is also exploiting or corrupting. He has this consulting background from Nathan For You, and The Rehearsal is partly about stretching the model of business consulting to embrace all aspects of life. The Christian figures can’t be fully assimilated to that. They won’t fit. At times I even found myself rooting for Angela, because her radical faith jams the machine.

NCB: And she has his number more than anyone else does. When she walks out mid-season, she says she’s quitting in part because Nathan hasn’t truly let her be his creative collaborator. Nathan doesn’t have any rejoinder to that, and neither does the show itself. He points out that they’ve been living in her dream house, in a world made to her specifications—but really, it’s a world made to his specifications, adapting her fantasy to his use. Even when Nathan restages that final conversation with an actor playing Angela, he doesn’t really engage that critique. When he instead throws up his hands and concludes that there was nothing he could have said to make her stay, I started to wonder whether Nathan had assessed his project’s ethical gray areas as thoroughly as he seems to think he has—whether he understood it as well as Angela does.

NG: She’s also the only person who articulates unwavering principles: her theological refusal of Judaism, her refusal to sleep with Robin, an earlier potential co-parent and love interest, because they’re not married. That makes her an easy person to get predictable reactions out of, which serves the show, but also a hard person to manipulate, which undermines its whole frame. Ultimately she leaves the show altogether—and while even that choice gets reassimilated into the narrative, it’s still the most dramatic disruption anyone is capable of here.

RM: It sometimes feels as if Angela’s Christianity is an authentic and sincere belief, whereas Judaism is a hall-of-mirrors performance. I’m thinking of the basement Hanukkah moment, where Nathan is essentially teaching his fake son to be a Marrano, a convert to Christianity who practices Judaism secretly. But the kid is not actually Jewish; he’s a fake Marrano. (And because of the rehearsal’s simulated, compressed timeline, it may not even really be Hanukkah.) The part of me that does not feel like this show is Judeopessimist actually feels like that’s positive: Jewishness as an endless, ongoing performance, turtles all the way down.

AA: That’s positive to you? The whole performance rests on the lachrymose view of Jewish history, that everyone is an antisemite, so to become Jewish is to live in a situation where you might have to pretend not to be.

RM: That’s certainly lachrymose to Miriam. But when the historian Salo Baron took aim at what he called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” his point wasn’t only that this view overlooked moments of relative prosperity. It was also that living on the margins of Christian society isn’t always the end of the world: It can also involve a certain amount of game-playing about your identity; it can even feel pleasurable and fun.

Take the moment where Nathan’s pouring water over the kid’s clothes to fool Angela into thinking he was at swimming lessons rather than studying Judaism. In that moment, he gets a fake baptism, or maybe the fictional pool is a mikvah and it’s a conversion to Judaism—that isn’t lachrymose, it’s hilarious. It’s not a depressing view of Jewishness to imagine it as a parodic play-religion alongside a ridiculously serious one.

NG: I agree. The delight of the show as a whole is seeing the infinite layers of artifice—Jewishness as hermeneutic abundance, as a surplus of socially enacted, manipulable meaning. But at the same time, real people get hurt. That’s both what makes it ethically fraught and what gives it stakes, which is what makes it art. You could say the same about religion.

NCB: One of the show’s big questions is whether you can manufacture an emotional experience. Nathan decides that his rehearsals are incomplete if they don’t also generate the feelings that will accompany the real encounter, so that his subjects can practice those as well. The whole premise of the question is kind of ridiculous, because of course you can produce an emotion outside the context of lived experience—that’s what art does. The mundanity of that kind of speculative feeling adds to the comedy of Nathan approaching this like a scientific problem, attempting to engineer situations that exactly parallel his subjects’ real lives.

In his own case, Nathan wants to find a way to access the feeling of parenthood—and, increasingly as the show goes on, the feeling of Jewishness. At one point, the actress he hires to play Angela tells Nathan he’ll never feel anything—an opinion he also attributes to the real Angela—and it seems like the most devastating thing she could have said to him. But in the final moments of the series, it seems that Nathan does access the feeling of fatherhood. Jessica Winter writes about how, even if that moment is scripted, it seems on some level to feel real to Nathan: His ears turn red, his voice catches. The question of whether you can infuse a prefabricated identity with personal feeling never gets answered in the context of Jewishness as explicitly as it does in the context of fatherhood—but maybe that moment is the show’s answer for both.

NG: Even if the show doesn’t answer it in terms of Judaism, it’s ultimately a question about practice in a religious sense. Angela says over and over that she rejects Judaism “as a faith,” but Judaism is less about faith than about ritual. It’s a version of the same question about acting or rehearsing: Can the simple act of doing certain things over and over generate meaning?

AA: Right, one way of thinking about the difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christianity is about a profession of faith—you accept Jesus and you are a Christian—whereas with Judaism, it’s like, we’ll do the things—maybe we’ll feel faith or maybe we won’t, but we’ll keep doing them. So it’s interesting that Nathan’s trying to feel his way into the practice, and that he has a lot more trouble getting Angela to do so—not only with Judaism but also with the rehearsal itself.

AB: It’s almost like Judaism is the prize that you get for acting as a Jew. One of the things he’s trying to perform is Jewishness itself; he’s acting as a Jew all along, but it takes his mother’s suggestion to prompt him into living an identifiably Jewish life. For him to come into Jewishness requires him to be told both that he can’t do it and that he should do it. Those two things together produce a game, and he loves a game, so then he gets to be Jewish.