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Miss Yeshiva Girl

It’s two in the morning, and my girlfriend and I are watching another episode of “The L Word,” Showtime’s sitcom, now in its third season. We rent whole seasons at a time on DVD and then watch the episodes in marathon sessions. We are addicted to “The L Word” because it’s about lesbians. A real show! About lesbians! And we find out in the show’s second season that one of characters is even Jewish.

Jenny Schecter, played by Mia Kirshner, comes out of the closet, breaks things off with her boyfriend, has a steamy affair with an older woman, and writes short stories to explore unhappy childhood memories.

Then, during the show’s second season, Jenny slowly self-destructs. And woven right into her painful downward spiral is her connection to Judaism. The storyline begins with Jenny making a video for her mother with questions about their family history. “I would like to know if Zayde lost his mind when he began to transcribe the Torah by hand,” she asks the camera, picking up a black-and-white picture of a man and a woman, he with a long beard and skullcap and she in a modest print dress. In the background, a cantor sings a High Holy Day prayer.

From this point forward, Jenny’s Jewishness features prominently in each scene of her impending breakdown. She cries, rocks back and forth, and mumbles the prayer over Shabbat candles as she makes a scrapbook with family photos and creepy drawings. The soundtrack to painful images from her childhood is of her voice, whispering the kiddush, superimposed over a sad cello. As Jenny nears rock-bottom, she gets a job as a stripper at a seedy bar. She calls herself “Miss Yeshiva Girl” and throws her clothes to screaming men while whispered prayers and klezmer music play in her head.

This intense connection between Jewishness and trauma in Jenny’s character has made some viewers uncomfortable. The show’s creator and executive producer, llene Chaiken, says she was very deliberate about her choices. Chaiken is herself Jewish, and sees elements of her own history in Jenny’s. “I’m in no way saying Jewishness is responsible for causing trauma in Jenny’s life,” says Chaiken. “It’s about memory. It’s about the fact that as suppressed memory comes back. everything swirls together, and Jenny’s memories are dominated by her childhood, her upbringing… [which] was dominated by Judaism and Jewish imagery.” That Jenny is both the only Jewish character on the show and the only character who crashes and burns quite so spectacularly strike many as bad Jewish PR. And though it would be nice if Jenny’s painful Jewish memories were counterbalanced by another character’s well-adjusted and happy Jewish identity, Chaiken dismisses this criticism. “I don’t have an obligation to simply.. .portray all lesbians or all Jewish people in a positive way. My obligation is to tell good stories.”