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Friday, April 25, 2014

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Long-running show tackled many Jewish themes

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Fans of the long-running Showtime series Weeds know that writer and creator Jenji Kohan isn’t afraid to pepper the show with Jewish themes. While the show has changed its flavour over the years and gained some critics, many devotees still enjoy the story about a marijuana-selling widowed mother from the suburbs and her family’s experiences.

Throughout the different webs of relationships, Kohan, who is Jewish, has managed to bring esoteric Jewish concepts into the series. Perhaps because the show is on the subscription-based Showtime network (it airs on Showcase in Canada), its Jewish essence hasn’t been widely covered, but Kohan, who considered attending rabbinical school but wasn’t permitted to do so because she’s intermarried, has taken on some controversial Jewish subjects in the past eight seasons. Here are the top Jewish references:

•Unveiling (season 1, episode 8): It’s likely that many viewers thought this was a funeral service at the cemetery, but Jewish fans recognized the ritual as the unveiling of Judah Botwin’s tombstone. Once the family returns from the cemetery, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) explains her day to the Drug Enforcement Agency agent who becomes her boyfriend: “It’s where they unveil the gravestone. It’s a Jewish thing. I know you’re thinking, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I come from Welsh stock… I’m not Jewish. My husband – he’s dead now – he was Jewish.”

The episode also tackles the controversial topic of Jewish lineage when the Orthodox rabbi tells the Botwin boys, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould), that they are not legitimately Jewish because their mother isn’t Jewish and they had never converted to Judaism.

The young Shane is hurt by the news and takes out his aggression on his wrestling opponent, whose foot he bites after yelling “Shema Yisrael!”

• Rabbinical School (season 2): Nancy’s out-of-work brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) decides the best way to keep from returning to military service will be to become a rabbi. He enrols in the fictional Hamidrash L’Torah rabbinical school, where he falls in love with the dean, the attractive Israeli, Yael Hoffman (Meital Dohan). While much of the ongoing rabbinical school experience is silly, some rather serious issues are discussed, including Andy’s theological convictions, which come up while he is writing his admissions essay.

• Euthanasia (season 4, episodes 2 and 3): The Botwins leave the Agrestic/Majestic community after it burns and relocate to the home of Nancy’s father-in-law. There they find Lenny Botwin (Albert Brooks) and his mother, Bubbie (Jo Farkas), who is hooked up to a ventilator. The Auschwitz survivor regains consciousness and asks Lenny to kill her. The Botwin men discuss the wisdom and ethics of euthanizing Bubbie, but in the end, Lenny agrees to have Nancy kill Bubbie.

•Sitting Shivah (season 4, episode 4): While shivah is one of the most well-known Jewish rituals, not many television shows have accurately portrayed it. This episode focuses entirely on the Botwin family sitting shivah for Bubbie at son Lenny’s insistence. Several laws and customs of shivah are mentioned during the episode, including the understanding that family members should not cook for themselves. A shivah candle is lit, and friends and neighbours come to pay their respect.

• Levirate Marriage (ongoing): While Andy mentions the Jewish concept of a Levirate marriage to his sister-in-law Nancy at one point in the show’s history, the theme is an ongoing one. The Torah dictates that an unmarried man must marry his brother’s widow, but that applies only if the widow has not had children. So even if the law would not apply in Nancy and Andy’s case – both because she already has children and she is not Jewish – the constant and sometimes awkward attraction between them seems continually to remind the viewer of Andy’s enjoyment and frustration over the hunt.

• Bris (season 5, episode 8): Nancy gives birth to Tijuana mayor and cartel leader Esteban Reyes’ baby boy, but the father (Demian Bichir) refuses to sign the birth certificate for fear of its effect on his political career. Andy signs the birth certificate as the boy’s father and insists on a brit for the baby, whom he promises to raise proudly as his Jewish son. At the brit, baby Stevie is given the Hebrew name Avi Melech.

Kohan has said that she’s not afraid to take on inherently Jewish concepts on the show, no matter how esoteric they may be. For the many Jewish fans of Weeds, there have been many instances of surprise and pride over the years after unpredicted mentions of a Jewish ritual or theme. As the final season comes to a close, there may just be more Jewish references to come.

Season 8, the final season, currently airing in the United States on Showtime, has not yet been scheduled by Showcase in Canada.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator and blogger. He’s president of Access Computer Technology in Michigan.

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