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  • Kaddish—The Final Frontier
  • Sara R. Horowitz (bio)

The depiction of Jewish ritual on American television stands out from ordinary TV fare. Not surprisingly, since its early popularization the culture of television in America has been vaguely Christian. Vaguely, because television programs depict a fairly secularized culture, with religion often left unstated and unobtrusive; Christian, because the dominant culture in America is Christian, and thus need not be specified. Religious markers, when they appear in the course of regular television series, are Christian, and their use implies the presumption of an audience that grasps the set of meanings associated with them—for example, the Christmas tree and carols linked with peace, love, and coming together. Jewish ritual, when it appears, puts into relief the Christianness of TV-land. Jewish difference makes apparent the unstated but presumed Christianity, and at the same time, it highlights the general absence of the Other. Infrequent enough to warrant attention, these televised moments of Judaism and Jewishness raise complex questions about the nature of the American multiculture, and the negotiation of ethnic, national, and religious identities, through the prism of Jewish exclusion and belonging.

The last two decades of the twentieth century brought greater diversity to the screen and an increased number of identifiably Jewish characters as regulars on television series.1 While situation-comedies play on popular stereotypes (such as the Jewish princess, the Jewish mother, the effeminate Jewish man), television dramas examine a set of issues relating to Jewish identity through the portrayal of the enactment of Jewish ritual. As presented on American television, these rituals mix the familiar with the alien, the ordinary with the exotic. Rare but never entirely absent, the function of televised Jewish ritual—particularly life cycle ritual—has shifted over time. Life cycle ritual—marking such events as birth, puberty, marriage, and death—couples the emotional charge universally inherent to those events with particular cultural signifiers that are also emotionally charged. Part of the impact of [End Page 49] these events obtains from the momentous life-changes that such rituals mark. Each life-cycle ritual represents a transition from one phase to another, symbolically resolving a liminal state. Birth is, after all, not only the beginning of the independent life of the infant, but also the beginning of a new phase for the adult who becomes a parent, shifting from man to father or woman to mother. Marriage similarly connotes the passage from single life to couplehood, and the transition from man to husband, or woman to wife. Death, the end of life, is, for mourners, the termination of a particular relationship with the deceased, and the concomitant change in self definition—for example, from the child of a parent to an orphan, or from a wife to a widow. Rituals focalize, carry, and discharge emotional excess. Their public nature is essential. Whether love, loss, grief, or some combination, the presence of community makes public a private state.

There is, of course, an element of artifice enfolded into life cycle events, in that ritual poses as a moment of clear transition, a resolution of liminality, a sharp division of phases whose boundaries in actuality are fuzzy. For example, even before birth, during pregnancy, parents already engage in the functions of parenthood—protection, nurturance, even education; a pregnant woman might refrain from alcoholic beverages, take special care with nutrition, play specially chosen music in proximity to the fetus. Once born, a child is still not fully "cooked," cannot be sustained without a committed caregiving adult. Parental identity, moreover, happens over time. Similarly, the loss of a parent often happens over time, the process beginning well before death and continuing long after; the relationship with an aging parent may become inverted, with the child "parenting" the parent, and the dynamics of that relationship may be ongoing and concurrent with bereavement. Thus, the emotional charge of rituals that mark such events emerges not so much because of some sense of their "importance," but because of the complexity of these transitions and their lack of clear resolution. This enduring liminality points to an instability of identity. Thus, Jewish tradition, like other cultures, has viewed life cycle events not only as celebratory, but...


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pp. 49-67
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