- "Where my dreidel at?":Representing Jewish Identity in Orange Is the New Black
The Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black ranks among the most watched shows available for streaming online or on cable. In June 2016, the first episode of Season 4 drew 6.7 million views in 72 hours, making it second in viewership only to HBO's popular Game of Thrones.1 It also garnered critical acclaim, receiving a Peabody Award in addition to many Golden Globe, Emmy, and Screen Actors Guild nominations and awards.2 The series is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, who served thirteen months in a minimum security women's prison in Danbury, Connecticut after her conviction on a drug-related offense she had committed ten years earlier. Created by Jenji Kohan, the series is a "dramedy" that mixes comedic touches with poignant stories based upon Piper's prison experiences and those of others she lived with and worked alongside while incarcerated. When the series debuted in 2013, it was lauded for its diverse female cast—in terms of racial, ethnic, and sexual identities—and for its sympathetic depiction of the plight of the primarily poor women who serve time behind bars.3 Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) clearly broke new ground in representing women who are rarely seen in mainstream cultural texts, especially in prominent roles. Kohan revealed in an NPR interview that she used the character of the blonde Piper—whose last name was changed to Chapman in the show and who labels herself a WASP in both her memoir and on screen—as a "Trojan Horse" in order to sell the series to Netflix executives, who green-lighted a project that began with Chapman as the lead, but quickly evolved in an inclusive direction by elevating women of color to co-starring status.4
Academic assessment of OITNB has celebrated aspects of the series, but also critiqued ways in which the show upholds stereotypes about women of color, lesbians, transwomen, and older women, and how it draws upon women's prison film conventions that objectify incarcerated female bodies, albeit at times self-knowingly.5 Less noted thus far by scholars is the prominent attention the show gives to its Jewish characters and themes.6 Though the series deserves praise for shining light on diverse female experiences, its treatment of Jews draws upon long-standing tropes. The show deploys, for [End Page 17] example, the classic construction of the interfaith relationship, seen for over a century in American culture; the enduring American television tradition of covert rather than openly Jewish identity; and reliance on the conversion narrative in portraying Jewish beliefs and rituals. These mechanisms highlight, yet also displace, the depiction of Jewishness on the series and the contributions of its Jewish creator, writers, directors, and actors.
Studies of Jewish representation in American popular culture have addressed both the presence and absence of Jewish characters and narratives. Documentation of the Jewish presence in film and television has produced assessments and generated debates about whether particular portrayals draw upon or challenge antisemitic tropes, provide realistic depictions of the Jewish-American experience, or sidestep considerations of what it means to be Jewish.7 Over time, and in tandem with emerging trends in feminist analysis and cultural studies, investigations of the representation of Jews in film and television began to also consider how particular narratives construct Jewish identity, especially in regard to gender, and explore contradictions embedded in mass cultural texts that reference Jewish experiences. Though ire, fear, outrage, and appreciation continue to motivate some research and give it urgency, analysis questioning assumptions about claims to authenticity, acknowledging diversity within Jewish communities, and drawing parallels in addition to contrasts with how a range of minorities are represented both in front of and behind the camera has provided new insights and opened up new ways of thinking about larger frameworks as well as specific texts. Nonetheless, asking whether products of the culture industry such as OITNB are "good for the Jews" remains relevant even when also taking into account a range of Jewish experiences and practices, the potential instability of identity formations, and possibilities for conflicting interpretations.