Netflix Through a Jewish Lens
The following was a syllabus constructed for a course exploring the way Jewish themes are found on Netflix, and what it means to watch television with an eye tuned to learn about Jewish identity.
Netflix Through a Jewish Lens
Introduction: Judaism is easy to see when we are in our congregations or at the JCC. But when can we see Jewish ideas and morals reflected in less obvious places? Is it possible to see Judaism at school, at work, in real life? Is it possible that I can see my Judaism reflected in the TV shows I watch on Netflix?
Over the course of this semester, we will be taking a look at episodes of popular TV shows, attempting to find Jewish messages and themes. Some will make us laugh, some will make us frustrated, but all will make us think. I invite you to begin to see the places in TV that feel Jewish, and to begin to notice those same ideas, concepts, and values playing out in your life every day.
Class 1: Welcome, clips from Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Objective: This class will serve as a frame for exploring what it means to watch TV through the lens of Jewish tradition and history. Our goal, over the next several weeks, is to take the passive activity of consuming media and transforming it into an act of Jewish identity exploration.
Class 2: Friends (The One With the Holiday Armadillo, Season 7, Episode 10)
Essential question: How does religion play an impact in this episode?
Objective: In this episode, characters are confronted with the need to process what it means to have a multi-faith identity. By watching the way Jewish tradition is experienced in the episode, a viewer is able to think critically about what it means for them to have Jewish experiences during the holiday season, and what it means to put those moments into context with the other traditions and heritages we find in American culture.
Class 3: New Girl (Sister, Season 3, Episode 16)
Essential Question: What makes an episode of TV Jewish?
Objective: Sometimes, a TV show will use Judaism as a kind of “theme” for an episode. In the case of this episode of New Girl, Jewish values have very little to do with the goals of the show. Instead, this is a reflection of Judaism done poorly on television, allowing Jewish ideas and practices serve as a setting for hijinx, rather than an actually meaningful discussion of Judaism.
Class 4: The West Wing (Take the Sabbath Day, Season 1, Episode 14)
Essential question: What does it mean to use faith to make an ethical decision?
Objective: The West Wing engages in a conversation about what it means to use religion as a backdrop for moral decision making in modern times. This episode invites viewers to consider how they themselves bring their Jewish tradition and values into their day-to-day decision making.
Class 5: Parks and Recreation (Article 2, Season 5, Episode 19)
Essential question: How do we value tradition in the modern world?
Objective: We have a received tradition, but as Reform Jews, we are also comfortable exploring how to update those decisions to reflect our modern values. In this episode, Parks and Recreation explores what it means to take our texts seriously without reading them literally.
Class 6: Grace and Frankie (The Wish, Season 2, Episode 1)
Essential question: What was obviously Jewish and what was subtly Jewish here?
Objective: More than simply having a rabbi in the episode, Grace and Frankie explore the role faith plays in life cycle events, and how the juxtaposition of morality and faith play into one another in an episode that only subtly brings Judaism forward to engage in a conversation about marriage, honesty, and love.
Essential question: How does the portrayal of ideas about anti-semitism impact our relationship with entertainment?
Objective: Family Guy makes fun of the accusations of anti-semitism against Walt Disney, leading to a conversation about what role anti-semitism has to play in the discussion of art. Can we view art as an independent act of beauty, or must we take into account the artist when observing their work?