Judaism in Jail: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Finds a New Religion

Jewish inmates are largely absent from Litchfield Penitentiary, but that hasn't stopped ‘Orange Is the New Black' from exploring Judaism and the virtues of kosher food.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman in a scene from 'Orange is the New Black.'
Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman in a scene from 'Orange is the New Black.'Credit: AP
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

The ladies of Litchfield Penitentiary are back for the third season of “Orange Is the New Black,” and along with the inmates’ backstories comes a remarkably upbeat and positive representation of Judaism, at least as far as mainstream television goes.

In the past, television producers have tended to shy away from Judaism as religion, preferring to focus on Jews who are often detached from any religious moorings. Their Jewishness is rendered culturally or ethnically, displayed through a series of markers such as hair color or type, names, professions or gastronomic tastes. This was the case with such long-running series as "Seinfeld" and "Friends."

But “Orange Is the New Black” explodes that history by exploring Judaism in the almost total absence of any Jews.

The show, which is based on the real-life adventures of the middle-class non-Jewish Piper Kerman, is set in the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, and follows the adventures of groups of multicultural American women as they navigate daily life inside.

Despite the show’s Jewish creator, Jenji Kohan, and the presence of Jewish actresses (including Natasha Lyonne and Yael Stone), Jewish characters are largely absent from the series – especially since Piper split from her Jewish fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs), in season two. The show’s producers even wrote a Jewish character that was present in the original memoirs out of the show. Still, all this did not stop them from exploring Judaism in the current season.

The Jewish narrative arc begins in an episode titled “Where My Dreidel At,” after Litchfield is privatized and the prison food takes a, well, sour turn. One of the prisoners who isn't Jewish (she’s Lutheran) requests a kosher meal because she knows kosher prison food is tastier. It’s been so long since anyone requested a kosher meal that it is buried at the back of the deep freezer. Soon the kosher trend catches on, and when a significant number of the women request the meals, Litchfield’s corporate overlords take notice. They send in a rabbi to investigate and ascertain who’s really a Jew.

During the rabbi’s questioning of the prisoners’ level of commitment to Judaism, a whole series of stereotypes about Jews are trotted out by the women. These include: Jews control the media, all Hollywood films are “Jewy,” all you need to know about Judaism can be found in Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand movies, and so on. So-called “Black Cindy” is perhaps the worst culprit. She doubts another woman’s Jewishness because she has blonde hair and blue eyes and is convinced only when the prisoner admits that her crime was money laundering.

All but one of the women – a former nun with intimate knowledge of the Bible – fail the rabbi’s questioning. Some critics have charged that this was anti-Semitic.

But the manner in which the women parrot these simplistic stereotypes serves to debunk them. These are not highly educated individuals. Nor are they particularly racist or anti-Semitic. We are not led to believe they are deeply held or malicious. Neither do we think the women are particularly insightful. In fact, we laugh at their ignorance. Indeed, anyone who shares these ideas comes off as similarly misguided.

Compare this to the fate of a corporate employee who makes a Holocaust joke in very poor taste at a board meeting about the prison.

“The, uh, meal plan has been implemented.
Everything running pretty smoothly so far.
Well, except for our Jewish problem.
Jewish problem? Probably not the best choice of words.
There's a program for kosher meals that we feel is being abused.
I have a plan to address it.
Also, I've located a new source for soap.
Is it the Jews?”

This employee is professional and educated. Presumably she has university degrees. She sits on a corporate management team. Consequently, her quip comes across as even more shocking than anything the prisoners have said. She is immediately fired and rightly so.

In contrast none of the prisoners make comments anywhere nearly as offensive. The one prisoner who does claim that Jews control the media is clearly somewhat daft and suffering from paranoid delusions that the National Security Agency is tracking her movements in prison.

In the end, we are left with a positive view of Judaism. Even the rabbi ultimately comes across as sympathetic, viewing Cindy’s desire to convert to Judaism as authentic. He stands as a beacon of an accepting form of Judaism that stands in stark contrast to the intolerant attitude of more stringent ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

So not only does Judaism gain a new convert, but Cindy is shown the error of her ways. She learns that her previously held views of the Jews are shallow and warped. Cindy goes from spouting lines such as, “Shanah tova and Hava Nagila. It is good to be chosen” and “Yeah. We’re saving it for Elijah,” when someone asks if a seat is taken.

In the end, though, Cindy warmly and genuinely embraces her newfound religion and is able to dip in the mikveh under surprising and unforeseeable of circumstances – transforming Judaism from the butt of some jokes to a surprise star of the show.

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