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MRS AMERICA: Everything coming up Bagels

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True story: About three weeks into a new job, my first in England, which had thus far included a lot of activities labelled ‘induction’ (a term unfamiliar to my North American brain, but which seemed to mean go drink coffee while having small talk about the weather and bad shows like The Great British Bake Off with people throughout the university), I was having breakfast at home and thought to look up the guy I was meeting that day. I read his name, studied his picture, skimmed through his departmental bio. A minute later, smirking, I ran back upstairs and dug through my jewellery to pull out a Star of David pendant my aunt had bought me years earlier. I had never worn it before; I thought it was kind of cheesy. Like really, did I, living in New Jersey, have to announce my Jewishness? Was it not obvious in every way? But in this new context, where I turned six shades of red reeling off the various dates I wouldn’t be able to work (‘and there’s Pesach, yeah, that’s kind of a long one, and Shavuot, and then there’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, those are the biggies, and Sukkot…’), and I certainly had not met anyone remotely Jewish (‘Oh we used to have your people near us in Manchester,’ said one of my colleagues a few days into my job, ‘You know, the men with the curlies?’), I was not going to let the opportunity to bagel a fellow Jew go by.

Bagel as a verb—as in to let someone know (subtly, of course!) that you’re (also) a Member of the Tribe? Oh, yes. It’s like the Black ‘nod‘ communicating a sense of community, but for a largely invisible minority. I learned the term bageling from my husband decades ago, before it evolved into common usage. According to him, the term originated with his friend’s brother’s friend, Doodie Miller, back in Montreal in the early 90s. If I was ever sceptical of this (very specific) etymology, it turned out I ought not have been; The Forward actually confirmed its veracity a number of years ago.

There are many ways you can bagel. You can wear a Star of David pendant. You can explain that your surname was given to migrants from ‘Ashkenaz’ to North Africa 1000 years ago. You can wear a t-shirt with a Superman logo topped by a black hat and peyos and underscored with the words ‘Super Jew’ (see my profile picture—and no, that doesn’t count as subtle).

Call it a nod, a wink, a bagel, but they are everywhere if you know where to look.

My favourite moment in the recent series Mrs America (2020), both a form of liberal feminist porn for women whose rights were enshrined by the featured heroines, and, as Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal have argued, ‘the Catfight Theory of History‘, is when the show first reveals its Star of David pendant. It’s a joke: Jill Ruckelshaus eyes Bella Abzug in her fur coat at a garden party on a warm day and says, ‘You’re shvitzing all over the place’. Bella looks at her interlocutor incredulously before repeating, ‘Shvitzing?’ Jill, abashed, responds, ‘I’m trying!’ But Bella has not overcome her amazement. She repeats the midwestern Christian Republican woman’s word back at her again: ‘Shvitzing?’

Did that go over your head? Probably not if you’re a Jewthink reader. But if it did, I’ll spell it out for you, because it is also not a joke: This is not your classic Jew-on-Jew bageling. Instead, this scene suggests that in this story, everything was coming up bagels. In other words, the feminist revolution of the 1970s was so Jewish that to fit in, the Jill Ruckelhauses had to forgo their Wonderbread for a bagel with a schmear, their gentle WASPy persuasion for brash Jewish assertiveness, their English for at least a little Yiddish. Republican, Democrat, no matter; more importantly, you didn’t sweat if you wanted a seat at the big girls’ table.

It is actually only later in this episode—the fourth, ‘Betty’—that the Jewishness of the Second Wave feminist trailblazers is blatantly trotted out for all to see: Betty Friedan tells her date that for generations her ancestors through the generations prayed ‘I thank thee Lord I was not created a woman’ and from this day forward women all over the world would be able to say, ‘I thank thee, Lord, I WAS created a woman’. Her date responds with a saying from the Pirkei Avot. Moreover, not to limit his Jewishness to the stuff of religion, the date also riffs on Lenny Bruce when Betty tells him she’s from Peoria, Illinois: ‘I bet you grew up drinking lime soda’.

In the seventh episode, ‘Bella’, Bella Abzug, a New York Congresswoman, is told that President Jimmy Carter’s wife thought she was ‘pushy and loud’. She stares hard. ‘You know that’s code for Jewish’, she says.

Other bits continue to be less obvious: When Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan’s neighbour have an extended conversation standing in a doorway, the camera separates the women with the doorpost, marked by a prominent mezuzah, the centrepoint of the screen. When Brenda and Marc Feigen-Fasteau announced they’re having a baby, they clink their glasses with Gloria and Frank Thomas, her Black boyfriend, and we hear ‘Mazel tov.’ In addition to the almost comically Jewish spread on Bella Abzug’s table (‘Is it…tongue?‘ ‘Mm. And some kind of…fish spread‘. ‘That’s a whitefish spread‘), we have another, even subtler, swing of the star pendant as a dude tells the women ‘OK, let’s calm down’, thinking they are in a heated argument, and the women respond, ‘This is just how we talk in New York City—the WEST SIDE of New York City’. They laugh.

Yes, Jewish women were at the forefront of the movement: in addition to the above, let’s not forget American Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG, in the 1970s a co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, who makes a brief appearance on the show. So why be subtle with the shvitzing business? And with the ‘West Side’ (wink wink). Or worse, why deflect? The tongue on Bella’s table is weirdly described as an ‘old Cossack family recipe’. but if you think ‘Cossack’ and ‘Jew’ mean the same thing . . . go watch An American Pickle.

I guess, ultimately, Jewish series creator Dahvi Waller wanted to have her bagel and eat it too. You’ve gotta shvitz to be part of this story, but let’s keep that low-key (at least to most of our audience). Feminism, after all, is about all women. Note the showcasing of Shirley Chisolm, Florynce Kennedy, Audrey Rowe Colom, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, and other women who have come down in history with more and less fame.

Also, no one wants another story of Jewish power. They never go well for us.

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Dr Karen E H Skinazi is a literary and cultural critic who works as a Senior Lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.
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