Schitt’s Creek may not be The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, says Vince Brook, but It Is Marvellous and Very, Very Jewish!
Let’s start with Eugene and Dan Levy, co-creators of the hugely popular, Emmy-monopolizing CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020). This actual Jewish father and son team also co-star in the series as the fictionally Jewish Johnny Rose and his half-Jewish son, David Rose. Rounding out the interfaith family are Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara), Johnny’s lapsed Catholic wife, and Alexis Rose (Annie Murphy), David’s half-Jewish sister. The siblings’ half-Jewishness, moreover, is an understatement. David and Alexis were bar- and bat-mitvahed, and David, besides having a Birthright trip to Israel under his belt, describes himself as ‘mildly Hebraic looking’. Indeed, were it not for his stereotypically Jewish nose job, he would be as stereotypically Jewish-appearing as his big-nosed, Groucho-browed, swarthy-complexioned father, whom Moira describes variously as Sephardic and Lebanese!
The surname Rose, as well, though not as conspicuously Jewish as Levy, has strong Jewish religious and cultural associations. The simile of the rose flower in Song of Songs, 2:2— ‘Like a rose among thorns, so is my darling among the maidens’—is traditionally interpreted as referring to God’s favoritism toward His ‘chosen people’. In American popular culture, the name’s Jewish aspect is notably on display in the interfaith marriage play and film Abbie’s Irish Rose (play, 1924; film, 1928, 1946) and Woody Allen’s comedy Broadway Danny Rose (1984).
Superficial allusions to the family’s largely secular Jewishness are sprinkled throughout the series. Besides offhand remarks about the children’s coming-of-age rituals, Israeli sojourns, and cosmetic surgery, Jewish tidbits include Johnny‘s longing for bagels, getting Schitt’s Creek’s lone, pork-obsessed restaurant to serve brisket, and drawing attention to the marginalized menorah at the family’s lavish Xmas party. These throwaway references also serve a more significant purpose, however: as continual reminders of the Roses’ other ‘otherness’.
What sets the family most apart from the townspeople of Schitt’s Creek is their precipitous fall from towering wealth to pennilessness and their diaspora from a mansion in Bel Air to a podunk [a hypothetical small town regarded as typically dull or insignificant — Ed.] motel in the backwoods burg with the uncanny name. Johnny had bought the town as a joke in better times, but now finds himself and the family literally—up Schitt’s Creek. This play on the implausibly risible moniker is the overarching joke of the series, of course, and is personified in the town’s bungling, beer-bellied mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), whose ancestors founded the place. What makes the titular joke even funnier is the matter-of-factness with which the title is treated by all concerned, an insouciance that extends, importantly, to race, gender and sexuality—though not to class (once the Roses arrive) and, tellingly, not to Jewishness.
That the Roses are gefilte fish out of water in Schitt’s Creek is made uncomfortably clear in a key exchange early on between Johnny and Bob Currie (John Hemphill), ditzy owner of Bob’s Garage. Johnny had been using a desk in a cluttered corner of the garage to drum up a business idea that might give the family a fresh start. Picking up on Johnny’s bemoaning the lack of a proper bagel in the town, Bob suggests a bagel business as the antidote to both his culinary and financial woes. Johnny says easier said than done, because ‘a good bagel would need to be made the real way’.
Bob: Well, you certainly know how to make them the real way, because you’re...
Johnny (finishing the sentence): ...Jewish?
Bob:I wasn’t sure I could say it. But boy, you all do love your bagels! I mean I do too, and I’m not even...
Johnny: ‘Jewish. You can say it, Bob.
Bob: I don’t know why, it sounds like a swear. What’s the one you can’t say?
Johnny breaks off the conversation at this point.
Such an awkwardly antisemitic moment wouldn’t be surprising if Schitt’s Creek were portrayed as a stereotypically bigoted, Middle American Trumpville, as viewers at the outset are primed to believe it will be. But as indicated above, just the opposite turns out to be the case, with racial and sexual diversity treated as naturally and normally as the town that sounds like shit. Recurring characters such as Ronnie Lee (Karen Robinson), a Black lesbian, and Ray Butani (Rizwan Manji), a dark-skinned, Indian-Muslim immigrant, are accepted without question. Jews, however, still stand out—not as an ethnicity to be feared or despised, but still somehow as a breed apart.
Not content to leave it at that, the show’s creators make some attempt to use Jewishness more constructively, as a symbolic salve in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Recall Moira’s calling Johnny Lebanese? Then there’s Ray, the Indian-Muslim jack of all trades (realtor, travel agent, portrait photographer, closet designer, podcaster, you name it) who, in his nose for business (pun intended), is the most ‘Jewish’ of all the Schitt’s Creekans. But the capper is the motel blogger, Emir Kaplan (Ennis Esmer), whose name literalizes a bond between the two Semitic peoples that decades of diplomacy has yet to achieve.
Fancifully optimistic to be sure, but then Schitt’s Creek, after all, is a fairytale community, and Schitt’s Creek is a sitcom. Thus pan-ethnic/pan-sexual harmony reaches its apotheosis in the series finale—[SPOILER ALERT!]—when the half-Jewish, flamboyantly gay David Rose marries the sensitive, all-American hunk, Patrick Brewer (Noah Nicholas Reid), in a wedding officiated by mother Moira dressed, ostentatiously as usual but with pointed political bite, as the Pope.
All photos: Youtube