If you follow my work, you’ll know that I write about a lot of Jewish TV — from “Shtisel” to “The Patient” — and the Jewish meaning embedded in it. But when it comes to Yom Kippur, I take my leadership from perhaps an unlikely source — the PBS show “Arthur.”
Well, more precisely, I draw inspiration from Joan Rivers, who voices Francine’s bubbe. That’s right, in case you didn’t know, Francine Frensky from “Arthur” is Jewish (I mean, the last name should have given it away, but also, you can never assume). The 2008 episode “Is That Kosher?” is a rare — and excellent — TV exploration of the Jewish Day of Atonement, which I’m excited to watch with my own kids this weekend.
In the episode, the Frenskys are cleaning the house for what Francine’s mother calls “the most important Jewish day of the year” — and perhaps just as importantly, for a visit from Francine’s bubbe. Francine, who hasn’t yet had her bat mitzvah, decides that she wants to fast for Yom Kippur (mostly to compete with her older sister, Catherine).
Francine does a pretty amazing job at fasting, and even gets some healthy advice from Arthur’s Muslim penpal, Adil, who tells her to distract herself by spending time with friends.
Unfortunately, when she follows his advice and arrives at Arthur’s house, Arthur is in the midst of a pizza party. Francine is sure she can withstand the temptation until someone puts a slice of pizza in her hand for a group photoshoot. Without even realizing, she gobbles the cheesy treat.
Francine is devastated. She makes her way home with her bubbe’s voice in her head, calling her “F” for “Failure.” But when she walks through the door of her kitchen, she finds Bubbe herself eating a sandwich and complaining about the family’s lack of condiments.
When Francine confronts her for breaking the rules, Bubbe tells her, “The Torah forbids us to fast if it hurts our health. And sweetheart, look at Bubbe’s body. It’s a lemon.” The line is delivered with Rivers’ signature Jewish inflection.
“You’re not a failure,” Bubbe consoles Francine, and asks, “Do you know why we Jews celebrate Yom Kippur?”
“It’s when we ask for forgiveness for all the mistakes we made,” Francine replies.
“So? What are you, Frankeleh? Perfect?” Bubbe succinctly responds.
The episode has lovely Jewish details, including synagogue services at the family’s congregation Shaaray Shalom (Francine calls the services “really cool,” so that’s definitely a Jewish win). And while Rivers’ Bubbe is a little too stereotypical (and makes some comments about the girls’ dress and bodies that don’t exactly make me comfortable as a parent but are a fairly accurate representation of a lot of Jewish grandmas), I do adore Bubbe, her kvetchiness and wit and the Jewish lesson she imparts in this excellent episode.
Bubbe provides us with a great reminder that there’s a lot of reasons not to fast — from mental health reasons, to physical ailments, to a history of eating disorders. While fasting can be purposeful and important to a lot of people, it can also be detrimental and even dangerous to others.
Some of these reasons are why I don’t always fast on Yom Kippur. I let myself fast for as long as my body and mind feel comfortable. Sometimes, that’s no time at all. Beyond that, I always forgive myself and find other ways to make the holiday meaningful.
After all, to paraphrase the words of the great Joan Rivers (may her memory be a blessing) — ”what am I, perfect?”
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