I recently saw a cultural crossover I never would have imagined seeing on a mainstream TV series: a hyper-blond Swedish man wearing a bright blue Swedish-flag yarmulke sitting in front of a bowl of matzah ball soup for the first time in his life, carefully repeating the Shehecheyanu blessing in Hebrew, word by word, after his host.
OK, let me give you some context: I just started watching Amy Poehler’s new Peacock series, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” while cleaning through the many ADHD messes I’ve left around my house (as one does). Not only is the show equal parts funny and moving, but I was surprised and moved to see positive, wholesome Jewish representation — not only because of how often TV representation of Jewish people goes terribly wrong, but also because I don’t always feel confident sharing my own Jewish identity with others outside my tradition.
The “Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” is based on a book of the same name, one of the many popular Nordic lifestyle self-help books currently dominating American bestseller lists. The show is (hilariously) narrated by Amy Poehler herself, and follows a team of three “Swedish death cleaners” who visit people in need of their help: Katarina “Kat” Blom (a psychologist), Johan Svenson (an interior designer) and Ella Engström (an organizer). The concept behind Swedish death cleaning, in a nutshell, is that we should go through all of the extra physical items we’ve stockpiled, so that our loved ones aren’t stuck going through all our junk after we die. However, it’s not morbidly focused on the end of our days and remaining clutter: It’s about moving on from what is keeping us from living now, while intentionally shaping the legacy we leave behind.
In the third episode of season one, the death cleaners visit the Osman family. Lindsey Osman, the family’s matriarch, describes herself as being the victim of “reverse robbing” — “it’s when someone shows up at your house and gives you all the stuff that they don’t want in their house anymore.” The death cleaners work with Lindsey to help her through her struggles of feeling guilty letting go of the many possessions others have given her, even though she doesn’t like them. (This is surely relatable to many women, particularly those raised Jewish!)
Once the family goes through both a physical and emotional clean-up throughout the episode, the roles reverse: The family gets to teach their new Swedish friends about their own culture. The Osmans are Jewish, so they decide to share a Shabbat dinner with the Swedes in their freshly redecorated dining room. From the moment on Friday night that Johan gleefully pronounces that he managed to put together a kosher “smorgasbord” (charcuterie platter), my heart was warmed. Dan, husband and father, leads the table in saying the Shehecheyanu together, explaining, “I can’t think of a more special occasion to have the Shehecheyanu — which effectively means ‘thank you for allowing me to come to this time in my life, so that I could experience it.’” Afterwards, Johan remarks that it’s thematically appropriate for the trio as well, since it’s their first Shabbat.
As someone who struggles with letting outsiders into the Jewish part of my identity, I guess this moment really stood out to me, because these days, just being Jewish can feel like a divisive political statement for Twitter trolls to pick apart relentlessly. This really came to the surface for me less than a week ago, when I volunteered for the International Night at my son’s new school. (Less than altruistic, it was a last-ditch effort to make up for not volunteering for anything earlier in the year.) I felt some trepidation even as I plunged deep into a storm of typing, cutting and gluing to create my overzealous tri-fold display. Thanks to COVID-19, I’d never even gotten the chance to visit my son’s class to read a Hanukkah story, let alone hosted the “Jewish culture table” at a school-wide event. We live in a fairly progressive suburb of Atlanta, but it’s still the South, so I’m always wary — especially with all the attacks on synagogues and Jewish people on the rise in the U.S. As far as I knew, my son was the only Jewish kid in the entire school. To sweeten the odds of how we were received, I also made caramel-chocolate matzah brittle to bring — because, as I explained to everyone who came by our table later that night, “It’s hard to go wrong with carbs layered in sugar, layered in more sugar!”
To make a long story short, International Night was an absolute success (and the matzah brittle was eaten down to crumbs, and then even the crumbs were scooped up and swallowed). I ended up chatting and laughing with so many people who stopped by our table through the night that my voice was hoarse by the time we got home. I got to have some surprisingly awesome conversations about Jewishness — one mom had recently gone to a Roe v. Wade discussion forum hosted at a local synagogue and said she was pleasantly surprised that religious people would support women’s bodily autonomy. Upon hearing me explain that Jewish people get way too creative with matzah on Passover and use it for everything, one man posited, “Oh, so it’s like a tortilla?” To which I replied, “Yeah, but, y’know, worse.” The mom from the Nordic table, who recently discovered through 23andMe that she is 3% Ashkenazi, gushed about a historic synagogue in Savannah she is excited to visit. A boy of Indian heritage excitedly pointed out the word “Sivan” on the Jewish calendar I’d brought, and told me that Sivan is also the name of an Indian god with blue skin (so cool!). I even met a little girl who nonchalantly mentioned, “Oh, I’m Jewish, too. But my family decided to represent my other heritage, Korea.”
Through this experience and in watching the experience of the Osman family on “Swedish Death Cleaning,” I realize how valuable it is to share my Jewishness with others. But just as important is that non-Jews reciprocate with authentic curiosity and openness — which is perhaps one of the most important forms of allyship our non-Jewish siblings can show us. I admire the Osman family for having the courage to not only share an intimate part of their tradition with people who might not understand it, but to do so on national television. Just as much, though, I admire their lovely Swedish guests who reciprocated with genuine openness, curiosity and admiration for something sacred to someone else.
Amidst splashy, stressful headlines about antisemitism all over the media, this moment of TV magic felt like a beam of sunshine — and also a confidence booster in showing up more fully in my own identity. I hope that more silly, fun media can be leveraged as a platform to inspire breaking down barriers both in sharing and receiving tradition as a cultural norm, along with the gentle art of Swedish death cleaning to get rid of all our extra crap.