‘Russian Doll’ is the story of Jewish history

We live our lives as stories within stories. This Netflix series shows you why.

Natasha Lyonne stars in

(RNS) — I have been obsessed with the Netflix series “Russian Doll.”

It is more than an odd comedy-drama series. It’s actually a metaphor for the Jewish experience.

“Russian Doll” is a series about a young woman, Nadia Vulvokov, a software engineer (played by Natasha Lyonne, who grew up Orthodox — first, in Great Neck, New York, and then in Israel). Nadia has a weird habit — she keeps on dying and coming back to life in the bathroom of the venue where she has been celebrating her 36th birthday. (This is Season One; in Season Two she has picked up a new weird habit.)

So far, no spoilers.

And also so far, pretty Jewish. There is Natasha Lyonne herself. The number 36, as in her birthday, as in double chai — 18 x 2, life times two.

Add to the mix that the party venue just happens to be the former site of a yeshiva.

“Russian Doll” reminds me of the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.” The theme is similar: Phil Connors (Bill Murray) keeps waking up on the same day — Groundhog Day — in the location of the official Groundhog Day festivities in western Pennsylvania. He is trapped in an endless time loop, a version of the mythic eternal return — except, he doesn’t die in between his awakenings. He just goes to sleep. He gets the hang of it, though. He realizes he can use his constant re-awakenings as opportunities to learn.

It also calls to mind Dara Horn’s novel Eternal Life. This is the story of Rachel, a woman who, for the past 2,000 years, has been unable to die. She would like nothing better than to be liberated from the shackles of, well, eternal life, but it simply hasn’t turned out that way.

It also calls to mind the prophet Elijah, who never dies in the Bible and who keeps on making guest appearances — at the end of Shabbat at havdalah; at the end of the Passover Seder; and at the brit ceremony. He cannot die, either; at the very least, God is using him for sacred missions.

Which also calls to mind the phrase that appears in the Torah blessing: v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu. God implants eternal life within us. I have never believed this means that the person who engages in Torah lives forever — at least, not physically. I have always imagined that it means that one’s acts of study — indeed, all of the sacred acts that we do — somehow live beyond us.

It is not that Nadia in “Russian Doll” lives forever. It is that she constantly dies and then is immediately resurrected.

How is this a metaphor for the Jewish experience?

Jewish history is filled with “near death” moments for the Jewish people — from which they always escape and that make them stronger and more creative.

  • The scene at the Red Sea. The Israelites walk into the sea, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. They “die” as a slave people. They experience the waters as the purifying waters of a mikveh, waters that paradoxically symbolize both death and rebirth. The Jewish people could have died; instead, the nation was reborn.
  • The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. No more sacred space. No more sacrificial offerings. The ancient sages created a new way of devotion around prayer, Torah study and mitzvot. No more altar? The table in our homes, upon which we dine and perform rituals, becomes the new altar. Judaism could have died; instead, it was reborn.
  • The expulsion from Spain, 1492. The Jews of Spain and Portugal go into exile. They bring with them their traditions and even their traumas. Within a generation, Sephardic culture gives birth to Baruch Spinoza in Amsterdam, and kabbalah in Safed. Their Judaism could have died; instead, it was reborn.
  • The pogroms in Ukraine, 1648. This was the largest loss of Jewish life until the Shoah. Out of that horror come a few messianic movements, and ultimately, Hasidism. Paralyzed by death, Eastern European Judaism could have died; instead, it was reborn.
  • The Enlightenment and Emancipation, 1800s. The old superstitions no longer make sense? We are no longer living behind ghetto walls? We rethink what it means to live in covenant. Judaism could have died; instead, it was reborn.
  • The Shoah, 1945. European Jewry and Judaism is in ashes. Like the new twigs that burst forth from the forest floor after a forest fire, there is new Jewish life — in Europe, Israel and the United States. Survivors went on to construct new lives — and in all too many cases, new families. Judaism and the Jewish people could have died; instead, they were reborn.

For many, those near-death experiences created what the historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose view of Jewish history.”

This was the view that the modern Jewish thinker, Simon Rawidowicz, lamented:

There was hardly a generation in the Diaspora that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up. There was scarcely a generation that while toiling, falling, and rising, again being uprooted and striking new roots, was not filled with the deepest anxiety lest it be fated to stand at the grave of the nation…

Not accidentally: Those words come from an essay with the title, “Israel: The ever-dying people.”

Yes, but:

A nation dying for thousands of years means a living nation. Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew. We, the last Jews! Yes, in many respects it seems to us as if we are the last links in a particular chain of tradition and development. But if we are the last — let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will rise after them, and so on until the end of days. If it has been decreed for Israel that it go on being a dying nation — let it be a nation that is constantly dying, which is to say: incessantly living and creating.

Nadia, the ever-dying, yet never-dying Jewish woman, is an avatar of the ever-dying, yet never-dying Jewish people.

Of course, it would have to be Natasha Lyonne who plays Nadia. She jokes that her family consists of “my father’s side, Flatbush, and my mother’s side, Auschwitz.”

A snarky quip but one that conceals historical truth.

Natasha’s mother was born in Paris to Hungarian-Jewish parents who were survivors of the Holocaust.

She, too, represents Jewish history — and even an Orthodoxy once consigned to the ash bin of history, but which itself has become reborn.

Our stories are themselves Russian dolls — small stories that nest themselves within larger stories.

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