Why Rachel Berry deserves our compassion
Recently in The Forward, Jay Michaelson compared four characters from “Glee” to the “Four Children” from the Passover seder tradition. What I loved about the piece was Michaelson’s point that for young Jews, Jewish identity is one variable in a multi-variable identity that youth will embrace, when and if they find it meaningful. What bothered me about the piece was the language Michaelson used describing Rachel Berry, the analogous “Wise Child,” as an “irritating control freak” and “intolerable.” It was particularly difficult to read this because, well, I used to be Rachel Berry.
Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is the “Wise Child” — to a fault. She endlessly touts her Jewishness in one way or another, from Barbra Streisand songs to protests at Christmastime. She is also an irritating control freak, just like the unctuous Wise Child, who asks annoying, detailed questions about the statutes, laws and ordinances that God has commanded. The Haggadah obviously wants us to praise this kid, but most years I just want to slap him. Just like Rachel, he’s a know-it-all and a drama queen. “Look at me!” the Wise Child brags, just as Rachel does. Look how smart and good I am! Like Rachel in her goody-two-shoes sweaters, the Wise Child is intolerable. Rachel is a quintessential Jewish stereotype — smart, Semitic-looking, Magen-David-wearing — and yet she performs her Jewishness in the same way she performs her many solos on the show: in your face, turned up to 11. The Wise Child is the same way.
I’m not saying that Rachel Berry isn’t annoying or a frustrating portrayal of a young Jewish woman, but attributing her abrasiveness to a personality defect is harsh and much too simplistic. Drawing on my own experience as a Rachel Berry-type, I believe that the Rachel Berry needs and deserves our compassion more than our vilification.
I was one of the two Jewish-identified kids in my elementary school (the other one was my brother) and I had a really difficult time of it. I dealt with this by acting exactly like Rachel Berry. I was “in your face” about my Jewishness, touting the ‘Separation of Church and State’ to the best of my understanding at age 8. I felt different and excluded and I wanted to make damn well sure that everyone knew they were doing things the wrong way. I wanted to make things difficult for my teachers and school administrators. And like Rachel Berry, just about everyone found me “difficult” and probably sometimes “intolerable.”
Other Jewish kids in similar situations often react differently. My brother, for example, had a completely different experience. He, too, hated feeling different and excluded but instead of rocking the boat, he tried to blend in and downplayed his Jewishness at school. He tried to do “social damage control” and distance himself from his uncool older sister by participating in everything. No one ever found him "difficult."
When I watch Rachel Berry on Glee, even at her most annoying, I empathize with her. I know how it feels to be a social outcast or “othered” by your Jewish identity. I recognize the impulse to pit yourself against a community that doesn’t seem to want you rather than try to fit in and risk being rejected or excluded. Dealing with these issues is hard at any age and we all develop our own coping methods.
I also have trouble with the vilification of Rachel Berry on a feminist level. How often do we dismiss women as “bossy,” “know-it-all,” or “control-freaks” when their behavior would be interpreted as leadership, assertiveness, or courage if they were men? (It's telling that there is no equivalent archetype for boys.) While Rachel Berry is an extreme example, she’s still an arguably decent role model for young women trying to find their voice. Still, it's also important that she isn't the only "type" of young Jewish woman portrayed on mainstream TV.
Rachel Berry’s “in your face” personality is probably something she’ll grow out of, or at least learn to channel a little bit less abrasively; it worked that way for me. The funny thing is that in the right context, Rachel Berry’s personality would not seem“intolerable” or “annoying” so much as bad-ass, renegade, and hardcore.
Rachel Berry hasn’t really started fighting against the big, heavy issues of her time. If she were to, let’s say, take up the cause against human trafficking or labor abuses or animal cruelty, her personality would be well suited to “fight the power” and make change, like so many Jewish women who have come before her. Was Emma Goldman at one time a “Rachel Berry?” Was Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Clara Lemlich?
I like to think of Rachel Berry as a “Jewess with Attitude in training" who is still maturing, still finding her identity, and still learning how and where to use her voice. We can choose to dismiss her, and real-world girls like her, as “annoying” or “intolerable,” or we can choose to embrace them, love them, and channel their gifts to help them reach their full potential.