A Case for Why Time Loops Are Inherently Jewish

These cyclical stories, from "Russian Doll" to "Palm Springs," are the Jewish answer to the Christian apocalypse narrative.

I’ve been watching a lot of apocalyptic content lately, and with good reason: It’s been feeling a lot like the End Times. Climate change, mass shootings and an over-two-years-and-running worldwide pandemic have everyone on edge. But just because things are feeling particularly dark right now doesn’t mean these types of stories are anything new. Science fiction and fantasy writers have been scooping real-life apocalypses for generations, and End Times stories are Book of Revelation-old.

But something I’ve noticed in all my binging of apocalyptic books and TV shows and movies these past few years is that these stories have an equally compelling narrative cousin: the time loop narrative. In the former, the world as we know it has ended. In the latter, it refuses to move on. And as I began to compare these two types of stories, a larger theme began to emerge, one that once seen I couldn’t unsee: Apocalypse stories are Christian, time loops are Jewish.

I’m not saying time loop protagonists have to be Jewish, but that the spirit of the time loop is inherently Jewish. While there’s a small contingent of Jews throughout history that have focused on messianism, the primary ordering principle of time in Judaism is cyclical, not linear. Jewish children in Hebrew school learn about “life cycle events,” or ritual practices that connect us to previous generations and our current community through repeated ritual practices. It’s a center of gravity that feels different than, say, a religious education rooted in the sacraments, around rituals intended to bring one into grace and, hopefully, the hereafter, theologically focused on moving believers toward some specific future state.  At the Passover seder, Jews read the teaching of the Mishnah, remembering:

In every generation, one is obligated to view oneself as though they came out of Egypt, as it says: “Tell your child on that day saying, ‘because of this God acted for me when I came out of Egypt.’”

Every year we put ourselves back into the position of our ancestors: We are enslaved and we are freed, over and over, gaining new insight into the nature of our own existence each time.

Think about it. Time loop stories almost always envision a world where one person is forced to relive one day over and over until they unlock the key that releases them from the cycle. Popular recent examples include “Russian Doll,” which follows Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia as she faces the traumas of her past in order to move on into her forties (and beyond), “Palm Springs,” where Cristin Milioti’s Sarah comes to terms with her own failures before she can embrace life and love (as played by everyone’s favorite Jewish goofball Andy Samberg) — and of course, the mother of all time loops, “Groundhog Day.”

Where apocalypse narratives are primarily concerned with the restructuring and healing of society writ large after tragedy, time loops focus on the personal growth of an individual by having the person relive their experiences until they learn the lessons required to move on. (All three of the aforementioned examples, by the way, have Jewish creators, and two feature Jewish main characters.)

When I first watched the apocalyptic-themed show “The Leftovers” last fall, I was a little annoyed by the absence of Jews. Other than a little side plot about a guy on a boat who thinks he’s Yahweh, they’re conspicuously absent (along with most other religions besides for Christianity). But by the end of the show, I had accepted the reality that it just wasn’t a story that could meaningfully address a Jewish response to 2% of the world population suddenly disappearing. (Though I would guess the response would be something like, “Eh… we’ve seen worse.”)

Similarly, another TV show about the end of the world as we know it, “Station Eleven,” included much more of a range of identity and experience at the individual level, but stayed still firmly Christian in its conceptions of faith and vision of the end times (in the book on which the show is based, the prophet merges Biblical passages with the “Station Eleven” graphic novel to create his cult’s foundational text). It makes sense. Christianity has a lot more to say about the end times than most other religions, and despite America’s move toward increased secularism, we are still, in a cultural sense, an extremely Christian country.

But while Jews have definitely faced their fair share of apocalypse-like events, we’ve somehow always come out the other side collectively intact. As we read in the Passover Haggadah, “In every generation they rise up to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.” It’s no wonder, then, that Jews might be attracted to a framing of time more suited to our shared experience and sensibilities, a story that wraps back around on itself, nearly ending only to start all over again.

Even Harold Ramis himself, the director of “Groundhog Day,” once pointed out that one of the primary attractions of the film to Jews is its parallel with the cyclical reading of the Torah. He tells the story of a Starbucks clerk who once told him how after a repeated viewing of “Groundhog Day” he had new insights into the meaning of the story. Reflecting on  this phenomenon (which occurred often), he notes in the same interview, “One reason Jews respond to that idea is that the Torah is read every year. You start at the same place, on the same day, every Jew in the world reads the same portion every day for the whole cycle, and then you start over. The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it, we are different…and you find new meaning in it as we change.”

It is this cyclical motion, like an ever-winding spiral staircase, that is central to Jewish learning and life. Yes, time marches forward, but also, often, we find ourselves back where we started in some way, hopefully with new insights to change the outcome this time around. Yes, Jews keep our tragedies in front of mind, but rather than focusing on destruction and its aftermath, we adopt a model for day-to-day living that is more about iterative progress towards a goal. We know this goal may be forever out of reach (we may resolve, each year on Yom Kippur, to change, but we also know, as we do so, that next year we will be back in synagogue, confessing to the same list of liturgical sins), but we will continue to strive.

The satisfaction of the apocalypse tale is perseverance itself — the belief that even from the ashes, we rise to meet a new world that has dawned. In the time loop story, we derive pleasure from release, the moment when the protagonist, having solved the problem that got them stuck in the first place, returns to the world as they knew it, to do with their transformation as they will. It is change within familiarity. The future and all its potential once again stretches out before them, or perhaps it bends once again around to the place from which they came. The only way to find out is to keep living.

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