I’ve never set foot in the state of New York. Yet as I watched Pretend It’s a City on Netflix, which features iconic writer Fran Lebowitz complaining about New York, I felt like I, too, could be a Jewish New Yorker.
I identified with so much of Fran’s Jewish American sensibility, even though I was born and raised in Alabama, the daughter of a white Jewish dad from Chicago and a Japanese immigrant mom. Fran and my upbringings could not be further apart — except we’re both Jewish. But as Fran shared the amusing tales of her childhood and the city she made her home at the age of 19, much to the joy of director Martin Scorsese, I saw myself in her.
For the spring of 2021, I planned to travel to New York City for the first time in my life. It was a free trip for an internship opportunity — one that, of course, became virtual because of the pandemic. When I watched Pretend It’s a City, I felt the heartbreak of not being in NYC, but was fulfilled by the lessons learned from the beautiful love letter to the city.
Coming from Montgomery, Alabama, my Jewish American experience is vastly different from the Jewish stereotypes typically presented in pop culture. I’m a southerner that’s never been to a Jewish deli, nor did I have the big youth group experience with a large congregation.
In an interview with the New Jersey Jewish News in 2016, Fran was asked how she viewed her relationship with Judaism. When she replied that it was more cultural or ethnic, the interviewer pressed, “Can you describe what you mean by ‘ethnic or cultural’? Is it bagels on Sunday or something deeper than that?”
Fran replied, “Oh, I think it’s much deeper than that. I don’t really know how to describe it, the idea of people thinking of themselves as Jews, calling themselves Jews, feeling Jewish their entire lives, without once believing in God or going to synagogue or practicing any part of the religion. I can’t think of another religion of which that is true.”
As I binged the whole show, I treasured every Jewish moment. As Marty bond over the fact they both descended from immigrants, Fran jokes that her family wasn’t on the Mayflower because it was “too crowded!” She then explains how her great-grandfather was a Jewish man who escaped Russia and then managed to pass through the rigorous screening at Ellis Island. She goes on to describe her reverence for books — a reverence firmly rooted in her Jewish upbringing. As a child, she kissed every book that hit the floor, once prompting her mom to ask why she kissed a Nancy Drew novel. Referring to the traditional practice of kissing a prayer book that’s touched the floor, Fran told her mother, “That’s something they told us in synagogue!”
While there are plenty of Jewish moments full of warmth, Fran also discusses antisemitism throughout the series. She notes her adamant refusal to party for Leni Reifenstahl, a film director infamous for producing Nazi propaganda. And when telling the story of first getting published, she recalls how her family only subscribed to Newsweek in the mail and avoided Time magazine as its founder, Henry Luce, was a known antisemite.
The social norms of my hometown have a history of antisemitism, too. For decades, social clubs banned Jews and people of color up until the ‘70s or ‘80s. In Hebrew school, the rabbi warned us of local school teachers with histories of antisemitism and we avoided them when possible.
Fran also reveals the antisemitism that’s less veiled and more crass: She describes a trip to Lake Powell, where she tried to get a fishing license with her driver’s license. With no pictures on New York driver’s licenses at the time, the woman at the desk says to Fran, “What? They don’t have pictures on driver’s licenses in Jew York?” In the show, Fran expresses the shock she felt that still remains to this day. Then, as she does, she bites the incident with humor and says that she retorted, “No, but we know how to read.”
I laughed out loud, but after a second, I reflected on how Fran weaponized her quick wit. I also often rely on a joke or two to defend myself against racism and antisemitism, especially in seemingly paralyzing comments of hate or ignorance. Although not the permanent solution, it can be a momentary protection.
After the final episode, I was eager to get my hands on whatever Fran wrote. So, I read her first published book, The Metropolitan Life, published 1978. As I tapped through my virtual library copy — knowing Fran would hate the fact I was using an ereader and not an actual book — I laughed and heard all the satire in her voice. In the “Manners” chapter, she assesses the characteristics of marginalized groups in America and separates traits between two groups: “The By-Products of Oppression and/or Repression” and “The By-Products of Freedom and/or License.” As she writes, the by-products of oppression/repression for Jews are: highly entertaining stand-up comedians, The Stage Delicatessen (a deli on 7th avenue in Manhattan), and “the guarantee that at least one segment of the population could be relied upon to display a marked distaste for strenuous physical activity.” The byproducts of freedom? Progressive nursery schools, frozen bagels, and the Upper West Side.
Of course, Fran’s jokes are limited to her Ashkenazi-centric view of Jewish New York, a view that most Americans are familiar with even though I’m not. Yet, I loved it. The Metropolitan Life introduces a young precocious Fran, a clear precursor to the still highly-opinionated but wiser Fran of today.
In the first episode of the Netflix series, Fran says, “The anger is, I have no power, but I’m filled with opinions.” She moved to NYC at the age 19, ready to take on the world and write about her experiences, spurred by her distinctly Jewish chutzpah. I’m a 19-year-old Jewish woman from Alabama in my first year of college, and while I might not live in New York, I’m ready to do the same.