As a former theater kid, Glee was my favorite show in my adolescent years and — admittedly — I still listen to their covers of classics and newer pop songs to this day. So, as someone who now binge-watches Netflix to my heart’s content, I was very happy to see that Glee is now available on that platform a little over 10 years after its very first episode aired.
I loved watching the characters in New Directions, McKinley High School’s show choir, develop because I could see so many similarities between them and some members of my own theater groups in middle and high school.
And while the show may not seem overtly Jewish, I’m here to say it’s fairly Jew-ish. While Jewish themes are not as present as in, say, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Broad City, Rachel Berry was one of the first Jewish teen protagonists that I saw growing up, which meant a lot to me as a Jewish theater kid.
But it’s not just Rachel Berry that makes it Jew-ish. In honor of Glee finally making it to Netflix, here are 12 Jewish facts about the show, some you probably know, and some you probably don’t.
1. Rachel Berry, one of the main characters in Glee, is Jewish. In the episode “Preggers” in the first season of Glee, Rachel argued that she should receive the role of Maria in West Side Story because, like her, “Natalie Wood was a Jew, you know. I have had a deep, personal connection to this role since the age of 1.” This was somewhat of a frustrating introduction to her character’s Jewishness, as Rachel seemed to only announce her religious background in order to get a role. In general, Rachel was a positive character to me because of her bold ambition, but I wish I got to see her embrace her Jewish heritage and culture a little more onscreen.
2. Lea Michele, the actress who plays Rachel, was raised in an interfaith Jewish-Catholic family. In “The Cast of Glee” episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Michele said that she was “raised Catholic.” But in the genealogy television series Who Do You Think You Are?, Michele learned about her Sephardic Greek ancestry and the problems her family faced immigrating to the United States in the early 20th century.
3. In the episode “Born This Way,” Rachel Berry considers getting rhinoplasty after feeling insecure about her “Jewish nose.” Her friends try to help her accept her nose, with Kurt Hummel pointing out that one of her Jewish idols, Barbra Streisand, publicly refused to get a nose job. In the end, Rachel decides not to get plastic surgery.
4. One of the co-creators of Glee, Brad Falchuk, is Jewish. Both his parents are Jewish, and his mother is a former president of Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, one of the largest international Jewish organizations. He met his now-wife Gwyneth Paltrow when she was a recurring character, Holly Holiday, on Glee. (Fun fact: Gwyneth Paltrow herself is descended from a long line of rabbis from Krakow, Poland!)
5. While the character Quinn Fabray is Catholic, the actress who plays her, Dianna Agron, is Jewish. Agron was raised in a religious household and said she was “severely bullied for being Jewish” when she was younger in an interview with Coveteur.
6. In the episode, “Glee, Actually,” Jewish half-brothers Jake and Noah Puckerman sing the traditional Hanukkah song, “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” At the end of their performance, both brothers get Star of David tattoos on their left shoulder.
7. Jewish singer and American Idol alum Adam Lambert guest starred in Season 5 of Glee as Elliot Gilbert, an NYU student who joins the cover band Pamela Lansbury, which also features Kurt, Rachel, Santana, and Dani (played by Demi Lovato). In a Q&A with the Jewish Journal in 2009, Adam Lambert describes his Jewish family — his mother is Jewish, his dad is not — as “diet Jews” because, while he grew up celebrating Jewish holidays, he wasn’t bar mitzvahed nor does he speak Hebrew.
8. Rachel Berry’s biological mother Shelby Corcoran — she has two gay dads — is played by Jewish Broadway legend Idina Menzel. Before making her Broadway debut as Maureen Johnson in Rent, Menzel was a bar mitzvah performer from age 15 through college — she went to New York University. While I know Menzel from Broadway soundtracks — including her performance as Elphaba from Wicked — she is now probably best known, at least among the younger set, as the voice of Elsa from Frozen.
9. In the episode “Grilled Cheesus,” Rachel Berry sings “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” while in a park with Finn — her on-and-off boyfriend — because she “wants nothing to come between them and God.” “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” was originally performed by Barbra Streisand in the very Jewish musical film Yentl.
10. One of Rachel Berry’s adoptive fathers, Hiram, was played by Jewish actor Jeff Goldblum. In the last season, Hiram and his husband, LeRoy (played by Brian Stokes Mitchell) were getting a divorce. Goldblum was raised in a Jewish home in Pittsburgh and belonged to an Orthodox synagogue.
11. For a Jewish character, Rachel Berry sure sang a lot of Christmas songs, including “O Holy Night,” a “Last Christmas” duet with Finn, and a rendition of “Merry Christmas Darling.” In comparison, she didn’t sing any Hanukkah songs. Boo.
12. As with any Jewish or Jew-ish show, Glee had a bar mitzvah episode. The New Directions were hired to perform at Superintendent Christopher Cousin’s nephew’s bar mitzvah, where they sang “Break Free” by Zedd, AKA Anton Zaslavski, who has Jewish parents. The lack of bar mitzvah ceremony rituals shown in this episode was disappointing, to be honest. Fortunately, the party — like every young Jew who has a bar or bat mitzvah hopes — looked like a blast.
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