Revisiting the First Jewish Teenager I Ever Saw on TV

I’m thankful for a character like Natalie from "The Facts of Life." But the missed opportunities to highlight her Jewishness were endless.

I am a connoisseur of nostalgia. A “nostalginista,” if you will. I love to get into my proverbial time machine and rewatch my favorite classic television shows of yesteryear. Recently, a deep dive into the social media presence of actress Mindy Cohn, the actress who played Natalie on “The Facts of Life,” inspired me to rewatch the retro sitcom. “The Facts of Life” is a show about four teenage girls — Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie — who attend an all-girls boarding school and it holds a lot of nostalgia for me. I grew up in the Nick-at-Nite generation; “The Facts of Life” was one of the first shows I fell in love with from the lineup of classic situation comedies that were re-airing during the early 2000s.

As I pressed play on Tubi, preparing to revisit my childhood, I was most excited to revisit Natalie. She was the first Jewish teenager I had ever seen on television and as a femme Jewish kid verging on their teen years, I really related to her. I wanted to be Marilyn Monroe, but I was Natalie.

I went into this rewatch excited for the Jewish storylines revolving around Natalie. However, as I started to rewatch the series, I started to realize the Jewish storylines I had “remembered”…  didn’t actually exist. My memories were clouded by the love and pride I had felt seeing a Jewish character I felt so deeply connected with on my screen. But the Jewishness I’d hoped to revel in through my rewatch wasn’t as prominent as all the missed opportunities to tell Jewish stories on a show that was supposed to focus on learning about others and, more importantly, one’s self.

“The Facts of Life,” which ran from 1979-1988, targeted young adults, especially girls, and aimed to teach valuable life lessons — hence the title. The show told serious stories with humor and care through the lens of their four leads. Each episode of the series would focus on one girl at a time, whether that was spoiled rich girl Blair, sarcastic and smart Jo, gossipy and effervescent Tootie or body positive and confident Natalie. Natalie’s storylines in particular focused on beauty, dating, sexual assault and her journalistic ambitions. Natalie was the “chubby,” character, but her storylines never revolved around being chubby. Natalie was allowed to be vibrant, confident and witty. Natalie’s presence and personality indirectly told audiences of all ages that body fat shouldn’t hold you back from being a full time baddie and a half. Natalie’s storylines were well executed even by today’s standards and I’m thankful for a character like her. The series really touched on every topic that made sense for Natalie — except for one important aspect of her identity: her Jewishness.

Natalie’s Jewishness wasn’t fully ignored; it was brought up from time to time, like when her dad died and the family engaged in Jewish mourning rituals or when her grandma visits and tells stories of being a young woman in Ukraine after World War One. When “The Facts of Life” was on air, there were barely any Jewish characters as leads of a television series, and these little moments were quite impactful. But sitting on my couch in 2024, I wanted more. Visibility isn’t enough — we want our stories told in all their messy and complicated honesty. So I did what I do best as an Aries: I pretended that I was in charge of a writers room and put together some Jewish storylines for Natalie. If someone else isn’t going to do it, I’ll do it myself!

“The Facts of Life” is set at an all-girls boarding school in upstate New York. The age range of the girls attending the fictitious Eastland Academy in Peekskill, New York were between the ages of 12 to about 18 or 19. This stage of lifegives so many opportunities to tell Jewish stories for our resident Jewish baby angel — first and foremost, why was there no mention ever about Natalie getting Bat Mitzvahed?! We Jewish kids know the beauty and pain that is preparing for your b-mitzvah. There is so much self-discovery during that time and I think seeing Natalie go through that journey — especially in an environment where she is most likely one of a couple Jewish students in the very insular world of a preppy boarding school — would have been entertaining and compelling.

Speaking of good ol’ Eastland, having a Jewish storyline about going to a private boarding school would have been earth-shattering. For those not aware, Jewish people were banned until the latter part of the 20th century from going to certain country clubs and private schools or even living in particular neighborhoods — which is why there are country clubs, schools and neighborhoods that are or were specifically for Jews. Even though these exclusive doors eventually did open to Jews and other previously shut-out minorities over time, that doesn’t mean the attitudes of the people there changed. Even today, I know through a member of my family that a country club in my hometown is still antisemitic…  even though all are technically allowed to join. An episode about antisemitism in private institutions on “The Facts of Life”would have not only made sense, but could have pulled the curtain back on a really large issue that affects many people, not just Jews.

Natalie and the lack of Jewish storylines on “The Facts of Life” really is a microcosm for a bigger issue in film and television. Jewish storylines in media are rarely used and when they are,  it’s usually through supporting characters. If a film’s main characters and storyline are Jewish they tend to not get a wide release that could reach more than the audiences who go to independent and art house movie theaters. Many of the godfathers of Hollywood — the Warner brothers, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn to name a few — ran from their Jewish identities in public to avoid antisemitism. This bled into what Hollywood produced and didn’t produce, and robbed the Jewish people of seeing their stories told on screen as well as robbed the non-Jewish public from not only witnessing Jewish joy but also learning about antisemitism and the challenging parts of being Jewish. A Jewish character like Natalie could have been used to tell these stories to the youth of the 1980s. Alas, I wasn’t in the writer’s room back then, and I’m not in the writer’s room now — but if anyone wants to reboot “The Facts of Life” and use my Jewish storyline ideas, you’re welcome to — or better yet, call me to help.

Mindy Cohn’s portrayal of bubbly Natalie Green still holds importance to me to this day — she was one of my first Jewish inspirations. She’s mainly remembered as a beacon of body positivity and confidence, but she is also a beacon of Jewish girlhood, despite not getting the storylines that could have highlighted that important aspect of her identity.

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Late Take is a series on Hey Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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