Nathan Fielder has never been shy about incorporating his Jewish heritage into his projects.
In a 2015 episode of “Nathan For You,” the Canadian Jewish comedian created his own outdoor apparel company (with all proceeds going towards the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre) after his favorite active wear company promoted a Holocaust denier. In 2022’s “The Rehearsal,” Nathan shared his bar mitzvah photos and tried to teach a child actor playing his son all about Judaism. (This resulted in hilarious quips like “I hadn’t been to synagogue in years because it’s so boring” from Fielder and “I unfortunately cannot participate in Judaism” from Angela, his Christian co-parent.)
“The Curse,” a new dark comedy from Fielder and Jewish co-creator Benny Safdie, is no exception.
In the first episode of the show, which premiered yesterday, Fielder and Emma Stone play newlywed Jewish couple and HGTV hosts Asher and Whitney Siegel. When the viewer meets them, the Siegels are just beginning to film their show “Fliplanthropy,” in which they help their neighbors in Española, NM by designing sustainable houses and new businesses. However, not everything is as perfect as it seems.
A reporter reveals that Whitney’s family has a reputation as being slumlords, causing Asher to get defensive and aggressive on camera. The Siegel’s producer and Asher’s best friend/bully from Jewish summer camp Dougie Shechter (Safdie) is slimy and shady, and the Siegels come off as whiter saviors rather than actual members of the Española community. Whitney and her family mock Asher for his micropenis. And Asher has a titular curse thrust upon him by a small, intense child in a parking lot. All of these factors build in the first episode, leading the viewer to think that we are going to watch “Fliplanthropy” and the Siegels’ marriage completely blow up over the course of the show.
But for now, the Siegels are kinda keeping it together and halfway through the episode they celebrate Shabbat with Whitney’s parents, Paul and Elizabeth.
At the dinner table, with Asher and Paul donning kippot and Whitney wearing a Star of David necklace, Emma as Whitney covers her eyes and beautifully recites the blessing over the Shabbat candles.
“So why do you do the candles?” Whitney’s mom asks, implying that she and Paul are not Jewish. “Oh, um, well we do them because Whitney wants to do them,” Asher responds, laughing slightly.
“Typically you light the candles before the sun goes down because the Torah forbids lighting a fire after dark. So really, you light your candles and you’re able to see your dinner. So it’s only practical,” Whitney interjects.
“Is that the reason?” Asher looks to Whitney slightly dumbfounded to which she responds, “That’s what he told us in the class.”
Beyond my excitement at seeing Fielder use his Jewish upbringing onscreen and Emma Stone do an incredible job with Hebrew pronunciation, I was intrigued at the choice to incorporate this Shabbat scene. In a show with plenty of class, racial and marital tension, “The Curse” doesn’t need Jewish tension, too. And yet, the show uses the Shabbat scene to incorporate a hyper-specific and nuanced Jewish tension: the discomfort people who are born Jewish feel when Jews by choice know more about Jewish tradition than they do. In turn, this further reveals the mismatched dynamic between Whitney and Asher: Whitney enthusiastically converted to Judaism when marrying Asher, meanwhile it seems that Asher didn’t really care whether she converted or not.
While this detail might seem small, I could easily see tiny, tense, Jewish moments like this one being straw that breaks the camel’s back (or the Siegel’s marriage) and ultimately leads to their downfall. Here’s hoping the next nine episodes of “The Curse” include further stressful, weird scenes with Jewish rituals to pick apart.