To talk about the “they mitzvah” in the first season finale of “And Just Like That…,” I can’t start without acknowledging what Jewish people have been screaming since it aired: “You mean b’nai mitzvah?!?”
As a queer Jew, the show has had plenty of moments to kvetch about, but the misplaced attempt at reverence for Judaism and gender nonconformity with a “they mitzvah” somehow missed the point of both. By acting like the two identities must be forced together, it implies that Judaism hasn’t had space for queerness all along.
In case you haven’t had both the fortune and misfortune of seeing the “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That…” here’s what’s going on: Charlotte’s gender non-comforming child Rock is turning 13, so as a Jewish family, Rock is having a bat mitzvah — kind of. When Rock says “I don’t want a bat mitzvah,” Charlotte responds, “that’s why you’re having a they mitzvah!” This term could have been a cutesy, tongue-in-cheek reclamation of the gendered terms associated with bar and bat mitzvahs, had it actually been Rock’s decision to call it that. However, the way this important Jewish coming-of-age moment is treated in the show is as if queerness and Judaism are two things that would be inherently at odds otherwise.
Which brings me back to kvetching about calling it a “they mitzvah.”
When talking about the “they mitzvah,” Charlotte’s husband Harry frustratedly exclaims, ”Can we please give the old Jews something they recognize?” Actually, we do have something old Jews recognize. A gender-neutral term for bar and bat mitzvahs that already exists: b’nai mitzvah. The Hebrew pronoun “b’nai” is technically plural and masculine, but it serves similarly to how “they/them” in English can be used singularly, too. Even within the gendered language of Hebrew, wiggle room exists.
Homophobic interpretations of Christianity have been weaponized against queer people, making the modern American assumption that all Abrahamic religions must be intrinsically homophobic. Thankfully, it’s not true.
A common dismissal of nonbinary people is the classic “there are only two genders.” However, to my surprise, confusion and delight (in that order), the Talmud recognizes six genders: “An androgynous, who presents both male and female physical traits, is in some ways like men and in some ways like women. In some ways, they are like both men and women, and in other ways, like neither men nor women.” (Bikkurim 4:1)
An interpretation of this believes it means that there are men, women, trans men, trans women, people who are both and people who are neither. It’s an acknowledgement of the spectrum of gender that’s nearly two millennia old. It’s important to me for the same reason that Jewish culture is important to me: There have been people like us long before us, and if they survived, we can, too. Both queer and Jewish cultures formed around being treated as outsiders, and both have created so many joyful traditions out of that, including a bar/bat/b’nai mitzvah. The more I’ve come into my nonbinary and Jewish identities, the more I understand that they’re connected by how much each values the importance of questioning and reinterpreting the ideas that guide you.
Queer communities are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves to protect each other and expand inclusivity for the queer people that come after us, a tikkun olam-like belief in bettering our space for the next generation. Discovering my queer identity required questioning what I knew about myself. Similarly, in Judaism, everything is up for reevaluation. Our legal tradition says “although the Torah itself is immutable, the Sages of the Talmud teach that the interpretation of its laws and regulations is entirely within the province of human intellect.”
I did learn about the Talmud at my Reform Jewish Hebrew school, though not in great detail. In my eight or so years there, we never once talked about our religion’s views on gender or sexuality. I was left to assume that it wasn’t talked about because it was too negative to bring up, or, as I thought, simply didn’t exist. The Talmud is a refusal to take things at face value, a confirmation of the belief that the value of the Torah comes not just from the text but from how individuals connect to it.
Among her husband and child, Charlotte seems to be the only one comfortable with calling it a “they mitzvah.” Rock has never said they’re nonbinary, only announcing new pronouns and a new name. This means Charlotte (and the episode’s Jewish writers, Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky) made an informed choice in making a mock-name for this ceremony. In doing so, Charlotte unintentionally imposes what her idea of being a nonbinary Jew means and looks like, and doesn’t ask the actual nonbinary Jewish person who the ceremony is meant to be for. And not surprisingly, the “they mitzvah” is decked out in rainbows with gay men in pride yarmulkes serving challah. It’s cartoonishly queer, especially for a child who has, at this point in the show, never claimed that identity.
When Charlotte insists that Rock go out and recite their Torah portion, they refuse to participate. “I’m not doing it. I don’t believe in it,” Rock tells their parents. “I don’t want to be labeled as anything. Not as a girl. Or a boy. Or nonbinary. A Jew. A Christian. Muslim. Or even a New Yorker!”
This is the first time Rock says nonbinary, and it’s in a breath denouncing both that and Judaism, as if both have been equally stifling. Throughout the show, Rock’s character is only developed by what they’re not. That’s how a lot of queer kids come to understand themselves. My gender realization wasn’t that I am nonbinary, it was that I’m not a girl.
I also didn’t feel especially connected to being Jewish until I was in college and surrounded by people who were not Jewish, including two kids in my freshman dorm who had never met a Jew until me. In the absence of a wider community, it now mattered to me more than ever before. Meeting other Jewish students felt like instantly having hundreds of inside jokes with an otherwise stranger.
Queerness and Judaism are identities you have to figure out on your own, not ones that can be imposed onto you. In the original “Sex and the City” series, Charlotte converts to Judaism for her husband Harry, but also comes to see the value in it for her as an individual. Judaism was freedom for Charlotte — a step away from the intense WASPiness of her upbringing (and first husband) and a new connection to the man she loves. She chose to be Jewish happily and actively.
Rock rejects it just as actively. This may be why Rock rejects the three identities they list — not because they aren’t true for them (they are a New Yorker, they are Jewish) but because they’re assigned and imposed on them by Charlotte. Her attempt at over-the-top, rainbow flag allyship suggests that it takes massive effort to shoehorn queerness and Judaism together into one ceremony, as if those two identities require hard work to be forced to coexist.
Even in Rock saying they’re not a woman or man or nonbinary, there’s still inclusion via the Talmud: “In some ways, they are like both men and women, and in other ways, like neither men nor women.” There is an identity in Judaism for Rock, nearly exactly as they described it. However, that hasn’t been given as an option for them, and they have to find their way back to it on their own, the same way I did. Trans people have never had to be a special guest in Judaism. The more I learn about it, the more I understand we’ve been invited all along.