Like seemingly everyone else on Twitter, I spent this Sunday riveted by the finale of The Undoing, a fantastic HBO mini-series starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, two very fine actors who are also very not Jewish. I mention this because, as few of the program’s viewers may realize, the series is based on the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel You Should Have Known, which happens to be the most Jewish book I’ve ever read.
The novel’s take on the story is less a “who-done-it,” like the series, and more a “who-am-I?” It is an exploration of identity by Grace (Kidman in the series) after her husband becomes the prime suspect of a murder investigation. Subsequently, everything she thought she knew about Jonathan — his fidelity, his employment, his connection to multiple murders, even the legitimacy of a Birken bag he once gifted her — all proves to be part of one big fraud. The protagonist’s life becomes “undone,” as she realizes how severely she has isolated herself from any relationship outside her marriage.
HBO’s adaptation took many liberties with the story, which I understand is the nature of the game, but one change particularly disappointed me. You Should Have Known is knee-deep in cultural Judaism. The Undoing is a story about WASPs.
In the book, there is chatter about Jewish summer camp, a shiva that Jonathan uses as an alibi for murder, and Grace’s weekly Shabbat dinner obligation with her father and stepmother. There is even a somewhat random tangent about Grace’s grandfather who “never told his wife that his own mother was Jewish,” but was deeply touched when she learned to make matzah. As for Grace, who states that she is not particularly religious, it is her cultural Jewishness — that web of values and traditions — that ultimately helps her become whole again.
Grace’s “re-doing,” so to speak, is facilitated by her embrace of her Jewishness. No, there is little religious salvation, but her process of repentance is steeped in Jewish tradition. She allows herself a short period of grieving. She apologizes to old friends. She reconnects with family. She donates her things to the less fortunate. She finds a nice Jewish man writing a book about Asher Levy. When Grace begins to rebuild a relationship with her father, it occurs while eating Zabar’s on Christmas. When she reconnects with her husband’s estranged family, her father-in-law is concerned that he may have missed her son’s bar mitzvah in the time they weren’t speaking. Every step of the way, it is through Jewish culture that Grace regains her sense of identity. Together, it comprises one of the most authentic reflections of my own connection to Judaism that I’ve ever seen.
Laugh all you want, but Zabar’s smoked fish happens to be important to my own relationship with Judaism. Happy memories of eating whitefish with my grandmother are far more important to my Jewish identity than anything I learned in Hebrew school. And how many young Jews have felt the sting of not receiving a bar mitzvah invitation, an ultimate middle school snub? These non-religious instances are key to my connection to Judaism.
And yet, this story that touched me so dearly as a celebration of cultural Judaism could not be less reminiscent of its TV adaptation. The whitewashed murder mystery changes the last name of the characters from Sachs to Fraser to tell us a WASP story, still set in New York City, but with no mention of any of the book’s most culturally significant aspects.
It’s not the first time in recent years that a Jewish source material has been watered down for a film version. Take This Is Where I Leave You, the Jonathan Tropper book about a Jewish family sitting shiva. The trailer for the 2014 film adaptation doesn’t mention the word “shiva” even once, and its star-studded cast is, for all its talent, entirely gentile. There’s also the erasure of Harley Quinn’s Jewishness from DC adaptations. Whitewashing in American pop culture certainly isn’t just a Jewish problem, with white actors frequently cast in place of minorities with the goal of resonating with a “broader audience.”
By whitewashing cultural themes, perhaps in a failed attempt to make it feel more “universal,” Hollywood continues to glaze over some of the most personal and realistic parts of these tales. While so much great progress has been made towards representation in media, the choice to un-Jew The Undoing shows that there is still a ways to go towards authentically depicting Jewish culture on screen.