The TV show “Degrassi” started in the 1980s and has since become a cultural phenomenon, covering practically every teen issue there ever was. From school shootings to drug disasters, teen pregnancies to traumatic car accidents — you name it, a “Degrassi” teen has experienced it. The show has been able to stay alive these past 40+ years, moving from network to network, because with each generation, modern issues are brought to the table and are not only touched on, but thoroughly explored.
I started watching “Degrassi” when I was about 13, and the whole world seemed to be dramatically crashing around my prepubescent life. I thought my friends all hated me, everyone’s clothes seemed cooler than mine and I was terrified that my bat mitzvah would be a social flop. In came “Degrassi,” where all of Ashley’s friends turned on her, Paige outed people for wearing last year’s looks and Manny had a traditional Philippine debut to celebrate her 18th birthday. Seeing these characters struggling with all the same things as I did (albeit a tad bit more dramatically) helped me see that everyone was probably going through the same anxieties as I was.
Recently, HBO Max released all of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” to stream, so naturally I started watching again, flipping through my favorite seasons for all the best drama. I was struck with a nostalgic and comforting feeling, knowing that these characters helped me put my own life into perspective.
Through all of it, however, one topic, though mentioned sporadically, was never actually brought up as a plot point: Judaism.
Upon realizing that my own identity seemed to be missing from my favorite show, I headed to “Degrassi” Wiki to see what I could find. A few characters are brought up: Maya Goldberg, “Degrassi High” (1989); Toby Isaacs, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (2001-2015); and Yael Baron, “Degrassi: Next Class” (2016-2017). Though all of these characters have very typical “Jewish names,” the most that is mentioned about their religion is that they celebrate Hanukkah. Judaism is used as a supporting and seemingly unimportant part of characters’ identities.
So much of “Degrassi” follows characters through their journeys of finding themselves through religion, sexuality, and race — how had I never noticed that there wasn’t a storyline about one of the Jewish characters’ relationship with Judaism?
The “Degrassi” cast is in no way short on Jewish actors. Of course there’s Drake, previously known as Aubrey Graham (Jimmy Brooks), and alongside him in the “Next Gen” cast were Lauren Collins (Paige Michalchuk), Stacey Farber (Ellie Nash), Sarah Barrable-Tishauer (Liberty Van Zandt), Shane Kippel (Spinner Mason), Jake Goldspie (Toby Isaacs) and Natty Zavitz (Bruce the Moose). Each of their characters was strong, consistently evolving, and undaunted throughout their fictitious lives, and their actors’ Jewishness seems almost more apparent as I go back through the series and watch their characters develop.
Lauren Collins stood out to me in particular: Her portrayal of Paige somehow exudes Jewishness even though the character is not. She is powerful, often considered bossy, loud and confident. Her willingness to stand up for herself develops throughout seasons 2-4, as seen when she chooses to press charges against a boy who sexually assaulted her. Her character is raw and intense and unafraid to tell the truth, even though the charges are tragically denied. Paige is also undaunted by doing the right thing for her friends, ultimately saving Ellie from continuing to cut herself and Terri from being in an abusive relationship. I found so much of myself in Lauren Collin’s portrayal of Paige through her loyalty, passion and intense anxieties around perfection that I can’t help but think of her as someone who helped shape my own Jewish identity.
There are now hundreds of teen shows that center around high school drama, but I will always believe that “Degrassi” did it first, and best. Since rewatching, I am able to find myself in even more of the characters due to their consistent development throughout the show. Throughout the 14 seasons of “Next Generation,” every main character is able to grow from the trauma they have gone through to become a more compassionate, strong and self-assured person. When I first started watching “Degrassi,” I had no idea how much the characters’ lives and traumas would relate to my own. But 10 years later, I am able to see how much each storyline impacted me as a Jewish woman, even without a prominent Jewish perspective.
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 email@example.com with “Late Take” in the subject line.