Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Before we get started, let me promise that this post contains no Stranger Things Season 2 spoilers, but it might give away some things about the first season, so read at your own risk…
There’s a lot that I love about the show Stranger Things. I love its spot-on ’80s setting, which hearkens back to the Amblin Entertainment films of my childhood (and to my actual childhood— minus the supernatural stuff, for the most part). I love the excellent storytelling. I love that it gave Winona Ryder a shot at redemption, and she ran with it. I love that the stellar youth actors are the driving force behind the show.
I didn’t expect to love how it also got me thinking about big ideas, and I especially didn’t expect the themes it surfaces to have so many connections to Judaism in general and my Jewish experience in particular. But here are five things that my favorite creepy TV show has me contemplating and/or connecting with:
An outsider from another world finding a new community (but still being different).
My father is a first-generation American; both of his parents were immigrants from two different “old worlds” – being an outsider who has to learn the language, make friends, and find a place for yourself isn’t just Eleven’s story, it’s ours. Plus, growing up in a small town where mine was the only Jewish family, even being a few decades removed from my family’s arrival I always knew what it felt like to be The Only, The Outsider, The Eleven.
Coming of age at around 12 or 13 and taking on adult responsibilities.
The protagonists in Stranger Things are navigating those awkward years around 12 and 13, when everything is changing and stakes are raising. Sure, these kids also have danger and demons lurking around every corner, but still. All that does is raise the stakes around the reality that they’re coming of age and not able to shirk their own role in fixing things (MyJewishLearning has a cool article on this coming-of-age also connecting with the concept of Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov, which could be its own Stranger Things exploration…) Basically, instead of preparing for a bar mitzvah, these kids have to tackle evil scientists and the underworld. So, speaking as a former b’nai mitzvah tutor, I feel like my students would agree that it’s a pretty similar level of stress.
The Upside Down sounds a lot like Sheol.
Judaism isn’t big on hell, which I’ve always appreciated, but there is the ancient concept of Sheol, described as ‘a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit,” and “the Land of Forgetfulness,” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence’… uh, if that doesn’t describe The Upside Down, I don’t know what does.
Three (or more) sides to every argument.
Whether deciding to tell the adults, take on the Demagorgon, trust Eleven, no choices are simple. They sometimes lead to arguments, but in the end, friendships are restored and we move forward. Yep.
More questions than answers.
Possibly my favorite and most frustrating thing about Judaism, and the show: There are always more questions than answers. We’re gifted and tormented with mystery. The story is complex and the plot keeps thickening. And let us say amen!