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Network Jews: Rachel Berry from FOX’s ‘Glee’

Glee is the most consistently inconsistent series on TV. Its tone veers wildly from arch satire to earnest melodrama and back again, often within the span of a single scene. Ridiculous storylines—Terri is faking her pregnancy! Quinn is plotting to steal back her baby! A group of 21st-century teenagers has memorized Fleetwood Mac’s Wikipedia entry!—share space with relatable plots about, say, having sex for the first time or worrying about life after high school. Characters’ relationships change more quickly and arbitrarily than Beyoncé at an awards show. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Ryan Murphy’s writing room is actually staffed by those proverbial typewriting monkeys.

But even in the midst of chaos, a few things remain relatively steady from episode to episode. (Yes, this contradicts everything I just said. How very Glee!) There are the songs, of course, which form the show’s backbone even as they become increasingly irrelevant to its plot. And then there are the characters, who, in the grand tradition of long-running TV comedies, can each be described by a handful of rigid defining traits. Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris) is a dumb cheerleader. Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) is a sensitive jock. Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) is a bitch. And Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is a talented, obnoxious, and Jewish superstar in training.

During Glee’s first few seasons, Rachel’s Semitism was as ingrained as her thirst for a Broadway spotlight. The character’s middle name is Barbra, as in Streisand—another Jewish performer who doubles as Rachel’s idol. Early in Season 1, she briefly dated fellow Member of the Tribe Noah Puckerman after he supposedly received the following message from God: “Rachel was a hot Jew and the good lord wanted [him] to get into her pants.” (Puck seduced his non-shiksa goddess by singing “Sweet Caroline,” presumably because Glee couldn’t get the rights to “Miracle of Miracles.”) During a second season episode that’s themed on religion, Rachel even told her once and current boyfriend that if the two of them ever have kids, they must be raised according to her faith. When Finn agreed, she allowed him to round second base.

Rachel, then, is the classic prudish overachiever with a kosher twist—Election’s Tracy Flick with a better voice and a bigger nose. (TV creators really need to think of a more creative way to describe their young, type-A female characters.) Or, at least, that’s who she once was. As time has passed and Glee has burned through storylines with increasing manic frequency, the series’ writers have been forced to take shortcuts. And instead of slowing down Glee’s breakneck pace or sacrificing potential iTunes singles for extra scenes of dialogue, they’ve chosen to neglect previously established characterization—thus making their show’s already archetypal characters even less dimensional.

Much like Will Schuester’s redeeming qualities or Tina Cohen-Chang’s entire personality, Rachel’s Jewish-ness has been a casualty of this downsizing process. There was a time when an entire episode—Season 2’s “Born This Way”—focused on Rachel’s yearning to transform her Semitic schnoz into a dainty, goyish nose like blonde cheerleader Quinn’s. (The irony: Quinn is played by Dianna Agron, a Southern Jew who’s a card-carrying bat mitzvah. By contrast, Lea Michele has a Jewish father but was raised Catholic.)

But as Season 3 draws to a close tonight, Rachel’s once-vital religion has been all but forgotten. In this year’s emphatically denominational holiday episode, for example, Rachel presented Finn with an exorbitant Christmas list, enthusiastically participated in an homage to The Judy Garland Christmas Special, and cheerfully sang a bevy of Christmas carols—only remembering her heritage during a quick, barely audible “Happy Hanukkah!” shouted just as the hour ended. And when Rachel noted during last week’s episode that she’s “still Jewish,” her remark was more of a sheepish reminder than an affirmation.

Demanding some semblance of reliability would be asking too much of Glee at this point. Nonetheless, it’s disappointing to watch one of network TV’s most visible Jews lose an affiliation that used to define her—even if her rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” can still put Barbra to shame. (Provided, of course, that she can remember the words.)

Previously on Network Jews:

Maurice Levy, the Jewish lawyer from David Simon’s HBO drama The Wire

Krusty the Clown from FOX’s long-running animated classic The Simpsons

Annie Edison from NBC’s cult favorite Community

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