thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Mazel Tov, Cindy: On Orange Is the New Black’s New Jewish Convert

In race, TV on July 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm


Sarah T.

The most moving story about faith you’re likely to see on a television series this year starts with a kosher meal and ends with a small-scale prison break. At the center of it all is Orange Is the New Black’s irreverent Cindy Hayes (aka “Black Cindy”), who would seem to be an unlikely candidate for finding religion. What kind of spiritual seeker announces her decision to convert by shouting “Where my dreidel at” in the middle of a cafeteria?

Well: a wonderful new Jew, is who.

Cindy’s surprisingly joyful journey to Judaism stood out in a series that has featured many other stories about how people use religion to justify oppression, exclusion and manipulation. This season, the Netflix series skewers a flower-child cult that swindles naïve believers and a present-day prison sect that appears harmless but winds up forcing an already-depressed inmate into further isolation. Traditional religions also come under scrutiny. In a flashback, one woman’s father forbids her from running track to get a college scholarship, calling her uniform indecent by the standards of the Nation of Islam. A Christian father threatens his young daughter with the prospect of eternal damnation for sneaking a taste of mashed potatoes during grace. In all of these cases, belief itself isn’t the problem. The danger lies in people who want to wield it as a weapon.

In the midst of these darker tales, Cindy stumbles into a spiritual awakening. And the very qualities that would seem to make her resistant to faith—her deep-rooted skepticism, her refusal to take anything seriously—turn out to make her feel right at home with Judaism.

Cindy has long used levity as a buffer between herself and the grim realities of Litchfield prison. (“You ever think about Jay-Z and Beyonce fucking?” she asks while working the prison’s underground cigarette trade. “Cause I do. Like, more than I do myself, even.”) She’s also happy to break rules in pursuit of pleasure. In her pre-prison life, she used her position as an airport security worker to pilfer iPads from passengers’ suitcases and pat down muscled male travelers.

So it makes perfect sense that Cindy’s interest in Judaism is initially confined to its culinary riches. Litchfield’s new corporate overlord, MCC, has switched the prisoners to a budget-friendly diet of lumpy brown mystery meat. So Cindy and other inmates start asking for kosher meals in order to gain access to fresh broccoli and similar foods identifiably from planet Earth.

Her regard for Judaism might have ended there. But the run on kosher meals at Litchfield raises MCC’s suspicions. The company sends a rabbi in to interview inmates and root out the pretenders, prompting Cindy to take a crash course in Jewish culture by way of Woody Allen. When her monologues plucked straight from Annie Hall and Yentl fail to convince the skeptical but clearly entertained rabbi, Cindy decides there’s just one thing to do: “convert for real.”

It’s Cindy’s breeziness about this process that makes her ultimately sincere desire to become a Jew pack so much punch. She works hard to prepare herself for conversion, even paying Jewish inmates granola bars in exchange for tutoring in the Hebrew alphabet. But the only way she can tackle something so serious is tell herself it’s a lark, insisting that her sudden affinity for the Torah is all about access to better eats.

Some critics have taken umbrage at the characters who spout stereotypes about Jewish people this season. It’s true that there are Jews-control-the-media jokes aplenty, some of which land better than others. And Cindy herself has certain assumptions about what Jewish people look and act like. Suspicious of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed inmate Ginsberg’s Jewish bonafides, Cindy is satisfied only when Ginsberg admits she’s in prison for money laundering. “Now we talking,” she declares with a grin. Ginsberg rolls her eyes. (That reaction shot is key: it signals to the audience that the show is only deploying the stereotype in order to deflate it.)

Moreover, such comments are in keeping with the assumptions that all Litchfield inmates make about women who come from backgrounds different from their own. Orange Is the New Black’s specialty has always been to show how stereotypes give way to specificity as its characters get to know each other–and as the audience gets to know them. Before we knew Suzanne as a thoughtful, creative woman who pens very strange erotica featuring characters made entirely from Vaseline, we saw her from the (very white) Piper’s perspective as the threatening “Crazy Eyes.” Red seems at first like a ruthless Russian villain but emerges as a tough-yet-vulnerable mother figure to a brood of younger inmates.

The gradual process by which Orange Is the New Black dismantles such biases was particularly key this season, as the racial lines that largely determine the show’s prison cliques became a little more porous. Suzanne’s romance novel draws fans from every background. (“The universality of my work unites all races,” she explains as her lunch table fills with devotees.) Norma’s aforementioned prison cult has its problems, but it’s certainly racially diverse. After a depressed Soso tries to overdose on prescription pills, Cindy’s group of friends takes her in. And then there was Cindy herself, dropping casual references to saving a chair for Elijah, muttering that the New Testament amounts to “fan fiction” and eventually sitting down with two white, Jewish inmates and a rabbi to make the conversion official.

What appeals most to Cindy about Judaism, it turns out, isn’t the matzah balls and Manischewitz but the religion’s commitment to existing in a state of rigorous uncertainty. “If you do something wrong, you’ve got to figure it out yourself,” she explains. “Your job is to keep asking questions and keep learning and arguing. It’s like a verb, it’s like you do God. And that’s a lot of work. But I think I’m in, at least as far as I can see it. I mean, maybe I’ll learn more and say the fuck the whole thing, but I want to learn more, and I gotta be in it to do that.”

As the rabbi’s warm gaze reveals, she’s just nailed what being Jewish–heck, what being an adult regardless of your belief system–is supposed to be about.

The storyline is particularly moving because it showcases Cindy’s confident negotiation of multiple identities. Black Judaism is often ignored by the popular media; in Cindy, the identity is made visible.

The show acknowledges that there aren’t a ton of black Jews out there while making the point that there are certainly some. (Drumming up celebrity examples, Cindy’s friends come up with Lenny Kravitz and—later—Drake.) Nonetheless Cindy plunges ahead with enthusiasm, forming new bonds with Jewish inmates while remaining close with her established group of black friends. “I don’t know why she’d want to go from a hated minority to a double-hated minority,” a Jewish inmate declares of Cindy during their meeting with the rabbi, “but she’s for real.”

The relative ease with which Cindy moves between the prison’s black and Jewish cultures isn’t meant to suggest that Litchfield has magically become a multicultural melting pot. This season Sophia, a trans black woman, becomes increasingly isolated in prison, eventually becoming the target of a violent hate crime. But just as Cindy’s storyline serves to balance the show’s critiques of religion, so does her ability to build homes across multiple communities serve as a counter-narrative wherein self-definition is greeted with acceptance.

The plot also works to resist the idea that Jewish people must look a certain way or even belong to a particular ethnic category. Not only does Cindy herself disprove that assumption, her attempts to identify other Jews on sight go awry. Ginsberg’s coloring makes Cindy incorrectly suspect she’s a WASP in disguise; Cindy also wanders up to a curly-haired inmate to inquire about her Jewish status, only to have the other woman declare she’s Puerto Rican.

It’s worth asking why Judaism escapes the critical gaze that Orange Is the New Black extends to many other religions this season. Part of the reason may lie in the rabbinical tradition of refusing potential converts’ advances at least three times, as depicted in the season finale. The show primarily rebukes people who attempt to foist their religious beliefs onto others. In depicting Judaism as a religion that actively turns people away–at least unless they’re really sure they want in–the show suggests alternative ways to practice faith.

Religion that plays hard to get also turns out to awaken a passion in Cindy that’s long been dormant. As her speech reveals, a big part of her interest in Judaism lies in the idea that it requires so much intellectual and spiritual work while refusing prescription.

But while Cindy’s journey is partly about self-discovery, it’s also about finding a way to connect to something bigger. This point is driven home late in the season finale, when a hole in the prison gate opens up and inmates start streaming through to splash around in Freedom Lake. Cindy searches desperately for Ginsberg, excited to have a shot at getting the mikvah that will make her conversion complete. “Isn’t that her crashing through the underbrush?” another prisoner asks.

A little while later, we see Cindy submerged in the lake while Ginsberg holds her clothes, reciting the blessing in Hebrew. Underwater, Cindy looks radiant. And when she comes up for air, laughing, she’s still stuck on the prison grounds, trapped in a system that’s corrupt, unjust and often inhumane. But for now, at least, she’s achieved what every character on the show hopes for in one way or another. She’s found a way to get herself somewhere new.

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