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‘The West Wing’ Is Still the Jewiest Show for Our Post-Jewish Times

On a recent episode of “The West Wing Weekly” — a podcast that discusses Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated TV series “The West Wing” — Joshua Malina reported that a certain Facebook commenter, “Jim,” had complained that the podcast discussed Jewish topics too often.

You can certainly disagree with Jim’s judgment, but he’s right that Jewishness has been a recurring topic. Malina, a co-host of the podcast who also played Will Bailey on “The West Wing,” has cited his Judaism as an explanation for his acting style, debated the meaning of midrash and the Talmudic view of the death penalty with a New Hampshire rabbi, outed himself as a former adorable yeshiva bochur, and, in the same episode where Jim’s complaint was noted, suggested that a seemingly nonsense word used by the WASP-y character Sam Seaborn may, in fact, be a thinly-veiled Yiddishism.

Podcast aside, “The West Wing” itself continually returns to Jewish questions. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that “The West Wing” is, among many other things, an exploration of American Jewish life at the turn of the 21st century.

The Jewishness of “The West Wing” is highly ambivalent and overwhelmingly non-religious (that is, not markedly for or against). Even for the show’s Jewish characters, as seemingly for Sorkin himself, Jewishness is rarely a central element of the intrigue. Yet Jewishness lingers, marking a difference that, though hard to recognize and even harder to define, is nonetheless significant. My claim is that this lingering Jewishness, not quite enough to fundamentally differentiate Jews from non-Jews but surely not something the Jews are willing to cede, resonates with the experience of a broad swath of American Jews today.

Part of the ambivalence of Jewishness that the show performs and reveals lies in the difficulty of distinguishing Jews from non-Jews. Malina “passes” easily as the not-noticeably Jewish Will Bailey, whose family is so well-connected in Europe that Bailey vacations in French castles, while Bradley Whitford (who “could not be WASP-ier”) plays the Jewish Josh Lyman.

Joshua Malina posted his bar mitzvah photos on Instagram. Image by Instagram

But even when Jews are called out (“Jewhoo’ed”), the difficulty of articulating what is Jewish about them is a central concern. In one scene in season 4, Josh complains to Toby Ziegler about the latter’s tendency to treat his “sharper anti-Semitism meter” as a mark of superior Jewishness (Toby retorts: “The ancient Hebrews had a word for Jews from Westport. They pronounced it Presbyterian”). But elsewhere, Josh’s Jewishness comes through forcefully, as when he sarcastically tells a black civil rights lawyer that he can’t afford to pay him reparations, because “the SS officer forgot to give my grandfather his wallet back when he let him out of Birkenau.” Earlier in that same episode, however, Josh had resisted taking the meeting because, as he put it, “I’m a white guy from Connecticut,” a slippage that demonstrates the ambivalence to which I refer in a single narrative arc.

And Toby is far from frum himself: In season 1, he takes a cell phone call during Shabbat morning services, and thinks nothing of leaving shul early to go into the office (though despite his dubious observance, he is still persuaded to act on a policy by his rabbi’s insistence that “vengeance isn’t Jewish”). But his Jewish background does provide one of the most overt instances of Jewishness on “The West Wing,” when the Christmas episode in season 4 features a cold open entirely in Yiddish, set in Brooklyn on the night of Toby’s birth. In a sense, Toby’s father embodies the immigrant past, and Toby’s fraught relationship with him is a subtle yet profound commentary on the dynamics and cost of assimilation.

These are only a few of the ways in which “The West Wing” can be seen as negotiating the often inarticulable exigencies of Jewishness in times. What is Jewishness after assimilation, long after the end of systematic anti-Semitism in America? What is Jewishness with neither religion nor strong ethnic ties? If Jewishness lingers, what lingers with it? And how much of that, whatever it is, can be sacrificed without losing all the rest?

Of course, “The West Wing” is also much more than these Jewish questions, and cannot be reduced to a projection of Aaron Sorkin’s Jewish anxieties. But in addition to all the other beautiful things “The West Wing” is, there remains something — though what, precisely, cannot quite be said — deeply Jewish about it. If we haven’t acknowledged “The West Wing” as a Jewish show, it might be because we tend to confuse Jewish identification for Jewish identity. Jewish identification is explicit and proud: I am Jewish, and here is what I have to say. But Jewish identity persists even in the absence of specific reference to things Jewish, even if just as a question mark. Jewish identity is what operates within and beneath “The West Wing,” even when the show and its characters do not identify in those terms.

Maybe there’s something more reassuring about Jewish identification, since it relieves us from asking all the daunting questions noted above. But in the end, it’s less important to be sure about what Jewishness is, to feel certain that we know it when we see it, than it is to ask those very questions that “The West Wing” grapples with. And hey, what could be more Jewish than that?

Evan Goldstein is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary.

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