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The Schmooze

Netflix’s ‘Russian Doll’ Has Big Talmud Energy

It wasn’t until the third episode of Netflix’s hit Russian Doll that I was able to put my finger on it.

Natasha Lyonne’s protagonist Nadia goes looking for answers at a synagogue associated with the old yeshiva that serves as the site of her character’s recurring resurrections. And as she poked around the rabbi’s waiting room, grilling and pressing the irritated secretary for answers, it finally struck me. That thick New York Jewish accent, that sloppy swagger, that playful glint in the eye. There’s no denying it: Nadia’s got BCE (Big Columbo Energy).

The beloved TV detective gets name-checked outright in that episode, when Nadia’s ex explains over the phone that he had to wear his trench coat because he left his coat with her the night before (Nadia replies with gravelly-voiced affection, “No one’s mad at Peter Falk, right?”). And really, when you think about it, mannerisms aside, Nadia goes about solving her peculiar predicament in a particularly Columbo-like way, systematically gathering information, poking at inconsistencies both in her own experience and in the information provided by others, looping back to and pressing people and places that seem to hold more clues.

But as Nadia sat in the synagogue waiting room questioning the secretary’s knowledge of the prayers, drinking ceremonial wine, I noticed something else she shares with Columbo, a certain common inheritance that underpins their similar methodologies, an echo of their Jewish pasts informing their modern quests for truth. That’s right: Nadia and Columbo both have Huge Talmud Energy.

In The Ethics of Our Fathers, Ben Bag Bag (a name Nadia would no doubt have a field day with) famously said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Some use this quote to defend the value of an immersive, ritually observant life. Others use it to argue for the multiplicity of opinions within Judaism itself, how from each new angle a new possibility for understanding the world can emerge from the ancient teachings. But Ben Bag Bag, one of the rabbis of the Mishnah, was likely also referring to the specific mode of study of rabbinic scholars involving exegetical principles meant to convert the original language of the law into a set of logical components, then reflecting on every possible interpretation that could be gleaned from each permutation of these logic applications until clarity was achieved (or they agreed to disagree).

Peter Falk, the Jewish son of Polish and Hungarian immigrants, no doubt internalized a reverence for the intellectual heritage of his faith. His Columbo is a Talmudist in spirit, taking seriously even the most insignificant-seeming clue, picking apart people’s statements at the level of sentences and even single words to catch them in a logical inconsistency. “Just one more thing,” he would famously say before unraveling their web of lies with a single, brilliant stroke of linguistic analysis. Nadia’s not a detective, but she does have her own case to solve, which she does with Talmudic aplomb. Her attention to even the smallest detail rivals Rashi himself, and more than once she’s seen shouting “Ipso facto!”, one finger raised in the air, like a rabbi coming to the satisfying conclusion of a particularly tricky section of Gemara.

But it’s not until she gets to the emotional heart of her issues that she begins to actually find the solutions that will set her free.

“Buildings aren’t haunted,” the rabbi tells Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, “People are.”

This is what Columbo knew, as well — that all the hard evidence in the world can’t get to the heart of the mystery the way a genuine understanding of people’s hopes, dreams, loves and fears can. And for all its logical contortions and exhaustive arguments, this is the heart of Jewish learning as well.

“Mysticism teaches that there is wisdom inaccessible to the intellect,” the rabbi informs Nadia’s ex, but Nadia won’t learn this lesson until she is able to confront her own demons and emerge on the other side of time.

“Turn it and turn it,” but know that no matter how many facts you gather, the answer won’t turn to you until you turn toward it, until you turn back around for that “one more thing,” for the missing piece that solves the puzzle, the heart of the matter.

“Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it,” Ben Bag Bag goes on to say. Grow with it, which is to say that the revelations the Torah provides grow as you do, with you, changing to meet you where you’re at, and take you where you need to go next. That’s what Nadia has to learn in order to unloop herself, to shed the guilt she’s carried to this point and finally reclaim her life as her own.

Rachel Klein is a writer and teacher living with her husband and two children in Boston, MA. Her personal essays and editorials have appeared in Catapult, Hazlitt, The Rumpus, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media and more, and her humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Reductress. Her current project is a memoir about the seven years she lived as an Orthodox Jew. You can follow her on Twitter @racheleklein.

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