A Queer, Butch Woman Rabbi On Television? Meet Jen Kober, Of ‘Dead To Me.’
A non-exhaustive history of rabbis on television shows:
The rabbi on “Seinfeld”? A man.
The rabbi on “The West Wing”? A man.
The rabbi on “Seventh Heaven”? A man.
The rabbi on “Gossip Girl”? A man.
The rabbi on “Grey’s Anatomy”? A man.
The rabbi on “The Mindy Project”? A man.
The rabbi on Netflix’s “Dead To Me”? A woman. A young, visibly queer woman.
In December 2018, a casting director contacted Jen Kober with an unusual request. “Do you know the Mourner’s Kaddish?” she asked.
“I was like ‘Do you know how many dead Jews I know?’ Let’s go, I got this,” Kober remembers.
A week later, she shot a scene for Liz Feldman’s hit “Dead To Me,” a genre-defying, female-led series for Netflix, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Kober plays Rabbi Kaufman. Her “Mourner’s Kaddish”? Exquisite.
The first time a woman rabbi appeared on television was 1987. It was an episode of the show “A Year In A Life,” according to Jonathan and Judith Pearl in their book “The Chosen Image,” and the rabbi character officiated a brit bat, a naming ceremony for a Jewish baby girl. Woman rabbis have occasionally surfaced throughout the years on television; on a 1996 episode of “The Larry Sanders Show,” a rabbi played by Amy Aquino becomes a romantic protagonist. Just last month, a Saturday Night Live sketch showed a female rabbi, with little fanfare. And most iconically, non-Jewish (but excruciatingly life-like) actress Kathryn Hahn has portrayed Rabbi Raquel on all four seasons of Amazon’s “Transparent.”
But seeing a woman lead prayer in a tallis and kippah on television still feels revelatory. TV and movies are our biggest, shiniest mirror, the platform where Jewish culture is most loudly expressed to the largest masses. And Kober, unlike, generally, her predecessors, is Jewish in real life. She’s also queer.
That’s something Jewish “Dead To Me” creator Liz Feldman wanted for the role. Kober’s scene, which takes place in the final, climactic episode of the first season of the drama, shows her leading a service attended by Linda Cardellini’s character in a nursing home. Kober recites the Kaddish, then schools Cardellini on Jewish views on the afterlife. The scene is juxtaposed with another in which Christina Applegate’s character’s family unhappily attends a baptism.
“She wanted to show how uptight the priest was, and how laid-back the rabbi was,” Kober says, of Feldman’s decision to cast a queer-presenting woman as a rabbi.
Such good press for the Jews? Okay, we’ll take it.
Kober has close-cropped hair and a big frame. She gives an excellent smirk. She’ll play a sheriff in RuPaul’s upcoming project for Netflix, and is about to shoot a project with John Goodman. Her IMDB page reads like this:
Tough Female Customer
One of these things is not like the other. Is it?
“I’m the lady who punched Larry David out on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’” Kober acknowledges. She played Dale, a woman living in a shelter for female abuse survivors, in the eight season of “Curb.” If you haven’t watched her take Larry David down without laying a finger on him, you haven’t truly enjoyed television. (On set, Kober pretended David was her dad, to avoid being too star-struck.) “It was such a magical process,” she says.
But Kober can do more than pull punches. “I get it, I look like a big kind of bully of a person,” she says. “But I’m not at all. So it’s really fun when someone can really see past that exterior and let me play something softer.” Something like a rabbi — albeit a rabbi like the one on “Dead To Me,” who firmly corrects a grieving, crying woman, “There is no heaven. No hell, either.”
These pronouncements — which are, indeed, the kind of thing a rabbi might say, though they don’t represent all strands of Jewish belief — are very Kober. She grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the only Jews she knew were members of her immediate family. In the summer, she attended Reform Jewish camp. And during the academic year, she went to Episcopalian, and then Catholic school.
“I got kicked out of religion class daily because I had so many questions,” Kober remembers. “Once I started learning about Catholicism, I was like, ‘Well, this is clearly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,’” she says. She was skeptical of Judaism, too. “I would listen to the psalms and prayers of both religions, and I was like ‘Oh! Clearly, this is up for discussion,’” she laughs. “And that’s what I love about Judaism, that it allows for that discussion.”
“What did it mean?” a grieving woman on “Dead To Me” asks the rabbi, of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“That despite losing someone we love, we still praise God,” Kober, as the rabbi, responds.
In thick-framed glasses and tiny pearl studs, demonstrating passable Aramaic, Kober actually does look and sound precisely like many woman rabbis she represents — women make up a third of all Reform rabbis, and take up sizable percentages of rabbis in the Conservative and Reconstruction movements. “I love that being a rabbi is something that anyone could do,” Kober says.
“One woman came up to me after we’d finished filming,” Kober laughs, describing filming with elderly extras. “And she goes, “Young man. Young man, come here. How old are you?’ I say, ‘How old do you think I am?’ She goes, ‘19.’”
Kober chuckles. And then she stops. “She really didn’t get that I was a woman,” she says, thoughtfully. “She really thought that I was a 19-year-old boy.”
It is funny that, for some people, conceiving of even a fictional woman rabbi is so impossible that it’s easier to mis-gender a person than admit that they’re standing right in front of you. But Kober laughs again, sounding forgiving.
“Older people!” she says. “We have to show them.”
And we will. One butch, loud-spoken, tallis-wearing woman rabbi at a time.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny