Gaunt and wild-eyed, the hoard of congregants stumbles toward the rabbi, muttering and moaning things that sound like “You need to move my kid’s bar mitzvah date” and “Now let me tell you what I really thought of your sermon.”
The rabbi shudders and says a little prayer. Then he cocks his knife-topped Winchester, and turns toward his flock.
AMC’s “Fear The Walking Dead,” the prequel spinoff to the hit show “The Walking Dead,” introduced a new slayer this week — Rabbi Jacob Kessner. It’s Peter Jacobson! You may know him from dozens of Jewish roles, including on “House,” “Bull,” and “Ray Donovan.” (Not to take away from Jacobson’s talent, but his resume makes it clear that Hollywood loves to remind people what Jews “should” look like. Compare, for example, how frequently Scarlett Johansson plays a Jewish character. But that’s another article.)
A very life-like havdallah ceremony (not pictured: the undead.)
We meet the Rabbi (who claims to have spent time in Yeshiva but seems pretty obviously Reform or Conservative) in season five, episode 12, as he leads a havdallah ceremony at which he is the only attendee, complete down to him examining his nails in the light of the flame, a tradition that is not, as one reviewer claimed, a reference to the rabbi’s ring and “a clear indication his wife has previously died.”
Rabbi Jacob, who welcomes members of the ragtag caravan who stumble across the pristine synagogue where he has taken shelter, falls somewhere between a classic TV rabbi trope and something more lifelike. He’s the former leader of “Temple B’nei Israel,” a 60s-era compound where the rabbi keeps the traditions of Judaism alone, but for the occasional zombie. When a teenage girl takes shelter in the sanctuary he jokes, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first person to fall asleep in my shul,” and later calmly stabs zombies in between rolling the Torah. He also, more than once, appears to refer to God as “she.” Pretty cool stuff.
On the other hand, he insists that the one man who enters the sanctuary put on a kippah and makes tourettes-like references to the ner tamid (the eternal flame burning in the sanctuary — it’salso the title of the episode,) the concept of m’chayeh hameitim [resurrection of the dead], tradition, Tzadikim Nistarim, mitzvot, kashrut, and Maariv.
Rabbi Jacob Kessner, Zombie Slayer.
It’s hard to tell if this is the affectation of a writer who spent a year at the Pardes Institute after college, or if Rabbi Jacob is modeled after a certain type of rabbi who can’t stop bageling himself. As the episode progresses, so does the show’s Yiddishkeit — it’s not just a token Jewish episode. The Rabbi’s congregants, it is revealed, have been stalking him, zombie-fied, ever since he abandoned them during a crisis of faith (this also feels hilariously life-like.) He admits that he clings to Jewish practice as a bulwark against change, not as a matter of faith, and that he’s no longer a believer.
But Rabbi Jacobson still finds use for the mechanisms of Rabbinic Judaism — blowing the shofar as a hail-Mary to call his errant flock away from their would-be prey, the Rabbi corrals the dues-payers-turned-zombies into the sanctuary. Slouching in like latecomers on Rosh Hashanah morning, the ashke-zombies are called to prayer(ish) and our heroes escape. The synagogue, now tainted, is abandoned — it no longer serves a holy purpose. The rabbi joins the caravan of do-gooders, promising “I’m going to start looking again for what I need to find and I won’t stop till I find it.”
Is it too much to imagine that the writers of “Fear The Walking Dead” are echoing the story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who, on the eve of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, abandoned the Temple in Jerusalem in favor of starting a Jewish school? Jewish history is kept together by two disparate forces — both clinging to and swerving from history have allowed our survival.
“Ner Tamid” is certainly a sermon — perhaps on the Jewish need for a more dynamic evolving tradition in the face of assimilation, perhaps calling American Jews to renounce Israel. “I’m sorry it didn’t end up being a place that you could call home,” the rabbi tells a disillusioned young girl who had hoped Jewish complex could keep her “people” safe — could that be a subtle criticism of the limits of Jewish homeland? The episode may not be commentary on the tribe at all. Rather, as has so often been the fate of Jews in pop culture, its intent may be to use Jews as a kooky but non-threatening lens through which normal people can understand themselves.
Whatever the writers’ intent may be, Rabbi Jacob seems here to stay — he joins with the merry band of the main cast at the end of the episode, provoking a lead character, Sarah (Mo Collins) to acknowledge that she, too, is a Jew.
“Sarah. Rabinowitz” she snarls, when another zombie fighter questions her. “Card-carrying.”
In short, don’t you dare tell a zombie-slayer she “doesn’t really look Jewish.”
Watch a Zombie-adjacent havdallah ceremony here:
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny