Category Archives: Television

Get Down with Your True Self

While Stranger Things has been getting all the love this summer, don’t forget to also check out Netflix’s new show, The Get Down. The Baz Luhrmann series takes place in the South Bronx in the 1970’s and uses the “Bronx is burning” backdrop to tell a story about the rise of hip-hop, disco, and punk music while the city was nearing bankruptcy. Like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, this series is a musical, using well-known songs and original lyrics to tell the story of preacher’s daughter Mylene Cruz (played by Herizen Guardiola) who just wants to sing disco instead of gospel and orphan Zeke Figuero (played by breakout start Justice Smith), a smart student that writes poetry and is introduced to the brand-new world of DJ’s and MC’s. While the show received mixed reviews and the first episode is long and slow, it is enjoyable for anyone who appreciates the origins of hip-hop, especially the influence of pioneer Grandmaster Flash. Plus, I’ll watch anything that involves Jimmy Smits. 

The backdrop is over the top in typical Baz Luhrmann fashion. The first season had a reported budget of $120 million, unheard of for a television series. And while Luhrmann went to great lengths and spent a great deal of money to make this backdrop of 1970’s New York look authentic, the backdrop is secondary to what the story of this show is really about.

The Get Down uses the backdrop of the 1970’s New York underground music scene to tell the story that we all feel – the story of a person being pulled in multiple directions. Mylene Cruz is a religious girl, growing up in a religious family. She is the daughter of a preacher who wants to sing disco music and wrestles with the tension between her family who stresses modesty and building an insular community for her and her desire to venture out into the secular world to land a record deal. 

The main character, Zeke Figuero, finds a way to hone his craft of poetry when he is introduced to the early underground world of hip-hop and partners with Shaolin Fantastic (played by Shameik Moore). He becomes his wordsmith, the newly minted MC that partners with the aspiring DJ. But he is also pressured to conform. As a smart young man, he is given the opportunity to intern for the city of New York, a shining example as a student in the struggling South Bronx who commutes into Manhattan to work in the mostly white city offices. When he is late for his first day, he dismisses it, suggesting that he instead wants to focus on his rap career. But his high school teacher, who sees his potential, challenges him, destroying “the idea that, if you’re smart and educated, you ain’t down and cool.” 

Both protagonists are pulled in opposite directions, pressured to conform, to fit into a certain box of societal expectations, based on their looks, dress, educational background, or family structure. But we find with both characters an attempt to not conform. Mylene wants to be remain a part of her religious family and still be a disco star. She doesn’t want to have to choose between one or the other. Books — Zeke’s nickname — is committed to his internship and his rap career, highlighted by the end of season one when he goes back and forth from a rally for mayoral candidate Ed Koch to a rap battle blocks away. He doesn’t want to have to choose between fitting into a certain box, having to be one person or the other. He wants to be both. And that is the positive message of Elul that we should learn this show as well.

We constantly feel pressure to conform. We are expected to fit into a certain box, based on our race or religion or gender identity, based on our careers, where we live, or how much money we have. Yet, the most important message of Elul is to stop trying to be something we are not. When we look inside ourselves and do Chesbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the self, we come to terms with who are are and whom we strive to be. We stop trying to be someone else. The goal of Elul is not to compare ourselves to others. The goal of Elul is to compare where we currently are with where we want to be. We look back on the resolutions we made and goals we set for ourselves at this time last year and see how far we have come and how far we still have to go. We have an opportunity in the new year to be our true selves, our authentic selves. That means not conforming. That means being comfortable interning for the city of New York during the day and rapping with MC’s at night — metaphorically speaking. We spend Elul getting down with our true selves. Look within yourself. Be comfortable with who you are. And share yourself with the world. 

The Get Down premiered on August 12, 2016. All episodes of part one of season one are available to stream now on Netflix. 

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Stranger Inclinations

Spoiler alert: Stranger Things has a monster which comes from the “Upside Down”, an alternative universe that a sinister government agency gained access to. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things has a psychokinetic preteen who can move things with her mind. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things pays homage to 80’s era horror, thriller, and suspense films including adding Winona Ryder to the cast. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things is incredible!

If there is one show you binge watch next, it must be Stranger Things. The show is fun and filled with 80’s pop culture nostalgia. And while there are plenty of unanswered questions and things that don’t make sense, the story works in 1980’s small town Indiana in a way that it wouldn’t work in 2016. 

Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix show of the summer, created by the Duffer brothers, tells the story of a group of middle school friends who go searching for their friend Will when he mysteriously disappears while riding his bike home from a friend’s house after a game of Dungeons & Dragons. During that search, they meet a young girl named Eleven who has special powers. With Eleven’s help, they realize that Will is stuck in the parallel universe of the Upside Down. The Upside Down isn’t an alternative reality. The kids, who are big Dungeons & Dragons fans, refer to it is the Vale of Shadows. This is not a what-if reality. Rather, it is a reflection of reality — what the world looks like if it was consumed by darkness and evil. 

Jewish tradition teaches that we each have within us a good inclination, a yetzer tov, and an evil inclination, a yetzer rah. The Mishnah even teaches that we begin with only our evil inclination, with a general ability to do wrong. Mishnah says that we only acquire a yetzer tov upon turning thirteen, explaining why when one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, one is finally responsible for one’s own actions. 

It’s fascinating that rabbinic literature treats our good inclination and evil inclination as equals. They are essentially two sides of the same coin. While we strive to do good, we can just as easily end up feeding our evil inclination. In fact, if we have equal amounts of yetzer tov and yetzer rah within us, then it is nurture, not nature, that causes us to do good or bad. It is those whom we surround ourselves with that influence our actions, that impact whom we are, what we become, and how bright or bleak the world is. The Upside Down is not just scary because of the tar-like jelly within the dimension or the monster (or monsters! — stay tuned for season two) that lurk within it. The Upside Down is scary because it is a reminder of just how quickly our current reality can be turned upside down. It is a reminder of how easy it is for us to stray from light towards darkness, how easy it is for us to choose evil over good, and how easy it is for others to influence us to do wrong. 

In season two of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers promise to further explore the Upside Down. While that may keep us on the edge of our seats, my hope is that we avoid accessing the Upside Down in our own lives. During the month of Elul so focused on reflection, may we reflect on the decisions that we have made — the positive choices and the mistakes — in hopes that we will create a bright future for ourselves and for the world. May we avoid the metaphorical Vale of Darkness in the year to come.

Stranger Things premiered on July 15, 2016. All episodes of season one are available to stream now on Netflix. 

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Let Our Own Actions Define Us

I enjoy binge-watching shows. Instead of waiting from week-to-week for the latest installment, binge-watching allows a viewer to appreciate the whole arc of a storyline all at once. My young daughter has a very different view on what binge-watching means. As a preschooler, the shows and movies she watches are limited so instead of binge-watching a season, she instead opts to watch the same thing over and over and over again.

Her latest obsession is Disney’s Descendants, a Disney Channel Original Movie that we stumbled upon while searching the On-Demand menu for some of her favorite cartoons. She was excited about the premise, as it focused on the children of her favorite fairy tale Disney characters, and the concept was cute, even if it continued to reinforce Disney’s hetero-normative culture.

DescendantsDescendants is a musical about how the children of Disney royalty — the son of Belle and Beast, the daughter of Aurora and Philip, the son of Cinderella and Charming, and even Dopey’s son — interact with the children of Disney villians — the children of Malificent, the Evil Queen, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil — at a prep school. It’s the cheesiness of High School Musical meets the Magic Kingdom. And yet, my daughter loves it, and insists on watching it again and again. While it may be that these Disney Channel show tunes are stuck in my head from watching the television movie so many times, I have to admit that some of the songs are even catchy.

The story takes place in the fictional United States of Auradon. Following the marriage of Belle to the Beast, they united all kingdoms and were elected Queen and King of this united kingdom. They sent all villains and their henchmen to the Isle of the Lost, an island ghetto where they wouldn’t be able to practice their evil magic. In turn, the royalty of Auradon seemed to be at peace and didn’t have to interact with the villains or their families. When Ben, Belle and Beast’s teenage son, is about to be crowned king, he decides that his first proclamation is to allow the children of villains to return to Auradon, believing that they shouldn’t suffer for their parents crimes. The children are tasked by their parents, led by Malificent (played by Kristin Chenoweth) with stealing Fairy Godmother’s wand in order to get the villains off the island so that they can take control of Auradon. The story is a “will they or won’t they” with an always-predictable Disney ending. Instead of following in their parents’ footsteps, they decide that they want to be good and do good. They don’t want to be defined by their parents. They want to be their own selves.

While the outcome is predictable — and the ending remains the same no matter how many times my daughter and I watch it — the lesson is important. We shouldn’t be judged based on the actions of another. We are often referred to as someone’s child, sibling, or spouse. But we are not them. While our parents and families certainly nurture us and guide us, that does not mean we need to be defined by them. We strive to hold on to the blessings that family gives us and teaches us, but we cannot carry the burden of their past mistakes. The yoke of their errors is too heavy to carry. Whom they are, how they act, and what they believe is not necessarily whom we are. The Torah reaffirms such an idea. We learn in Deuteronomy 24:16 that a parent should not be punished for the transgressions of a child and a child should not be punished for the transgressions of a parent.

We spend these days leading up to the High Holy Days by letting go of our burdens. We let go of our pasts, but most importantly, we need to let go of the pasts of others that we hold on to and carry with us. Their pasts are not our pasts. We need to be our true selves and not worry about who others are.

As we begin the new year with a clean slate, may we be proud to be ourselves instead of worrying about being viewed as somebody else. May we judge all solely based on their own actions and not based on anyone else’s. After all, even the child of an evil villain can become Disney royalty.

tvpopelulimageDescendants premiered on the Disney Channel on July 21, 2015 and is available to watch on the Disney Channel or On-Demand. 

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Appreciating Our Own Prequels

Fans of The Walking Dead were on the edge of their seats waiting for the premiere of last week’s Fear the Walking Dead on AMC. I previously highlighted The Walking Dead on the Pop Elul Project last year while binge-watching the show on Netflix. I am all caught up and the show continues to be a cable hit. Although the creators of the show and the television network refuse to call the show a “prequel” or “spin-off” and instead refer to it as a companion series to The Walking Dead, they were smart to expand the universe of cable’s most popular show. Why not take advantage of a hit show and create another hit show based on something that is already successful?!? And so Fear the Walking Dead was born, taking place in Los Angeles instead of Atlanta, Georgia or Alexandria, Virginia. The show focuses on the beginning of the zombie outbreak, while The Walking Dead started with the outbreak already underway, with hopes of a crossover once the timelines of the two shows catch up to each other. AMC bet right on this prequel gamble: last Sunday’s premiere episode attracted 10.1 million viewers, a cable television record for a series premiere.

TFearTheWalkingDeadhe prequel phenomenon is not unique to the zombie universe of The Walking Dead. Following the successful run of another AMC hit show, Breaking Bad, the network revealed a Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, which has received critical acclaim and award nominations. After FX’s hit Sons of Anarchy went off the air this past year, creator Kurt Sutter began talking about expanding that universe to include a prequel and a companion show.

The concept of a prequel is a fascinating one. While I fully understand anxiously waiting for a sequel, and waiting to see the continuation of a beloved story line, there are no surprises in a prequel. We know how things turn out. We already know what the zombie apocalypse world looks like and yet, a record number of viewers turned out to watch Fear the Walking Dead. Why are we so fascinated with prequels? Sequels may reveal a new twist in the storyline, but prequels help us come to terms with what we already know. Prequels allow us to make sense of the chaotic present reality.

We are taught to look inward during Elul. We are taught to think about where we are and where we want to be. We think about the present in order to prepare for the future. We are also taught to not worry about the past. The past is the past and we cannot go back and change it. That is certainly true. However, acknowledging and examining the past allows us to reflect on who we are and where we are in life. We cannot change and be who we strive to be – and get to where we want to be – in life unless we accept who we are and where we are currently. To understand who we are and where we are, we need to reflect on the past. We need to examine the prequels of our lives. Every action has a corresponding reaction. Every decision has a consequence. Thinking back on our past – examining our prequels – helps us understand our present. Only then, can we truly prepare to change. Reflecting on our past successes and mistakes allows us to understand our current reality.

May we each be courageous enough to look back on our pasts, the blessings and the challenges, the right decisions and the wrong ones, to understand how got to where we are. Only once we do this, can we let go of the past in order to start in a new direction for the new year.


Fear the Walking Dead premiered on August 23rd, 2015. New episodes of the show premiere on Sunday nights at 9:00 PM EST on AMC. The show is rated TV-14 for coarse language and violence.

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Red Band Society Teaches Us to Focus on What Unites Us, Not What Divides Us

One of the most talked about new shows on broadcast television this fall season premiered last week on Fox, the comedy-drama Red Band Society. The show has only received mixed reviews from critics; the website Rotten Tomatoes has only given it a rating of 59%. As questionable and sometimes light-hearted as the show’s premise may be, the lesson of the show sticks with us.

red-band-society-trailerThe show, based on the Spanish series Polseres vermelles, focuses on a group of adolescents and teens living together and bonding together in a pediatric ward of Los Angeles’ fictional Ocean Park Hospital.

The show has some impressive stars serving as the caregivers who tend to these pediatric ward patients, including Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who stars as Nurse Jackson and Dave Annable of Brothers & Sisters  who stars as Dr. McAndrew. What I enjoy most about the show though is that it reminds me of the 80’s classic The Breakfast Club.

In the John Hughes film from almost thirty years ago, five very different teens from different cliques with very different personalities (“The Criminal,” “The Athlete,” “The Basketcase,” “The Princess,” and “The Brain”) are forced to spend Saturday detention together. The film chronicles their day together becoming friends (and more!) in the process. At detention, they are all the same. There are no cliques. There are no societal separations. They are the same, and they come to realize that as well. The film never shows what happens Monday morning when they return to school, but that almost doesn’t matter because at that moment, in that space, during detention, they are united. They appreciate that they are all valued, sacred, and special.

Red Band Society offers a similar premise – thirty years later – taking the group of teens with different backgrounds and personalities out of Saturday detention and into the pediatric ward. However, the idea is the same: anywhere else, especially in the context of high school where there are way too many social divides, these adolescents would never speak to each other. Yet, in the content of the pediatric ward, they are the same, they are united. They appreciate each other’s sacredness. Even “mean girl” cheerleader Kara (played by Zoe Levin) begins the show by telling the other teens that if this was high school, she would never talk to them. The narrator Charlie (Griffin Gluck), who is a nine-year-old in a coma who can hear everything, even acknowledges that rebel Leo (Charlie Rowe) and know-it-all Emma (Ciara Bravo) would never be together, but in the pediatric ward, they find each other.

Real life isn’t high school. In the real world, we do not separate ourselves by cliques. However, too often we still separate ourselves. We stay close to those that look like us, act like us, or believe as we do. We distance ourselves from those who are different. Yet, the lesson we learn from Red Band Society and The Breakfast Club is that we aren’t so different. We focus on our differences to divide us. Instead, let us embrace each other and that which unites us. As we seek to make this world a better place in the year ahead, let us do so together. Let us look out for all, embrace all as God’s creations, and understand that we are all sacred. Under different circumstances, maybe others would seek to divide us. However, our commitment to peace unites us. Our commitment to serving as God’s messengers, and making this world a better place, unites us. In the year ahead, let us open our arms to all. Let us lower the barriers of the cliques and divisions that too often separate us from each other and let us unite as God’s peoples, God’s creation, fulfilling our promising to create a world in which the sanctity of each individual is realized and valued. We don’t need a red hospital band on our wrists to unite us. All we need is an open and pure heart.


Please Note: “Red Band Society” premiered on Fox on September 17th. New episodes can be seen on Wednesdays at 9:00  PM EST. If you missed the series premiere, you can watch it here. The pilot episode was Rated TV-14 for some alcohol and drug use, some profanity, and serious medical situations.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

New Girl, New You

Tuesday night marked the beginning of season four – and the return – of the show that you can’t help, but fall in love with: Fox’s New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel as titular new girl Jess. I love the show, not just because it is filled with oodles and oodles of Jewish references, mostly by Schmidt, played by the hysterical Max Greenfield, who throws down Jewish references weekly (“I’m like a Hebrew cheetah,” and “A Menorah – Judaism, Son,”) and attempts to educated his misinformed roommate Nick, played by Jake Johnson (“Tzatziki is what it’s called. It’s Jewish charity”).  I love the quirkiness of the humor, the odd couple pairings of the different personalities living together in one Los Angeles apartment, including Coach (played by Damon Wayans Jr.) and Winston (played by Lamorne Morris.

NewGirlBut most of all, I love the premise: New Girl Jessica Day is a quirky, dorky, adorable Middle School teacher in Los Angeles, California. In the pilot episode, she finds returns home to find her boyfriend with another woman. She quickly moves out, and with nowhere to go, she decides to answer an ad on Craigslist, moving in with three (which has now become four) male roommates. Jess was the new roommate, and the new girl. Jess seemed out of place, but this was the perfect opportunity for her to start over, to begin anew.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Folio 16b, there is a list of things an individual can do to change a decree against an individual, one of which is changing one’s place. From this teaching, comes the Hebrew proverb Mishaneh Makom, Mishaneh Mazal, meaning, “If you change your place, you change your luck.” Sometimes, it is our familiar surroundings that are so hard to let go of and leave, yet it is those familiar surroundings that truly prevent us from changing.

We often talk about nature vs. nurture. Nature – one’s genetic makeup – is something that we cannot necessarily change. But nurture, those who we surround ourselves with and associate with, is something that we very much have control over. Hasidic tradition teaches that each individual has within us a Yetzer Tov and a Yetzer Rah, a good inclination and an evil inclination. In fact, tradition suggests that each even has the same amount, 50%, of each inclination. This, we have equal opportunity to do right or wrong, or in the case of new beginnings, to stay in neutral and remain the same or to shift gears, go in a new direction, and begin anew. What yetzer, what inclination we side with, the one in which we settle on negativity, or the one in which we push to change and be different, is influenced and determined by who we surround ourselves with and where we are, literally and figuratively.

In the year ahead, may we all change for the better. May we rid ourselves of those things that weigh us down, those people who prevent us from changing that which we truly need to change, and those places that prevent us from starting anew. May we settle into a new place. For some, that may mean literally moving, to a new house, a new job, a new city, or a new school. For others, that may be more figurative, a new state of mind, a new change in lifestyle, a new mindset. But either way, mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal, may we change our place, figuratively or literally, and change our selves.


Please Note: “New Girl” starring Zooey Deschanel, airs on Fox on Tuesdays at 9:00 PM. For those who missed the season four premiere, it is available on Hulu. Episodes are Rated TV-13 for sexual content, alcohol use, and inappropriate language.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

True Blood is a Fight For True Justice

Fans sat on the edge of their seat a couple of weeks ago as, after seven seasons, HBO aired the final episode of its hit series True Blood. Like any hit series that has been a part of society and pop culture for so long, the finale is bound to receive mix reviews. Just ask fans of Lost and The Sopranos about their thoughts on their respective series finales. The August 24th finale of True Blood was no different. Some fans loved it. Some fans hated it.

I think all fans were shocked when [SPOILER ALERT] protagonist Bill Compton (played by Stephen Moyer) asked his lover, fairy Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin), to use her fairy light ball to kill him. That is the only way that Bill — a vampire — could die, and dying would not only set him free, but would set Sookie free as well, since she couldn’t have the family she so desired as long as she was in love with a vampire. Ultimately, Sookie obliged, and in an uncomfortable scene in which she is kissing Bill in his grave, she pierces his heart with a wooden stake.

TrueBlood We could analyze — and overanalyze — the series finale, but I prefer to focus on the series as a whole. This groundbreaking show about vampires living in the fictional small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, isn’t really about vampires at all. This is not a young adult vampire lovefest (like the CW’s The Vampire Diaries or the hit movies in the Twilight series). The series, based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, uses vampires as an analogy to discuss issues of injustice that so many minorities face. The series began seven seasons ago after a fictional scientific breakthrough. The show takes place two years after a group of Japanese scientists invent a synthetic blood, known as Tru Blood. Such an invention allows vampires, who previously hid their identities unbeknownst to most of society, to no longer depend on human blood for survival. Many of them seek to integrate themselves into society by campaigning for citizenship and equal rights.

David Bianculli of NPR analyzed the vampires struggle to “come out of the coffin” (an expression that the show actually uses) and noted that the “tension about accepting vampires into society is an obvious play on civil right in general, and gay rights in particular.”

Hollywood is about more than entertainment. True art is used as a vehicle to promote social change and while True Blood brings us a fantastical world in which vampires, werewolves, and witches exist among us, it more importantly teaches us that the struggle for equal rights is a struggle that all of us must fight for.

If a single individual’s human rights and civil rights are denied, whether it be because of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or class, then its a problem that we all must deal with. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The liturgy of the High Holy Days reminds us that we change our ways, and we change the world, through Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah. However, we often mistranslate and misunderstand what the liturgy is charging us to do. While Teshuvah refers to repenting for our misdeeds and changing our ways and Tefillah refers to our commitment to prayer and wrestling with God, Tzedakah is regularly mistranslated. The term is often used to mean “charity,” but it literally means “justice.” And that is exactly what it means during the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holy Days. True justice is about changing our ways and changing the world. True justice is about fighting for equal rights for all, recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating that all are created B’Tzelem Elohim, in God’s Divine Image. Justice doesn’t come easily. It is ideal, but not easy to achieve. In Deuteronomy 16:20, we are commanded:

Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue.

We are commanded to pursue justice because it does not come easily, but it is essential for our survival. It is essential to finish creating the world God set out to create. It is essential if we are to be God’s partners in creation. Chase it. Fight for it. Pursue it. Make it reality. And although we may be entertained by vampires’ love affairs with humans (and even a little annoyed with the final episode), let us not forget that True Blood is reminding us to act just as Deuteronomy instructs us to act, to fight for equal rights and pursue true justice for all.


Please Note: The final episode of “True Blood” starring Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin premiered on HBO on August 24th, 2014. Episodes are available to stream on HBO On Demand and HBO GO as well as on Amazon Prime. Episodes are regularly Rated TV-MA for Sex & Nudity, Violence & Gore, Alcohol & Drug Use, and Profanity. Viewer Discretion Advised. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

A Clean Slate Means A Transparent Self

The most talked about show of the fall tv season emphasizes the themes of the Jewish New Year, most notably, how we redefine ourselves and begin anew. You won’t find this buzzworthy show on a major network. You won’t even find it on a cable channels responsible for some of television’s most recent hits, like FX or AMC. Netflix hit the jackpot a year ago when they began introducing original scripted programming, including the award-winning Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards.

Amazon has since tried to keep up and respond with their own original programming. They have finally succeeded with this fall’s new series, Transparent, created by the incredible Jill Soloway. The entire season will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on September 26th, but the pilot episode is available to stream now for free here. Vulture already called it the best pilot they’ve seen in years. Stop everything you are doing and watch it. You won’t regret it.

TransparentThe series follows the interconnected lives of a Los Angeles Jewish family after discovering that the patriarch, Mort (an award-worthy performance by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor), is transgender. The title is a play on words. Mort is the titular “trans parent.” However, the title gives greater insight to the questioning identities of all characters. Sarah is a married mother and wonders if her life is too boring, ordinary, and settled. Josh navigates from one fling to the next, being lonely without having a true partner. Ali feels like (and is viewed as) a failure, even if she hasn’t yet figured herself out.

While Jeffrey Tambor’s main role as Mort/Maura is a groundbreaking moment in Hollywood for the transgender community, offering dramatic and humorous insight into the world of gender identity, the other characters also, in their own ways, must come to terms with the transparent version of themselves as well. The version of themselves that they portray for the world to see is not necessarily who they are deep down inside. It is not how they feel. They too need to be true to themselves.

We do the same thing. It is human nature to try to conform and fit in, to try and be what society expects us to be. When we do that though, we do ignore the truest versions of ourselves.

The beauty of the Hebrew month of Elul and of the Jewish New Year is that we have the opportunity to start over. Teshuvah, repentance, rids us of past burdens. Elul allows us to let go of that which held us down, and allows us to start over. We are given the unique opportunity to begin again. We are given the opportunity to redefine ourselves and be the person we always knew we were and knew we wanted to be. We become our true selves. We are no longer burdened by how we conformed, by how others expected us to act, or by what others expected us to do. We do not hide who we truly are. We reveal our transparent selves to God and to community. That is what beginning anew is all about.

May we have the courage to be our true and transparent selves, to be whom we are supposed to be – because that is exactly who God created us to be.



Please Note: “Transparent” starring Jeffrey Tambor, Melora Hardin, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and Gaby Hoffmann, is available to stream in its entirely on Amazon Prime on September 26th. Episodes are Rated TV-MA for nudity, profanity, sexual content, and occasional drug use.




– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


The YOU Project

Easily the funniest – and yet, most underrated – show on television is Fox’s The Mindy Project, starring Mindy Kaling. Mindy Kaling plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a character inspired by Mindy Kaling’s real life mother. Dr. Lahiri is an OB/GYN partner at the fictional Shulman & Associates. The character lives in a world in which she imagines that her love life will be like a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy. Episode after episode, she expects Mr. Right to sweep her off her feet. Many episodes end instead with her watching those romantic films that she yearns to make reality.

MindyProjectThroughout the sitcom’s first two seasons, Mindy dated many men (played by hilarious guest stars including Tommy Dewey, Mark Duplass, Bill Hader, Glenn Howerton, Tim Daly, and Anders Holm, among others). She sought a happily ever after experience, so time and time again, she molded herself to meet the interests of her boyfriends. She changed who she was and pretended to like what they liked, even if she didn’t care for the law that they practiced, or the alternative medicine they performed that rivaled Shulman & Associates’ methods.

The greatest example of her conforming was when she started dating – and became engaged to – an energetic and youthful Christian minister (even if she wasn’t Christian herself). She even tooka leave from her medical office to do relief work in Haiti with her Christian Minister fiancé. However, by the second season, [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT] she ends up with coworker and best friend, Dr. Danny Castellano, played by Chris Messina. With Danny, Mindy doesn’t need to change or conform. She can be exactly who she is, exactly who she is supposed to be.

The title of the sitcom is a reflection of all of our lives’ journeys. The Mindy Project suggests that life is a project as we constantly change and adapt and try to figure out where we are going and where we are supposed to be. The lesson of this sitcom (besides the fact that it is hilarious) is that change is important, as long as it is change for yourself.

As we reflect during this time of year and look to change for the better, let us change for our own sake, not for someone else’s sake. Let us change to be the type of people that we want to be, not whom someone else wants us to be. Let us be ourselves, because each of us, made in God’s Divine image, is unique and offers our own unique insight and perspective on the journey of life. Let as accept that life is a work in progress, that life is a project. And let us be okay with that. Change for the better, but change for yourself and nobody else. Be happy with who you are, because that is exactly who you are supposed to be.



Please Note: “The Mindy Project” starring Mindy Kaling is on FOX on Tuesday nights. New episodes return on September 16th. You can catch up on any episodes you missed from last season on Hulu.  Most episodes are Rated TV-14 for sexual content and language.  


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

Walking Together

EWWalkingDeadMy latest binge watching experience on Netflix is AMC’s The Walking Dead. I must admit: I wasn’t so interested in checking out a television show that seemed like an episodic horror movie. However, after traveling through Atlanta this summer and seeing the show being filmed, I figured I had to give it a try. With stars of the hit show appearing on last week’s cover of Entertainment Weekly, I knew I made the right decision making The Walking Dead my latest show of choice. 

My binge watching hasn’t progressed as fast as I would like though, so I won’t be revealing any spoilers here. In fact, I had to put the issue of Entertainment Weekly aside. I couldn’t read a preview of Season Five of the hit tv show until I was all caught up to speed with previous episodes. 

The show is eerie, suspenseful, and fun. The beginning of the show had me hooked immediately. After Sheriff’s DeputyTheWalkingDead Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma in an abandoned hospital, he quickly comes to terms with the fact that the zombie apocalypse has arrived. He heads to Atlanta where he was told that the government set up a safe and protected compound. He was told wrong. Rick ends up causing a swarm of zombies to surround the mall where he and other scavengers were searching for resources. Determined to clean up the mess he made and get the group of survivors out of the city safely, Rick recruits Glenn and together, they smother themselves in zombie guts in order to walk the Atlanta streets undetected by the undead. They all return back to the encampment safely, all except for racist redneck Merle Dixon). After getting into a scuffle with T-Dog, Rick took charge and handcuffed Merle to pipes on the roof. That is where they left him. 

Most of the group was not disappointed. Merle Dixon was a racist and a bigot. He criticized decisions made by the group of survivors. He selfishly took advantage of limited resources instead of sharing them with the group. They didn’t mind that Merle was left behind, but Merle’s brother Daryl was determined to go back and find him. Even T-Dog, who was physically and emotionally beaten by Dixon, acknowledged that Dixon was alive and it was “on” them to save him. He felt guilty for dropping the handcuff key. Rick, on the other hand, was prepared to return to Atlanta because he believed that no one should be left behind. Even after being reunited with his son and wife whom he thought were gone and dead, he was prepared to leave again to save someone he left behind. Rick takes charge as the new de facto leader and leads by example, explaining that the group has a responsibility to look after all. 

This lesson is a lesson that all communities need to be reminded of. I hope that all communities draw a hard line in the sand, understanding that there is no place for the bigotry and hatred that the character Merle Dixon exudes in holy spaces and holy communities. That being said, this lesson reminds us that many different people and many different types of people make up a holy community. We all don’t come all the time and we all don’t come for the same reasons. We have different beliefs, different ideologies, and different ways of connecting to community and connecting with the Divine. True community creates entry points for each of us and allows for each of us to feel at home. True community, like the survivors in The Walking Dead, looks for the talents of all individuals and is concerned about the well-being of all individuals. We at Congregation Beth El are committed to welcoming all those interested in becoming a part of our community, regardless of observance, faith, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, or gender identity. A true community walks together and ensures that there is a place for each individual.

Rick’s goal is not to love everyone in their makeshift community. He doesn’t even like many of them. But he looks out for all of them. And when they fight the zombie epidemic that has taken the vast majority of humanity, when they fight the walking dead, they walk together.

In just a matter of weeks, Jews all over the world will gather in synagogues to celebrate the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, the holiest and most sacred days on the Hebrew calendar. We gather together for worship and greet so many new and familiar faces. We do not pray alone. We do not celebrate alone. We come together because community is what strengthens our Jewish identities and keeps us connected to faith. But community only thrives if we ensure that everyone feels like they belong in our communities. Community is only successful if we make sure we don’t leave anyone behind. 

As we open up the doors — figuratively and literally — to many of our communal houses of worship in the weeks ahead and we walk on a path towards the New Year, let us make sure that there is room on this journey for us all. As we walk on this journey, let us walk together. 


Please Note: “The Walking Dead” starring Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, and Jon Bernthal can be seen on on Sunday nights on AMC. The fifth season premieres on October 12th. Various episodes of this show are Rated TV-14 and TV-MA for excessive violence, profanity, and sexual content. Viewer Discretion Advised.  

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky