Marianne Novak
Marianne Novak

I Couldn’t Help But Wonder… HBO Max’s ‘Just Like That’ Mangles Grief

Manolo Blahnik Valnight Ankle Suede Pumps that I wore to a Synagogue Dinner

And…Just Like That, the Hbomax new chapter of ‘Sex in the City’ promises to pick up where Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda (Samantha is MIA) left off and was to make stories about them now as middle-aged women as sexy, fun and full of wild fashion as it was when it debuted in 1999. This 54-year-old woman was looking forward to a funny and insightful treatment of women who are still productive, still sexy and still wearing six inch high designer pumps at this stage of life.

But the new iteration is sadly cringey and tone deaf, trying very hard to be cool and hip – with no real success. It has taken characters who were already lampooning themselves to a new level of shallowness, venality and banality.

While Miranda’s attempt at ‘wokeness’ and Charlotte’s overwhelming lip filler are hard enough to watch, the most excruciating ( MAJOR SPOILER ALERT)is when the delightful Chris Noth, Mr. Big, John James Preston dies and the aftermath. If you want to learn everything that you should NEVER do when trying to comfort and support a loved one who has lost someone dear, then maybe this show has some value. The main characters minus Samantha ( Kim Cattrall perhaps making the best profressional move ever) stumble at empathy and remind us that at heart, their biggest traits were not camaraderie or certainly not empathy but really just a big exercise in narcissism with some very good shoes thrown into the mix. Were we supposed to break down and cry when Carrie’s iconic Blue satin with rhinestone buckle Manolo Blahnik pumps are destroyed by the water in the shower where she finds Big dead of a heart attack? You know it’s not hitting the right notes when I am more worried about the shoes than the tragic ( if cliched death by Peloton) death. Was Charlotte showing any degree of caring with her self-centered ‘it’s all my fault’ crying jabs at every moment which forced the Carrie, the mourner here, to try and comfort or at least appease her friend. The funeral itself was a morbidly produced soulless theatre where each character jockeys for who can be the most self-centered jerk.

Grief is a big beast and if you don’t have the right community around you, it can be even more isolating and painful. While watching, I couldn’t help but only wonder… how different it would have been if Carrie had real community – and yes, here I mean a religious and spiritual community- to help her? Instead she’s stuck with one more narcissistic ‘friend’ after another doing everything wrong— making it about them, demanding that she hold her grief, telling her she shouldn’t cry but be brave, blah blah blah etc etc etc.

If there is one of the things our Jewish tradition gets right is all the laws, rules and rituals surrounding death and dying. As the late Rabbi Maurice Lamm noted in his foundational handbook, ‘The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning’ , our traditions are a response to the five stages of grief as delineated by psychiatrist and near-death studies pioneer, Dr. Elisabeth Kuber-Ross. The first stage is denial. Jewish law requires prompt burial as not only a way to prevent humiliation of the physical body (especially in ancient times without refrigeration) but also as a signal to the survivors that their loved one has indeed left this world and won’t be coming back. We also say the prayer Baruch Dayan Emet, Blessed are you God who is the true judge. The recitation of this statement acknowledges that only Gd knows why someone dies and that determination is permanent.

The second stage is Anger. When hearing that a loved one has died, in addition to saying the prayer of Baruch Dayan Emet one tears their clothes. (Today this ritual has been moved to right before the funeral and burial). That visceral violent act embodies the anger one has towards Gd and others. It is a performance of the burning question, ‘Why is my loved one no longer hear with me?’ Stage three, according to Kubler-Ross is bargaining where a survivor may try to bargain with God to reduce her grief is she promises to reform or change her life in some way. While our tradition doesn’t necessarily engage with such a dynamic, it does include the concept of using a love one’s death to improve your life by doing more acts of kindness or learning more Torah to keep the memory of the loved one alive. The fourth stage depression is where the mourner is completely engulfed in sadness. During the mourning period, beginning with the Shivah, seven days of mourning, the traditions and customs allow for the survivor to be as sad, removed and withdrawn as possible. They do not have to perform positive mitzvot, they do not need to groom themselves, or even talk to those who may have come to comfort them. And while there is space for that kind of grieving, it is limited in time so that the mourner is not in a perpetual intense state of distress. When shiva ends, we say that the mourner has ‘gotten up’ from shiva both literally and figuratively. For Kubler-Ross this is the stage of acceptance which allows for the grief but encourages the mourner to get on with her life albeit with a new consciousness and reality.

Perhaps the greatest benefit our tradition affords is that you do not have to experience loss alone. The traditions are structured around community norms that are poised to jump in and get it right every time. I couldn’t help but wonder when Carrie was forced to use Google to find bereavement services how different that scene would had been if she was part of the Jewish community (or any other dedicated community), how quickly and appropriately her needs would have been met from finding a funeral chapel, to meals or to simply having a compassionate and empathetic community really able to respect her wishes and provide for all means of support. All Carrie got was a funeral fashion show, an open bar and macarons and orchids that only compounded her suffering.

But Hollywood isn’t completely lacking is portraying grief and loss in a sensitive way. One of the most profound medications on death recently came from none other than the Marvel Universe in the magnificent ‘Wanda Vision.’ This Disney+ series takes you on Wanda, the main character’s journey and imagination through all stages of grief and has the most profound quote from her dead husband Vision, ‘…but what is grief, if not love persevering?’ Our tradition allows not only for comforting the mourner but also allows the relationship, the love to continue, to persevere with every Kaddish recited, with every prayer uttered and with every Yahrzeit noted.

There is an overwhelming beauty to the kindness that Judaism and Jewish rituals and customs afford those experiencing loss. It is grounded in community and God to hold up the mourner and elevate the soul of the deceased. It is an ancient amount to which no amount of cosmo cocktails or Manolo Blahniks can ever compare.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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