Sari Rosenberg
Sari Rosenberg

Jess and the Whale

Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and finding new direction this year. Image from Google.
Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and finding new direction this year. Image from Google.

I reluctantly began watching TV on my first night of quarantine in February when my gap year program experienced a Coronavirus outbreak. Alone with a flatscreen TV,  a negative COVID test, and some peace of mind, I decided to indulge in something I rarely do – scroll through Netflix. I found ‘New Girl’ and watched eight episodes straight that first night and finished the first three seasons by the end of my quarantine. I sped through the last four seasons that month and do not regret using my time in Tel Aviv to binge watch New Girl because of what I have learned about myself and my place in this complex world.

A summary for those who have not watched the show: Jessica Day, an elementary school teacher coming out of a six year relationship, moves into a loft with three young men in Los Angeles. One of them, Schmitt, works in marketing and conforms to many Jewish stereotypes. He would not just qualify as a “Nice Jewish Boy,” he would win your grandma over with his poor humor and ambitious financial goals.

Jess is a lively, quirky, big eyed, dog loving knitter. She is aware that she is not always liked by her friends, roommates, or boyfriends and while she does not change to make them like her, she seeks to constantly improve her interpersonal relationships. Jessica embraces her progressive values without shame and speaks what’s on her mind (sometimes without thinking first). I admire Jess’s determination, and wish she was more than a fictional character as she has become a role model for me since I watched the show.

Jess understands she is part of something larger than herself and models using socio-economic comfort for good. In the last season, Schmitt and Cece, his wife, ask Jess for advice on where to send their three year old daughter to preschool. Jess praises the alternative approach of The Triangle School, donning chickens and a loose curriculum, and fights Schmitt’s choice of LillyPads, which he describes as the “most prestigious preschool.” Jess explains that we need to foster youth who do not only care about success and money, but about helping others and making the world a better place. Although Jess is not Jewish, she constantly embodies the idea of Tikkun Olam, working to repair the world.

 In Jerusalem last Rosh Hashanah I made a goal to become better at forgiving myself for my mistakes. I watched Jess wrestle with work setbacks and obstacles in relationships with dignity, and she influenced my ability to grow from my own hard breakup and other bumps this year. Watching the dynamics of characters on this show helped me re-evaluate the way I wanted to interact with my peers post-quarantine. When I finally returned to the real world, my gap year Rabbi and I discussed what the Torah says about the importance of reflecting on accomplishments and mistakes in the process of self growth and looking outwards. He presented me with the story of Jonah because of Jonah’s inability to truly change his mindset and what that meant for the Jewish people. 

In this tale, the citizens of Nineveh, a city nearby Israel, are acting immorally, frustrating God. God asks Jonah, a prophet, to tell them to correct their behavior; He warns that if they do not change He will destroy their town. Jonah struggles with his task – he doubts he could have any influence on the people of Nineveh and perhaps, deep down, he does not want them to change. He ultimately decides to disobey God’s word. He escapes far from the city and eventually stumbles upon a ship, but soon after climbing aboard, the ship gets caught in a tremendous storm. 

Jonah admits that his unwillingness to follow God’s word caused the terrible storm and predicts if he is thrown off the ship the storm will stop. When he jumps into the water, he is swallowed by a large whale, and the storm ceases. Jonah is forced into isolation where he reflects on his actions for three days: he thinks about his foolishness of ignoring God and trying to hide, and sometimes he loses hope that he will never leave the whale. When Jonah finally grasps the gravity of his mistake, he gets spit back onto dry land.

God confronts him: God again instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people to change their ways. Jonah does so and speaks to the King, warning of the city’s destruction in 40 days if the King continues to allow the bad behavior to flourish. Jonah briefly remains in the city while the King starts the repentance process, and God sees that the Nineveh people have improved their behavior.

Although Jonah decides his work is finished and travels towards the land of Israel, he secretly hopes that God will still destroy the city as he holds tight to his belief that the people cannot be good. God speaks to Jonah and admires the progress that occurred, especially for a group of non Jews. Jonah feels irritated and angry on his journey because he struggles with forgiveness; he additionally becomes fatigued and in need of shade.

God creates a plant for him to rest under, but the next day He sends a poisonous worm to eat the plant. Jonah becomes depressed and eventually suicidal because he is so hot and miserable that what was providing for him died. God explains to Jonah that his sadness and overreaction to his uncomfortable physical state is careless and unnecessary, especially because he didn’t help grow the plant at all and thus never had control over the plant. The plant is a metaphor for the success in the city of Nineveh after lots of hard work and change – it is a vehicle to show Jonah, and the Jewish people, how low they have become that gentiles are succeeding more than the Jews. Jonah must understand that he is to show the Israelites what the people of Nineveh did to improve themselves, and that he must stop focusing on minute details of his life in order to contribute to something bigger than himself—the Jewish people. 

God asks Jonah to think about Him, who takes responsibility over everything He created. God tells Jonah to forgive himself for his past foolishness, but to commit to doing better by both not disobeying God and by caring about all people, regardless of their nationality. Just like Jonah, I know I will one day ‘leave the whale’ of the pandemic and have the opportunity to reflect on how I acted in spite of the world’s craziness. 

In 2020 we learned how to live on a screen; our reality presented unique opportunities to widen our social circles and help those who are physically separate. Six months into the pandemic, I moved across the planet with 200 strangers and dealt with COVID through a different – more Sabra – lens. 2021, for me has allowed me to grow: I lived in Tel Aviv through a lockdown and war and dealt with the challenges those environments presented. I then moved home, was a camp counselor for kindergarteners, and now have found myself at the University of Michigan, socializing with 30,000 new faces and feeling excited to be engaging in intellectual conversations in the classroom once again.

As I said “Shana Tovah” to my new friends and peers last Monday night, I wondered: how can I make this year count? Can I make it more spiritually fulfilling? Less stressful? In what ways can I give back to the Ann Arbor community I am already beginning to love?

Since 9th grade I’ve led the children’s programming at my temple, which typically meant I did not actually attend High Holiday Services. This year, while fidgeting in my too tight heels at Hillel, I thought about the Days of Awe differently – a challenge for my freshman year. I wouldn’t promise myself to eat less chocolate or more frequently clean up my room as I typically do —instead, I promised myself to not judge the successes and failures that this new environment presented me with.

Now, at this point in this essay you may be thinking to yourself. Wait?!  Why was she writing about New Girl?! How does this relate to the High Holidays or Jonah and the Whale?

See, the show began with Jess watching Dirty Dancing  obsessively to deal with her pain, and ended with her speaking with her roommates to discuss their fears about growing up. While Jonah struggles with believing people can change, Jess sees the good in people and encourages them to work with their weaknesses. She does not let politics or prejudices get in the way of being kind the way Jonah does, and I believe if Jonah had met Jess on his journey from Nineveh to Israel, he would have scoffed at her optimistic outlook on life.

I struggled in the past year with so many movements of isolation and fear, one of which was my time in quarantine when I binged this show. With the vaccine’s effectiveness waning, I recognize I could find myself again in an alternate reality – one in which I could contract COVID, or become forced back onto Zoom for classes and lose the richness of school I have waited a year and a half for. I refuse, however, to mentally go back “into the whale” or adapt Jonah’s negativity.  I hope to emulate Jess’s outlook on life in efforts to give back to the world that has provided me so much. One way of doing this will be joining community service clubs at UofM and using my college education for good.

Jonah, like many of the other prophets in the Torah, is far from perfect. He is very selfish in hoping he is right that the Nineveh people are truly evil; and crying over a plant because of his temporary physical discomfort is childish. While on the surface Jonah used his time in the whale to reflect – and interestingly, this is typically the only part of the story we hear about – he didn’t really change. The reading of this story on Yom Kippur suggests that while it is possible to change, even the most righteous people sometimes fail. Thankfully, Rosh Hashanah comes every year and presents a new opportunity to reflect and set goals. And Yom Kippur year after year, too,  allows us to think about who we have hurt and what we can do to make amends.

I do not want to suggest that I am a drastically different person from last year, but I do pat myself on the back for learning a lot about myself, my needs, and my relationships with others. This pandemic has taught me more than anything else to accept my anxiety as part of myself, my doubts as a normal part of being a teenager, and my body as vulnerable. It has taught me the world is a crazy, messed up place, and it is up to everyday people, like Jess and I, to find the goodness in life and use it to help others.

I am ready for what the New Year is going to bring and I anticipate needing to think “What would Jess do?” a lot in order to bring more energy and positivity in 5782. Shana Tova.

About the Author
Sari Rosenberg is a student writer on Young Judaea Year Course currently located in Tel Aviv. She is originally from northern New Jersey and is passionate about social justice and the Reform Jewish community. Sari will study Sociology and Jewish studies at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor next fall.
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