Nathan Fielder in an episode of HBO's "The Rehearsal." (Photo/Courtesy HBO)
Nathan Fielder in an episode of HBO's "The Rehearsal." (Photo/Courtesy HBO)

How ‘The Rehearsal’ and ‘Rehearsals’ point the way to Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur arrives at sundown Oct. 4, providing its annual opportunity for self-reflection and the reading of a list of sins that was scripted by someone else but that nonetheless may relate to you. Your non-Orthodox synagogue may be streaming services on its website. Meanwhile, two other streaming programs — one American series and one Israeli import, neither one of them particularly spiritual — can provide an additional lens on the season.

“The Rehearsal” (HBO Max) is a strange, often cringe-inducing combination of unscripted programming and comedy that contains wisdom about human behavior. “Rehearsals” (Hulu) is an Israeli dramedy about a recently broken-up couple working to produce and direct a play about their relationship. While the two TV series might seem related because of their titles, they are not. And while the third streaming entity I’ve mentioned might seem unrelated, I would argue that it actually is.

Yom Kippur, “The Rehearsal” and “Rehearsals” all share elements of high drama, encourage people to examine their own motives and provide opportunities to practice empathy. All try to express values — dictated by circumstance, the director or the divine — and get people to better understand others and ultimately themselves.

In “The Rehearsal,” comedian-writer-director Nathan Fielder has assembled an alternate universe of his own: He tries to “help” people have difficult conversations by offering them a “rehearsal” ahead of the actual conversation.

Play-acting, role-playing and practicing so you find the right words and have the best chance of success? Sounds like an interesting and helpful methodology. But Fielder, via the extreme versions of the “rehearsals” he creates, goes deeper than any therapist would recommend (or any consumer of comedy would expect).

In the first episode, Fielder tries to help Kor, a man who has lied to his friends about his education and wants to come clean. It seems to be a relatively low-stakes scenario, and an actor will play Kor’s friend during the role-playing session. But as the episode progresses, it is revealed that Fielder has been manipulative: Before he and Kor even met, he sent in a crew to take photos of Kor’s apartment (without Kor’s permission), so that Fielder (playing himself) and an actor (playing Kor) could rehearse the scenario in a reproduction of the apartment.

It’s weird, clever and confusing, but also uncomfortable and deceptive, and those characteristics set the stage for a series that continually toes the line (and sometimes steps over it) between rehearsing and manipulating. Some of the people who signed up for “The Rehearsal” are taken aback by the extent of Fielder’s “preparation,” but, alas, they’ve signed a waiver. They knew they’d be in a spotlight, but there was no guarantee the light would be flattering. (In another scenario which has been well-covered in the Jewish media, Fielder ends up in a simulation of child-rearing with a woman who’s a devout Christian. Even though their “son” is an actor, Fielder discovers a wish to raise him Jewish, and does so by secretly educating the child while his “mother” thinks he’s at swimming lessons.)

Then there’s “Rehearsals,” which, on the surface, resembles a series (like “Episodes”) about theater people experiencing challenges in their “real lives” that in some way mirror the performed work.

In “Rehearsals,” playwright Iris and play director Tomer have been in a five-year relationship when they pitch their play to Israel’s national theater. But on the eve of the play’s acceptance, they break up — and, starting the next day, must work together in what some might term a hostile work environment. Their history, resentment and pain fuels their interactions with each other and with actors; moreover, watching how their relationship plays out onstage affects how they conduct their post-breakup lives.

By imposing dizzying layers that explore whether something that is dramatically constructed can provide any ultimate truth, both “The Rehearsal” and “Rehearsals” bring up serious questions about how we treat each other, and to what extent we make our own drama the center of someone else’s experience.

As we go through our lives, we make choices, often the ones that seem best for us at that moment, regardless of the impact on others.

But go through the Yom Kippur Al Chet, a prayer of confession and admission, and you may hear echoes of Fielder tricking his way into people’s lives, creating and subverting their expectations in the service of his own experiment. Or you might hear Tomer and Iris lying to each other, holding onto resentment, doing things they know will wound the other.

You’ll see the violations start to rack up — sins inflicted because of speech or action, through haughtiness and selfishness, through business dealings or judgment or lewdness. You’ll see it in the TV characters, but you’ll also see it in yourself.

The Day of Atonement is all about that same introspection, the acknowledgement of having fallen short, and our desperate clawing for forgiveness from whoever or whatever will grant it.

Yom Kippur forbids ingestion of food or drink, bans sexual activity, suggests that we enshroud ourselves in white. Some say it’s a matter of costume design — so that we look like angels instead of the flawed humans we actually are. Others say it’s about the acute awareness that we are not in control of our fate: Our self-imposed humility, preparation and contemplation are the accouterments of the deep character study of ourselves as we stand before the ultimate audience.

As Rabbi Alan Lew wrote in his book “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” Yom Kippur is supposed to be a rehearsal for our deaths. “We taste death on Yom Kippur to remind us of what we must hold on to, and what we must let go of, of who we are, and where we come from,” he wrote.

This is the intense work of self-study — what buoys us when we flounder in unexpected seas, what tethers us to hope in times of despair, what we think we’re here to do, how much our past informs our present.

There’s a feeling of finality, that this is what we do at the end of things, the clichéd “life flashing before our eyes” in that final moment before it’s over.

But it’s not over. Because, for most of us, if we’re lucky, Yom Kippur is also a rehearsal for life the day after the Day of Atonement.

And whatever our performance during the year that passed, Yom Kippur anchors us to a flash of truth: Here’s what happened and we don’t know how long we have, but now that we’ve seen the light, we have a chance to do something about it.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.