(From left) Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie in "The Curse." (Photo/Courtesy Showtime)
(From left) Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie in "The Curse." (Photo/Courtesy Showtime)

Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s ‘The Curse’ is a deeply Jewish reflection on America’s original sins

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

All throughout “The Curse,” amid distorted reflections on mirror-plated houses, something else faintly shimmers: a Star of David necklace.

The pendant — subtle, and almost unnoticeable — is on the neck of Whitney Siegel, an eco-conscious real estate developer and philanthropist played by Emma Stone. Whitney and her husband Asher, played by series co-creator Nathan Fielder, are filming an HGTV show about their efforts to revitalize the real-life New Mexico city of Española with energy neutral “passive homes.” This ostensibly altruistic activity, like the Judaica, is not a part of Whitney’s background so much as it is a deliberate ploy to break away from her roots.

“Whitney’s parents, who developed a low-income housing project called “Bookends,” and are regarded by the local press as slumlords, are not Jewish, but are introduced in the first episode hosting a fraught Shabbat dinner to please their daughter. Whitney’s dad jokes about having to wear a “little fabric hat.” Her mother, Elizabeth, asks, “Do I get a little costume, too?’”

In a later episode, Elizabeth offers Whitney a choice: come and work for the family firm and, by all means, change the way they run the buildings or continue to play “dress-up.”

When Whitney asks what she means, Elizabeth jabs at her chest, where the Magen David hangs on her daughter.

“This is what happens when you raise your kid believing in nothing,” Whitney fires back.

But as “The Curse” plays out, we learn this isn’t exactly true. Whitney’s parents didn’t give her nothing. Their crummy apartments and merciless evictions of disenfranchised tenants left Whitney with extreme guilt and a legacy to overcome, as she, in the way of an oblivious do-gooder, deferential to the point of condescension to minority groups, tries to make up for their wrongdoings. Her parents did, however, leave a void in her life that Jewishness fills: the ability to identify as something other than a nondescript white Christian, or, put another way, as a victim.

As Whitney speaks of meshugas when she means to say “mitzvah,” the show pries open the liminal space occupied by white Jews in America, and how Whitney, by converting, slipped through the cracks to gain access to a marginalized identity and the virtue of its status as a form of atonement.

Navigating the myriad American sins of murdering and dispossessing Native Americans, Latinx and Black people, Whitney believes she is taking up the right amount of space among these groups by amplifying their voices and creating opportunities for them while acknowledging that she is and will always be an outsider. But by being with Asher, who is Jewish but not observant, she found a niche in the continuum of privilege — a tradition she could join that has a substantial history of oppression. It also helps that, in taking Asher’s name, Whitney erases a Googleable connection to her parents and her maiden name, “Rhodes,” which, like the name of the city of Española itself, vibrates with colonialist associations.

At the self-reflective core of the comedy, developed by Benny Safdie (“Uncut Gems”) and The Rehearsal’s Nathan Fielder, is the question of relative privilege and how, in neoliberal attempts to redress historic wrongs, more damage is often done to underserved communities. Underpinning it all is the question of how Jews factor into America’s wrongdoings.

Talking turkey (and chicken)

“The Curse” is, in a sense, a story about poultry. At a gallery opening in the second episode, an Indigenous artist named Cara (Nizhonniya Austin), in an apparent challenge to the myth of the first Thanksgiving, invites guests into a teepee one at a time where she slices turkey, plates it, and, whether they eat the meat or not, screams.

But even before that, the titular curse arrives. Filming b-roll in the parking lot of a shopping plaza he and Whitney own, Asher gives a Black girl selling soda a $100 bill — the only cash he had in his wallet. When he takes the money back after the camera crew gets the shot, promising to return with $20, she says, “I curse you.” When Asher arrives home, his packaged meal of penne is missing its chicken — this minor annoyance alone, we learn later, is the “tiny curse” the child had in mind.

Soon, the chicken starts showing up in peculiar places. Asher thinks his producer, and an old camp acquaintance, Dougie Schacter (Safdie), is pranking him. Dougie denies it, but admits to having once been cursed himself and seems to believe the curser, Nala, has powers. Eventually, Dougie pleads with Nala to disappear a whole roasted chicken — he’s desperate for it to go away, believing it will absolve him of his guilt over the death of his wife while he was drunk behind the wheel.

The chicken’s prominence recalls the High Holiday ritual of kapparot, where some atoning Jews swing a live rooster or chicken over their heads to transfer their sins onto the bird, saying, “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.”

Whether or not Dougie knows it — and it’s doubtful he does — his desire to shift his own trespasses onto the bird is part of a larger Jewish tradition, and in a way the show, which tacitly wonders how Jews could succeed where other minorities continue to struggle, feels like a kind of exorcism.

For Asher, the chicken is a reminder of his original lapse. Coming from Fielder the creator, whose “Nathan For You” show often involved immigrant and minority-owned businesses in his schemes, the scenario of taking money away from a Black Muslim child can be read as self-critique. Indeed, the show as a whole seems to grapple with the accusations that Fielder, whose experimental reality show comedy has the pretense of helping people, is mean-spirited if not downright cruel.

If Whitney’s parents accuse her of trying Jewishness on like an outfit to obscure her origins, Dougie accuses Asher of “cosplaying as a good man” to be with Whitney.

Even as Whitney’s Jewish jewelry catches the light, as she acknowledges the genocide of the local Pueblo population on camera as part of their reality show, her example is set against the Jewish-looking — and Jewish-named — Asher, whose genuine efforts to impress his resentful, gentile-born wife are clumsy in the extreme. More than that, when deceptively edited to make him the “joker” to her “Green Queen,” Asher’s actions are tainted with anti-Jewish tropes of being transactional and cheap in an industry where such stereotypes thrive: real estate. (He also, it must be noted, fulfills a different, below-the-belt canard about Jewish men, with all the emasculation that comes with it, but then again, Whitney’s Christian father does, too.)

As Whitney lights Shabbat candles, showily saying the blessing in odd, imperfect Hebrew, and relates the lessons from her conversion classes, she slots into the problematic cliche of a Jew by choice who takes the tradition more seriously than her spouse who was born into it. But her engagement with the culture is another shiny facade, another kind of gentrification.

Whitney’s commitment to 613 mitzvot — or is it meshugas? — comes second to her zealous insistence that everyone who buys her refrain from changing the appliances, sign a pledge of support for the local Native American tribes’ claim to local roads and have the right progressive politics.

Eco-living as tabernacle

The Siegels’ homes, blending into a desert vista, meticulously planned, pressurized and temperature controlled, carry the aura and delicate atmosphere of a sacred space like the tabernacle the Israelites constructed to commune with God.

But in them, Safdie and Fielder imagine a different godhead in the illusion of an existence — in the U.S. of all places — that does no harm. The passive homes supposedly exist as a nullity, an exercise in offsetting damage, even as birds crack their skulls on the exterior walls and their construction unhouses poor residents.

In the end — which I won’t reveal here — explicitly Jewish superstitions take root and compromises are made. Limits to one’s level of sacrifice are acknowledged and in fact embraced. What were self-involved and incomplete gestures at goodwill  seem to shed their meshuggah parts to yield unalloyed mitzvot. For what may be the first time in the show, the mirrored door of the Siegel home opens to show a mezuzah on the post behind it.

The reflected virtues of a troubled couple yield to something truer. But, even then, it risks being too good to be true.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].