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A rabbi explains what Orange Is the New Black gets right about Judaism

Cindy makes her case to Litchfield's consulting rabbi that she should be allowed to convert to Judaism.
Cindy makes her case to Litchfield's consulting rabbi that she should be allowed to convert to Judaism.
Lauren Katz is a project manager at Vox, focusing on newsroom-wide editorial initiatives as well as podcast engagement strategy.

For the next several days, several of Vox's writers will discuss the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Before you dig into the latest round, check out our review of the full season, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

Lauren Katz, social media editor: After Litchfield Penitentiary goes private in Orange Is the New Black season three, the food at the prison gets much, much worse. But it's not long before the inmates, spurred on by Lori Petty's Lolly, find a way to avoid it: ask for a kosher meal.

"If you tell cafeteria workers you're Jewish, you'll get kosher meals, which is way better than prison food — and they can't question your religion, because it's illegal," Lolly explains to her fellow inmates.

She's right: prisoners are guaranteed religious freedom under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. But serving kosher meals costs Litchfield more money than serving non-kosher meals. In an attempt to save money, the prison brings in a corporate rabbi to weed out the fakers from the "sincerely Jewish," a murky concept that can be hard to define in any context.

When Litchfield's warden, Joe Caputo, questions the decision to second-guess people's religious beliefs, new Director of Human Activities Danny simply responds that it's a "legal gray area."

Cue the stereotypes

Inmates try their best to prove their Jewish roots to the rabbi by mentioning how much they love a bargain, announcing their distaste for "shrimps," and breaking out into a roaring rendition of "Hava Nagila," a traditional Israeli folk song. Cindy even borrows a few plotlines from Annie Hall and Yentl and mixes them into her life story, to which the rabbi replies:

"Miss Hayes, while I am heartened that you appreciate the works of Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand, I think you've confused culture Judaism with committed Jewish belief."

A rabbi's take on how Orange Is the New Black explains Judaism

Vox reached out to Rabbi Shoshana Nyer, the director of lifelong learning at Suburban Temple – Kol Ami in Beachwood, Ohio, and a fan of Orange Is the New Black, for perspective on the process at Litchfield. Rabbi Nyer wrote in an email that she doesn't believe cultural Judaism and committed Jewish belief are mutually exclusive, but she does believe that one can sometimes exist without the other. This is something she feels is true for other religions as well, and suggests that what the corporate rabbi is trying to prove isn't possible.

"I think it can always be tricky when one person gets to decide another person's status in a group," she told me.

Cindy Hayes: convert

Ultimately, Litchfield uses the corporate rabbi's findings to compile a list of inmates who are allowed to receive kosher meals. When Cindy doesn't make the cut, she decides to convert to Judaism. And her reasoning gets to the core of something real.

Honestly, I think I found my people. I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad I'd go to hell. If I was good I'd go to heaven. If I asked Jesus, he'd forgive me and that was that. And here y'all said ain't no hell, ain't sure about heaven, and if you do something wrong you've got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God is concerned, it's your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It's like a verb. It's like, ... you do God. And that's a lot of work. But I think I'm in, at least as far as i can see it. I mean, maybe I'll learn more and say "fuck the whole thing," but I want to learn more and I think I gotta be in it to do that. You know, does that make sense? Shit, did I just talk myself out of it?

In her own words, Rabbi Nyer writes, Cindy captures the essence of Judaism.

"She speaks to the fact that we believe that one should be a good person, not because there is a reward after this life if you are, or out of a fear of punishment beyond this world if you are not, but because it is the right thing to do in this world," Nyer said. "And when we do make mistakes we can seek forgiveness directly from God, or the person we have hurt, and in fact we must do this, so that we can continue grow and become our best selves."

Rabbi Nyer notes that Cindy talks about how Judaism is not just about belief, but also about action.

"We can't simply study what it means to be a good, we must also put that learning to good use by becoming God's partners in helping to repair what is broken in our world."

Lastly, Rabbi Nyer points out that Cindy speaks to the fact that learning is a lifelong endeavor in Judaism.

"We are permitted and encouraged to keep questioning and struggling with what we find difficult," she says. "If he/she understands these major ideas and accepts them, then I would say he/she is ready to become Jewish."

It's surprisingly refreshing how much Cindy's storyline gets right about Judaism. Some have questioned whether or not Orange Is the New Black is anti-semitic or pondered whether the show has a "Jewish problem." Playing up stereotypes across many different groups — including different races, sexual orientations, and, in season three, religions — has always been a huge part of the show. Orange Is the New Black, Rabbi Nyer says, uses these stereotypes to make certain points, often with regard to tolerance.

"I think it all comes down to context."

Read our review of season three. Come back soon for more discussion.

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