Like entering a tastefully debauched party in a loft and finding out it used to be a yeshiva, I walked into Russian Doll not expecting a tour of the modern Jewish psyche. Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) has a name that could come from a Philip Roth novel and a head of hair that should never see the inside of a flat iron. I fell in love with her immediately in that way that is unseemly because maybe there is a bit of narcissism in it. Jews have lost a lot culturally with the collective works of Woody Allen now being verboten. These eight episodes of Russian Doll are like finding a cinematic homeland that finally comes without complications. Nadia is the one that leads us there and though she’s temperamentally unfit to be a hero, it’s what makes her a perfect Jewish one. Her pickup line for a guy who seconds later is fingerbanging her is, “Yeshiva students used to study the Talmud right where you’re standing.” Portnoy would have no complaints with her. (Thank you. Tip your waitresses. Try the veal but only if it’s kosher.) Drugs aren’t a vice for her, more like a way of life.
Though Nadia suspects that what brought on the tripped-out travesties of her multiple deaths is a joint, specifically a cocaine-laced one, “like the Israelis do it,” as her friend Maxine says when she hands it to her at the party, Nadia attends again and again and again. There is nothing in the Torah against marijuana and a close Talmudic study would undoubtedly turn up an acrostic that says “legalize it” but American Ashkenazis like Nadia should indeed be wary of doing anything like the much hardier Israelis do it.
As it turns out, there was no cocaine in it, only ketamine, and any New Yorker who remembers littering and Dinkins with the fondness Nadia does survived special K in those same years. Realizing this very thing, she exclaims, “It’s not the ketamine, it’s the fucking yeshiva,” and considers that she’s karmically cursed. Unable to read the Hebrew writing on the wall of the building, she finds it suspect and creepy. Guilt is in her DNA.
Nadia isn’t Jewish in a religious sense but everything else about her inextricably is. When her friend Lizzy points out that she’s “Jewish-y,” she says, “Hey, come on, religion is dumb as fuck, all right? It’s racist. It’s sexist. There’s no money in it … anymore. Who needs it?” But Nadia does need it. Or if she doesn’t need Judaism, she needs Jewishness. She clings to it like her Holocaust-surviving grandparents did to the Krugerrands they amassed after the war.
Like all Jews, she believes everything is out to kill her. Even before her first death, she predicts an inevitable and untimely demise for herself. When her ex-boyfriend wakes up complaining that his bones hurt, Nadia leans over and whispers in my love language, “You should get checked for Lyme disease.” That she is killed is both her worst nightmare and exactly what she expected. Death, though, does little to curb her appetite. She eats cottage cheese to maintain her figure, as she and any grandmother ordering from the diet section of an appetizing menu, will tell you. But when she goes to her childhood home, that of her guardian Ruth, there’s rugelach and roast chicken readily available. Even when visits there are rendered unsurvivable because of a gas explosion that repeatedly kills them both, and when Nadia has Ruth over to her own apartment, she’s still eating the chicken.
When Nadia has the opportunity to directly acknowledge that she’s Jewish she says it’s “not by choice.” But she walks in to see a rabbi bouncing her shoulders like she’s Jackie Mason entering the Friars Club and shooting a “Hey, shabbat shalom!” at his assistant. When Ruth leaves her apartment she yells out, “Chag sameach! You have a gas leak!” (“Chag sameach” is the Jewish equivalent of “happy holidays” though its use is as limited as the number of happy holidays.) Russian Doll doesn’t delve deep into theology beyond Nadia’s refusal to believe that she’s suffering purgatorial punishment for being a bad person. In her conception, “there’s Hitler and then there’s everybody else.” But there is plenty of symbolism.
As anyone who’s watched donations roll in during the Chabad telethon can tell you, they happen in multiples of 18, or chai, the word for life. Nadia leads her double life across parallel universes on the night she turns 36. Each time she dies on that night she comes face to face with the same mirror, one that would be covered in a Jewish house after a death so as not to trap the spirit of the deceased. In flashbacks we see Lizzie’s mother smashing mirrors before her own suicide at 36. When Nadia is confronted with an apparition of herself as a child during that time, she dies from coughing up one of those long-buried shards. She’s blamed and punished herself for her mother’s death this whole time and with the dislodging of that glass, her mourning is over. “This is the day we get free,” child Nadia says to a dying adult Nadia.
Nadia’s journey through her long dark night of Avenue A finally brings her to salvation through the religion that binds all Jews, even secular ones: therapy. She arrives at the tiny, solid nugget of wisdom at the center of Russian Doll after she sheds her defenses and learns that the only way to live is to lean on those around her. Being Jewish is not about seeking answers in solitary, it’s about the solidarity of a tribe.
Nadia lives and dies, dies and lives. Each time, she wakes to what’s either her own birthday party or a shiva of sorts. Either way, she’s surrounded by those who love her, cake, and roast chicken.
Chandra Steele’s work can be found in Paper Darts (forthcoming), Vol. 1 Brooklyn, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Scofield, Litro Magazine, Newtown Literary, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, and The Molotov Cocktail. Rick Moody once said she wrote the best description of a racetrack he has ever read. She has never been to a racetrack. More of her writing can be found at chandrasteele.com.