Even if you’re the most reform of Reform Jews—like I am, or like the Pfeffermans are—the Mourner’s Kaddish brings a ineffable comfort in times of tragedy. I realized when sitting down to write about “Oh Holy Night” that I didn’t even know the translation of the prayer—the way, for instance, I know the English version of the V’ahavta. Still, the rhythms are soothing, just knowing that you are honoring the dead. Maura’s decision to recite the Kaddish for Rita at Sarah’s Tacos Con Torah—or rather Pupusas Con Torah—night is a typically Pfefferman intrusion. It’s inappropriate and inflicts their trauma on everyone in the room. But it’s also undeniably moving.
Rita’s death is difficult to wrestle with—both for the Pfeffermans and for the audience. She was, as Ali says, practically a member of the family, but one who caused irreparable harm to one of its members. She was Josh’s confidant, lover, and molester. And she left him abruptly and without many answers. We don’t learn how Josh hears about Rita’s death, and it’s unclear if he has all of the facts. As he walks around her home, her life feels unfinished: Pee is even still left in the toilet. When Maura chooses to honor Rita, she’s reckoning with her own guilt. Earlier, Josh asks whether she knew that he and Rita were having sex. Maura says she didn’t. She and Shelly, she explains, “thought we were paying her to be your best friend.” It’s a brutally honest response, and one that condemns her own parenting skills. She sought an easily solution for her son’s loneliness and, in turn, allowed someone to take advantage of him. Saying the Kaddish is one attempt to make amends. Another is an act of literal demolition. As she leaves the family home, she decides to get rid of a hideous glass fixture Tammy had installed. Is she simply trying to restore the house to its original glory? That would seem counterintuitive: The old version of the house contained deep damaging secrets. Perhaps she’s just metaphorically smashing the boundaries between her and her child. Or maybe she just wants to break shit. No matter what the intent, it’s a rare act of catharsis.
But as much as the episode’s first half is about Josh’s sorrow, it shifts focus to Raquel in the second. Kathryn Hahn has her character strung up on a high wire of emotion. She’s warm and gracious, but also seems inches away from breaking at any moment. And break she does. Initially, she must endure the tortuous teasing from Sarah regarding the new cantor, Duvid. Sarah has planned the event mostly as a way to garner attention for herself, and get back in the good graces of a community that rejected her. She does create a physically lovely atmosphere out of an essentially abandoned gymnasium, but the moment Josh arrives the atmosphere turns. The color runs out of Raquel’s face when she sees him. She remains afar as the Pfeffermans gather and start sharing the news of Rita’s death. When Raquel and Josh do finally reunite, their meeting is tender, and their hug deeply felt. But when Josh asks her to take a road trip with him to give Rita’s ashes to Colton, she knows she can’t, despite her love for him. Josh—and his relationship with Rita—was toxic to her. The ceremony she ends up performing is a testament to treating others kindly, and the potential for goodness within everyone. She seems, in a way, soothed. But when the Kaddish echoes she falls into sobs.
There’s one final Pfefferman coupling that comes into play: Ali and Leslie. The two begin the episode in perfect—almost disgusting—harmony. They read each other lines they have written, which together form a poem that’s either sappy or profound—depending on how you look at it. Their goopy romance underscores Josh’s tour of Rita’s belongings. But this compatibility is clearly also tenuous. At the gathering, Leslie gets into an argument with some congregants when she refuses espresso because the beans come from Israel. Regardless of whether or not her political position is justified—that’s a discussion for another time—her relentlessness is obnoxious even for a person on this show. She seems not to care about Ali’s own grief over Rita, or the fact that she’s an invited and clearly outnumbered guest. That makes it all the more curious that, after she takes a tumble into a gaping hole in the sidewalk, she latches onto Ali. She becomes hokey in professing her love, talking about how she’s “afraid” of her emotions. Ali’s reaction is tinged with embarrassment. The gushing of the morning gone, the reality of this woman’s patronizing stubbornness staring her in the face.
Josh, meanwhile, has turned elsewhere for comfort: To Maura’s friend Shea. He goes to the strip club where she works and watches her dance. At first the scene seems strangely more Sopranos than Transparent—but that’s a misdirection. There’s genuine flirtation between them, and a hint of reprieve for Josh’s soul.
- Josh says, “Jewish men don’t do demo,” to which Maura responds, “I am a Jewish woman, Joshy, and Jewish women do whatever the fuck they want.” It’s a great line, but also reminds me of a favorite from Difficult People. Billy is asked why he doesn’t know how to use a power drill. He says, “Because my father is dead and when he was alive he was Jewish.”
- Shelly’s technological revolution continues to be a joy. “I took an app here,” she says.
- Tacos or pupusas? Discuss.