Time Traveling in Toronto

It’s ironic that when I was growing up in Canada, I preferred to watch American television shows almost exclusively (I thought that American TV was so much better – and maybe it was at the time), because now I am impressed with programs like the CBC’s Being Erica, which I find to be much better written and more realistic than comparable American dramas. True, I probably like it because its main character is a young Jewish woman and because I love stories about time travel (especially since reading Jack Finney‘s cult classic – well, at least it is among New Yorkers –  Time and Again). But once you watch Being Erica, you will see what I mean about its sense of verisimilitude. Ever since my friend Leah Strigler (askingLeah.blogspot.com) let me know about it and that is is available for viewing on hulu (very important for someone like me who does not have a TV and therefore can’t watch it on the SOAPnet channel), I have been trying to steal a few minutes here and there with my laptop to rendezvous with the compelling Erica Strange.

There is no getting around the complete fantasy fiction of time travel, but the character of Erica and those of her family members ring true. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen contemporary Jewish characters portrayed so realistically and so, well…Jewishly, in a television series. Jewish religious and cultural practice and family dynamics are presented authentically and even more traditional and obscure words like “shul” (as opposed to the more widely known “temple”) are freely used.

Being Erica‘s creator, Jana Sinyor (a Canadian Jewish woman the same age as Erica), purposely set out to write the show this way. “I have always been very, very interested in religion. I feel like there’s a real lack of religion on television. It’s part of the realness thing. Everybody comes from some cultural background. A big thing for us is the universality in the specifics. Universality through specificity. Meaning that, the more specific that we can make Erica, or anybody on the show for that matter, the more universal they feel. Having Erica have a cultural background that is distinct and very real in the sense that she’s not super religious, it’s just what it is. Like everybody, she comes from a cultural background. They’re sort of, I guess, Reform Jews, except for her father, who’s a rabbi. He’s more practicing. Everybody has a religious person in their family and the tensions that come out of having certain people who are more devout and other people who are completely atheist. I feel like that whole aspect of people’s lives is often really cut out of television. You don’t really see it,” she explained in an interview published on a blog.

Erica Strange and her mysterious therapist, Dr. Tom (played by Michael Riley)

Erica’s being so organically immersed in her heritage posed a serious, yet exciting challenge for Erin Karpluk, the actress who plays her. Karpluk, who was raised in a non-Jewish family of Ukranian descent in rural Alberta, spent hours interviewing Jewish subjects to prepare for the role. “I was terrified of appearing inauthentic. I share Jana’s belief that the more specific a character, the more relatable she is,” she was quoted as saying in an article in Los Angeles’ Jewish Journal.

The concept of the show, in a nutshell, has Erica going back in time with the help of a mysterious therapist named Dr. Tom (who always has an appropriate and profound quote at hand to make his point and motivate his patient) to re-live moments in her life she has come to regret. She learns how she could have done things differently (or not), and applies these lessons to her current situation as a 32 year-old woman who struggles with the fact that her life has not turned out quite as she or her family expected it to. I know – it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it is so well done that it actually works. Besides, there’s never any harm in being reminded that we can’t go through life lamenting, “If only I had known then what I know now.” We all know that in reality we can’t live life backwards, so it’s great fun to lose ourselves in Erica’s story as she is able to do so, at least for the length of each one-hour episode.

Scroll down to the post below this one to watch the Yom Kippur episode of Being Erica, titled “This Be The Verse,” which was the eighth of the show’s first season (two seasons have been produced thus far). I found it to be powerful, not only on the basis of the storyline, writing and acting, but also by virtue of what Yom Kippur is about. It is on the Day of Atonement that we Jews take stock of our lives, repent for mistakes we have made in the past, and declare in the Kol Nidre prayer that our vows and promises in the upcoming year are null and void. We affirm what Erica Strange discovers through her therapy with Dr. Tom: that we are not perfect, and that part of living a worthwhile life is having regrets – so long as we learn from them and don’t let them stop us from staying true to ourselves and trying to reach our potential.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to “Time Traveling in Toronto”

  1. Rose Barlow Says:

    Two questions; Why is ‘shul’ obscure? and why couldn’t a Jewish person play Erica?

  2. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    Probably for the same reason that they use secular actors to play religious characters on the Israeli series “Srugim.”

  3. Rose Barlow Says:

    Remind me what that reason is????

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