Amongst the other reasons to wallow in fear and depression (because you’re certainly looking), I was alarmingly saddened by the passing of Florence Henderson. That’s exactly what you’re expecting to hear from a 23-year-old young professional Jew in New York City, and surely you were waiting for someone in my demographic to be writing a tribute to The Brady Bunch.
Yes, I was very, very pre-utero when the show was on-air. I first saw the show on Thanksgiving weekend immediately following my 12th birthday. My cousins and I were sprawled out on my grandmother’s couch, clearly recovering from a turkey overdose when my uncle put in a DVD of the first season. In our sluggishness, aside from our annual bowling trip, we landed ourselves in a weekend-long series marathon. We were totally hooked, and I was convinced that I was some sort of Jan Brady reincarnate. My uncle lent me the DVDs (which I still urgently need to return) and the marathon continued.
When I was in 7th Grade, I was a remarkably lanky, nerd-in-denial, with the fashion senses of a budding adult nostalgic for childhood. I wasn’t ready to adopt teenage gender and sexual norms, nor fake it for my own (social) sake. I was a near-graduate of a small, pretty heimish (modest) Jewish day school and a new camper at Ramah. I was Jewishly hyper-engaged, and it was the only world I knew- despite growing up in an incredibly diverse neighborhood. I “secretly” began observing Shabbat, and Jewish ritual practice was a growing part of my life.
I wasn’t into sports-watching or TV more broadly, and I wasn’t really such a fan of any computer games. I loved playing tennis and drawing, and had very little to distract me from my own reality. No- “The Chosen”, “The Promise”, “Davita’s Harp”, and “The Rise of David Levinsky” didn’t really introduce me to anything actually new or foreign.
I don’t mean to throw around the term “Jan Brady reincarnate” lightly. There was critical part of my identity that longed for siblings, for space to run around, and for the freedom to be a young adult in a society that made a stronger attempt to preserve childhood innocence at least until high school. I had a deep-seated desire to recognize “regular” Americanness (a blonder and more Christian one, at least). I was moved by the burgeoning feminism in the female characters, the devotion the siblings had toward one another, as well as the ways in which each character overcame each of their more emotionally-trying moments (albeit sometimes ridiculously trivial and plot-less).
The show was a real framing lens to my own life for the duration of that school year. I was socially aware enough not to blab on about the show with my peers- because let’s be real here- 12 is just one year too young to appreciate “vintage” stuff without social backlash.
Even just one year later, the TV show took a backseat to the issues that my newly-minted teenage self needed to prioritize. I turned 13, had a “real crush”, bought makeup, and discovered coffee. My Judaism was an issue of public angst in my house. I was morphing into a quasi-sophisticated, cynical city kid who became keenly aware of how my only-child-ness afforded me certain privileges that would not have been obvious realities otherwise (especially when it came to Jewish Education). I also jumped over the semantic fence from being a Jewish American to a bona-fide American Jew (hameivin yavin). I was somewhat proud of my distinctiveness from mainstream white America.
The part of me that wanted to jump right into the set of the show and live a bourgeois Californian life during that time period has dissipated, and I’m relatively comfortable as a social, city-dwelling yeshiva student in Manhattan. But despite resolving the pre-teen insecurities that drove my obsession with The Brady Bunch, the show still manages to serve as a counter-narrative to the America that I have been privileged to know up-close. In a world where every affront to humanity continues to be perpetrated, and in a country where polarization has become our primary success, the over-simplistic (political/religious/ethnic/racial white-washing) and oddly pleasant tone is ironically fitting and timeless. I could argue that the tone can represent the sheer ignorance that much of liberal America had experienced leading up to the election, and the haughtiness that we had toward the those who failed bring the (definitive) ills of society into their purview. But I’m not interested in any grand claims and generalizations (at least in this post). I do know that the show has given me an acute sense of how it can feel to want to be part of a dominant culture that was never really your own. I was glued to the screen until I realized that no one like me was actually going to make an appearance, and was privileged enough to cope with that fact. And it’s that sense that has grounded my investment in my own religious, ethnic, educational, linguistic, and social distinctiveness, as well as in the legitimate distinctiveness(es) of others. This isn’t meant to be a declaration of self-righteousness, but rather a feeling of indebtedness to whatever The Brady Bunch was and is. And that in itself is deserving of this long, long-overdue personal tribute.