Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series, Master of None, was released on November 6, just a few weeks before Thanksgiving. And even though most of us finished the entire season by November 7, the timing helps highlight the connection between an overarching theme of the show and the upcoming holiday.
A lot of attention has been given to the show’s focus on identity, specifically its attempt to inconspicuously incorporate diversity while explicitly confronting the assumptions, stereotypes, and discrimination that often inhibit that diversity.
At times the show can feel overly self-righteous, and I’m disappointed that it deals with just about every identity bubble (age, race, sexuality, gender, socio-economic status, weight) except religion. I know, it’s only 10 episodes. But instead of simply reflecting the zeitgeist, it would have been nice if the show led the way by initiating this difficult, complicated, yet much-needed conversation.
Nevertheless, Master of None succeeds in raising awareness of many of the privileges that each one of us, in different ways, enjoys. It is almost the thesis of season one, explored through a different lens in each episode: we benefit from advantages that we often don’t acknowledge.
This theme is most prevalent in episode two, when the main character Dev and his friend Brian realize how much their immigrant parents sacrificed to get them to where they are today. While often not at the forefront of conversations around privilege, simply being American is an incredible privilege with rights awarded to us, at least in theory, that many others across the world do not have.
As Jews, we don’t have to look too far back into our collective history to appreciate the unprecedented freedom of religion bestowed to us by America. And as grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants, most of us can look back within our own family’s history to appreciate how much easier our lives are today. Our very name, yehudi, “Jew,” is etymologically connected to the Hebrew words for thanksgiving (toda) and acknowledge (l’hodot). To be Jewish is to be thankful by acknowledging the kindness we’ve received, and Thanksgiving is a great opportunity for us to embody that defining characteristic.
In other episodes, Master of None touches on specific privileges of being white (being able to try out for more than one role in an audition), of being a man (being able to take a short-cut through a park at night without fear of being sexually assaulted), of being young (being able to go out to a restaurant without a chaperone), and more. The loud yet unspoken message of the show is that we often aren’t even conscious of our own privileges.
This is also the message of Thanksgiving. Being grateful is not only about feeling good – it’s supposed to challenge us. When we acknowledge the ways we’ve benefitted from others or factors out of our control, the false assumption that we have achieved everything on our own begins to disintegrate. Gratitude is the guard against the very human temptation outlined in the Torah: “Beware, lest your heart grow haughty… and you say to yourselves ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this success for me.’” (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17). Expressing our appreciation is only the first step – the hope is that this process compels us to give back and help create a just society that is sensitive and responsive to the needs of those less fortunate. This might not be the central theme of Master of None, but it is certainly a central theme of Judaism, and hopefully this season.