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May 21, 2013

Religion at the End of The Big C

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/religion_at_the_end_of_the_big_c/

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Courtesy CBS Press Express

Last night, Showtime’s The Big C aired its final episode. After three seasons of half-hour installments, this comedy returned for a shortened final season consisting of four hour-long episodes. Subtitled The Big C: Hereafter, this final round took a more dramatic approach as protagonist Cathy (Laura Linney) entered the more serious stages of her cancer. As expected, the finale was extremely emotional, and provided a fitting sendoff to Cathy and her television family.

About ten minutes into the episode, Cathy sits in hospice and notices a priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk in to the room. Acknowledging that this could well be the start to a punch line, Cathy seizes on the opportunity to talk to the three clergy members to ask them about death. The rabbi is overdressed for the occasion, understandably wearing a yarmulke to signify that she is in fact a rabbi but unnecessarily also wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) in case viewers were unclear. This excess wardrobe is, however, made up for by the quality of what she says to Cathy. Like another Showtime series that was paired with The Big C on several occasions, Weeds, this show has surprisingly deep Jewish thoughts.

The rabbi tells Cathy that Judaism focuses on “Olam Hazeh,” the here and now, and then quotes a famous midrash that describes souls in the afterlife sitting down to a huge buffet. Cathy’s adopted daughter Andrea chimes in at this point that she likes Jewish food, and the priest heartily agrees. The imam states that illness does not exist just to test the sick, but also to show the compassion and generosity of others. This notion is similar to the idea that the Misheberach, a prayer for those in need of healing, and the Mourner’s Kaddish, recited by those who have lost loved ones after their death, are both just as much about providing consolation to the person saying the blessing as the one for whom it is said. In addition to prayers from the priest and the imam, Cathy receives her own Misheberach before leaving hospice.

Cathy has always been a character who has greeted her illness in an unusual way, refusing to be bogged down by the certainty that she will succumb to the disease and instead choosing to embrace life. Throughout the show’s four seasons, she has prepared for the eventuality of her death, buying her son gifts for a number of birthdays in the future, and, more recently, planning the details of her own funeral. Her openness to the concept of religion and its healing power, however minor, is both surprising and affirming. Perhaps best looked at as a necessary step on the road to accepting her condition, it serves as a warm – and wonderfully inclusive – look at what religion can mean to those who are not religious in a time of need.

That doesn’t mean that Cathy takes her encounter with Judaism to heart, of course. When she returns to her home after her insurance no longer covers hospice, Cathy learns from her new nurse that lard is a crucial ingredient of any good pie crust. She confirms that the decidedly unkosher substance is a “dirty word,” yet still promises to bring Cathy a pie. Though I won’t spoil the details of the episode, I will confirm that Cathy has the opportunity to enjoy a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie, lard and all, before the end of the episode. Some people like Jewish food, and others aren’t that particular. For Cathy, she got to experience a meaningful moment of Judaism and eat her cake (pie) too.

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