hunters review

When Hunters was first announced, I remember feeling invigorated by its concept. I didn’t really look into it too much beyond series creator and co-showrunner David Weil, and felt at ease knowing there would be a Jewish person of my generation helming the project. The knowledge that Jordan Peele was on board as a producer meant it would likely be subversive and challenging. Then we got the first trailer and I was all-in.

However, nothing could prepare me for how this series would reflect my personal experience as a Jewish woman living in North America today. What Weil and his team have accomplished is remarkable; they’ve created a series that straddles the trauma of our most recent past alongside the threat of our imminent future, while lovingly and angrily embodying the very essence of the contemporary Jewish experience. 

This article contains some spoilers for the first season of Hunters.

I’m shaking as I write this. You see, it’s impossible for me to talk about this show without getting personal, much like it’s impossible for most Jewish people to disconnect from our shared generational trauma as a culture. In a recent interview with Variety, the cast and crew discussed the show’s significance at a time when the visibility of latent antisemitism is on the rise. Near its conclusion, the show’s creator, David Weil, talks about growing up Jewish in America, surrounded by subtle forms of antisemitism. “Small acts,” he says, “a joke about Jews in ovens that I heard when I was in college or a swastika being spray-painted on the front lawn of my high school growing up.” I wince. I know exactly what he’s talking about because I’ve experienced nearly the exact same things. 

When I was 16 years old working at the local movie theatre, a co-worker stopped me to tell me a joke. He led with “you’re Jewish, so I think you’ll like this.” I gave him the go-ahead, not sure where this was going. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” I didn’t answer. I stared at him in stunned silence, which he took to mean I was waiting for the answer. He continued. “Pizzas don’t scream when you put them in the oven!” He laughed as if he’d told a real knee-slapper. I started shaking and, in my anger and hurt, I yelled at him. I told him that wasn’t funny, and he told me to lighten up. After all, it had been a long time since the holocaust, he said. I proceeded to tell him about my Abuelito, my mom’s father, and shame him for ever thinking that kind of joke was okay. He apologized, though defensively. I walked slowly to the staff washroom and proceeded to cry there, alone, shaking as I am now. 

When I was in University, I got really used to being the only Jewish person for miles. Typically, if we’re not in a predominantly Jewish area, we’re usually the only ones in a crowd. This opened the door for a new kind of microaggression that I had been trained my whole life to dismiss as just par for the course. Every other person I’d meet, when they found out or realized that I was Jewish, would immediately — fucking immediately — chime in with “oh wow! You’re my first Jew!” I’m not your toy. We’re not Pokemon, or rare rookie collector cards, though we are viciously outnumbered on a global scale. 

Enter Hunters

With an explosive emotional force I was not prepared for, this show came crashing into my life, riddled with Yiddish slang, omniscient Saftas, jokes of Bubeleh bat phones, the right coffins (more on this soon), and the mourners Kaddish. From the very beginning, this show screamed at the top of its lungs that it was made by Jewish people with Jewish people in mind. But the depths of its Jewishness, and its profound significance, will likely be missed by most people watching it. 

When Jonah sits down to his comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup, as his Safta (the Hebrew word for grandmother) tends to his cuts and bruises, I started to weep. I’ve had that exact bowl of soup. The apartments of both sets of grandparents, my Bubbe and Zayde as well as my Abuelita and Abuelito (Dad and Mom’s parents, respectively), looked like this home. In an instant, I was transported. I could smell the soup. I could smell Ruth’s clothes and the soap on her skin. When she cradles his face, it’s with the precise gentleness my Abuelita used to cradle mine. Suddenly, she was there with me. Patting my cheeks, telling me to put socks on because if I walked in the kitchen with bare feet I’d get sick. 

In the larger conversation of being able to see yourself represented in media, Jews are often left on the sidelines. We’ve seen ourselves before, true, but it’s often in the context of the Holocaust, stereotypes, or hard-nosed orthodoxy. Shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — which I adore — give us more humor and banter than legitimate culture. But because Ashkenazi Jews, which I am, present largely as white, we tend to disappear into the fray. We don’t get to have discussions of representation because we can just look at the other white folks. 

We’ve told ourselves that’s enough for generations. Really since cinema began. But it’s not, and we don’t realize how much it’s not until we see something like this. And the thing is, the representation we need, the representation that will hopefully open the eyes of the world, has to include our trauma as a people. The atrocities in the show are easily dismissed as mere tools for entertainment, but the truth is they’re deeply rooted in our history, up to the present day.

Ruth’s murder, for instance, directly mirrors the slaying of 85-year-old Parisian Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her apartment. In the second episode, they talk about targeted attacks on Jewish neighborhoods, referencing the horrific attacks, threats, and debasement that we’ve seen repeatedly in the last four years alone. The seemingly unfathomable plot twist that the American government had smuggled Nazis and German scientists into the U.S. to help with the Space Race isn’t even made up — Operation Paperclip was real. As a result, hundreds if not thousands of Nazis completely evaded persecution for their slaughter of over 11 million people during the Holocaust, including six million Jews. 

We have all of the statistics. The facts about the Holocaust and its many tragedies are plentiful and well-documented. Steven Spielberg started the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 to help preserve the history of genocide survivors through first-hand accounts. We had photographic evidence immediately following the war, news reports on all sides of it — there wasn’t an angle left unexplored, as it is the single most well-documented genocide in history. And yet, we’ve still spent the past 75 years desperately trying to convince the world that it happened, to the point where its very existence was put on trial. David Irving, the modern godfather of Holocaust denial and Nazi apologist, would later serve 3 years in prison for denying it ever happened and calling for an end to “the gas chambers fairy tale.” 

Following Hunters’ release, it came under heavy — and justified — scrutiny from the Auschwitz Memorial for its portrayal of a sadistic chess game in the camp. Of its problematic use of the historic site, they said “[i]nventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.” 

Firstly, I cannot stress enough that this argument is incredibly valid. That said, David Weil’s defense of this scene confirms why I personally thought it was vital to the show. With all of the examples I’ve given above (you guys have hyperlinks for days!) and the literal thousands I just don’t have the time or energy to sift through (seriously, google “Jewish attacks” — you’ll be looking at results from the last five years alone for 10 pages), we still struggle to make the world believe that our history was as horrible as it was, or that we’re still at risk at all. Portraying the atrocities of Auschwitz — of any camp, for that matter — as cartoonishly exaggerated is a necessary attempt to shock the general public out of their complacency. To me, it feels like screaming at the top of your lungs “WE FUCKING MATTER! CARE ABOUT US!” and beating you over the head with these made-up stories because the real ones don’t seem to be enough anymore. 

Weil and fellow showrunner Nikki Toscano incorporated more of this into the show with its humorous and horrific cutaways, the most notable of which sent chills down my spine and reduced me to a shaking, sobbing mess. 

Framed like a 1970s Family Feud-style game show, Why Does Everyone Hate The Jews? shows up at the 32 minute mark of episode 8, “The Jewish Question.” In the segment, a Richard Dawson-looking host encourages a trio of contestants to guess as many reasons why everyone hates the Jews. After an onslaught of real, antisemitic things people have actually said about Jews, Joyce wins the game with the easy answer, “because they’re Jews!” The host wraps things up with his chilling exit monologue, staring down the audience while breaking the fourth wall:

Do you know someone who would win big money here? Have them apply today. No, really, do you? Maybe a parent? A friend? Your husband or wife? Maybe they play it often. Around the kitchen table or at work. Maybe just in the safety of their own minds because they still believe that Jews … just aren’t us. How often do they play this game? Would they win big money here? Would you?”

Pick something on that board featured in the show. I’ve heard it said in public, sometimes to my face. Someone once told me Jews were cheap at a party as an anecdote. Someone else once angrily complained that the Jews needed to get over feeling threatened shortly after neo-Nazis had marched down Queen Street West in Toronto.  

I take the representation of the Holocaust and Jewish survivors’ stories very seriously. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Thornhill, Ontario, I went to elementary school with many Jewish kids. Because of this, and because our school was located in a neighborhood we all affectionately refer to as “the Jewberhood”, we had a Holocaust survivor come to our class and tell us their story every year around Remembrance Day and International Holocaust Memorial Day. Eventually, we stopped seeing them because they were all dying. This was a huge part of the significance of Spielberg’s initiative to document their stories; without tangible evidence, what happened to us will be erased and denied. 

On top of hearing their stories in school from the age of about eight, my Abuelito was a survivor of the Holocaust. He grew up in the town of Malaryta in what is now known as Belarus. Around the beginning of WWII, after the Germans had invaded Poland, his father had him purposely go and run a random errand by train that would take him away from their town. When he returned, his family was gone. 

As my mom tells it, based on piecing his story together, “He and two other guys went east towards the Russian border, got arrested and sent to Siberia, where he spent the rest of the war. Hunger and disease killed many. Typhus was rampant. His job was to remove the dead bodies in a wheelbarrow. He felt he would soon be one of the dead. He slept on a stone floor with straw. Ate a cat once. After the war, he tried to look for his family with the help of the Red Cross. His mother and sister were confirmed dead, and he never found anything about his father. He spent 2 years in Europe, mostly Italy. Went to Argentina in 1947. His uncle and family had emigrated there before the war.” 

I say “based on piecing his story together” because he didn’t talk about what he went through. Not with us, anyways. But this behavior was common for Holocaust survivors. In the very first episode at his Safta’s shivah, Jonah (Logan Lerman) says “she didn’t talk about the camps much.” Pacino’s Meyer Offerman replies with a telling and familiar “what is there to talk about?” 

Speaking from personal experience, and the stories I’d heard from other friends and family with survivors, they seldom spoke to their own family about what happened to them in the camps. What I could gather from my Abuelito was that he didn’t want to burden us with his trauma. He would, however, speak to anyone else about it. A few years after my Abuelita passed, he had a girlfriend — also a Holocaust survivor, a child during the war — and would tell her and her kids stories about his camp. He’d talk to my stepdad about it in front of my mom, but never with her directly. 

The show manages to honor this behavior in a beautifully non-judgemental way. There’s so much we know from others, but so little we know from our own that we have to piece together from the fragments we could gather. That’s why Spielberg’s initiative is so important, and why the efforts of Yad Vashem matter so profoundly for the preservation of our truth and our history. 

Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. Shaped like a long corridor, you move through the museum in a snake trail, meandering through the history of the Holocaust from before it began to the search for life after liberation. At the very end resides the Hall of Names, pictured above. Its walls are lined with the biographies of every Holocaust victim. The walls are lined with thousands of binders containing these Pages of Testimony, but the shelves are not full. You can search the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names for someone you may know, and if their name is missing, the centre offers blank Pages of Testimony to add your family’s story. The thing is, most of the Jews who were murdered will remain forever anonymous. They’ll disappear into the fabric of history like so many others before them. 

Weil brought Yad Vashem to the New York burrow by way of The Ark, a  room in Offerman’s attic where the Hunters gathered testimonies from living Holocaust survivors in New York. Hanging above the room’s central table is a round light fixture mirroring the Hall of Name’s conical ceiling with over 600 photos and Pages of Testimony. The walls are lined with nearly identical binders of testimonies, and the shelves are similarly incomplete, with large gaps missing, ready to be filled. That it gets torched in episode 6, (Ruth 1:16), acts as the ultimate indignity — an attack on our history, and attempt to erase our traumatic past that reflects the real attacks and indignities we’ve already suffered.

The messages behind Hunters aren’t exactly subtle. Rather, they’re about as subtle as a hammer to the kneecaps. But the thing is, neither are we. Jewish people, when you know them personally and not just at a distance, are anything but. We’re vibrant people, full of love and life, the desire to celebrate through food, and a profound inclination to welcome people into our homes, whether they’re close relatives or complete strangers. 

But, despite our lack of subtlety, we’ve learned to make ourselves small over time. Historically, we’ve never been accepted. Outcasts since the days of the pharaohs, forbidden for centuries to marry outside the faith (to intermarry, as it’s known), and banned from food markets in the middle ages because everyone thought we were diseased. Up until the 20th century we were banned from major institutions. When you know us in our culture, we’re big, boisterous, and about as subtle as a backhanded comment from your Bubbe about when you’re going to give her grandkids. But no one wants to know us. So, to the world that shuns us, we’re quiet, subdued, and withdrawn. Which is why something like Hunters seems so preposterous when, in reality, it’s the perfect tonal chaos of our very existence. It shifts from humour to horror and deep-seated sorrow on a dime, a tonal incongruity criticized by many. But what these people don’t seem to understand is that this seemingly careless creative decision is actually a perfect articulation of Jewish existence. The documentary The Last Laugh tackles this very subject.

I could write ten thousand words on the intricacies in this show that make it integral to communicating the modern Jewish experience; Its delicate handling of Jonah feeling “a part of our people. A part of our tribe,” in episode 6, which reflects so many of us when we finally get to experience being among our people in a real way; Meyer’s hiring of Hilda Hoffman, the Yenta (match-maker), to help him assemble the titular Hunters, and addressing the profession’s significance in the effort to repopulate in episode 2; Murray’s (Saul Rubinek) atheism after the war reflective of the mass loss of faith many Holocaust survivors felt after liberation; Judd Hirsch’s portrayal of real Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal while questioning what is the right way to seek retribution, something we as a people have struggled with throughout our entire history. But I’m afraid even this is too long, and that most people just won’t listen, because it often feels like they don’t. 

The season starts in our past and ends in our present, despite being set in 1977. It addresses the anxieties we feel of being forgotten, and being swallowed by the world — the global Jewish population in the 1970s was roughly 12.6 million against the world’s 4 billion, and is now approximately 14.6 million to the world’s 7.8 billion. It focuses on a big part of our culture while highlighting our oppression and desire to be heard and seen. It puts the conspiracy theories front and centre while addressing the reality of our fears.     

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