By Jamie Guterman
Alma via JTA
Forget Shabbat: Wednesday is the holiest day of the week in my house. At 8 o’clock sharp, my family crams onto our couch, bowls of popcorn in hand, to tune into the latest episode of “Survivor.” My parents began watching the reality TV show when it premiered in 2000 before I was even born, and I started watching in 2013 for “Survivor: Cagayan” (season 28, otherwise known as “Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty”). Cagayan’s action-packed season — filled with notable characters like spy-shack builder Tony Vlanchos, surfer-dude Woo, “Chaos Cass,” and strategic but narcissistic Spencer Bledsoe — instantly pulled me in.
I quickly followed in my parents’ obsessive footsteps: pausing the show to analyze a player’s proposed strategy, screaming at the screen when my favorites went home and, of course, doing intense research into the internet lives of those I felt were part of my tribe (pun intended): the Jews.
“Survivor,” like most reality shows, has a history of casting people to fill certain archetypes. Every season has the “mom” character, the “villain,” the “jungle man” and the “nerd,” just to name a few. Among the nerds, a subcategory has emerged: the “nervous nerd,” often populated by young, neurotic Jewish adults who look about as comfortable in the jungle as I do when my grandmother tries to set me up with an NJB.
It’s hard to forget players like Stephen Fishbach, a city Jew and strategic goofball who was the complete opposite of a wilderness man on both his seasons, “Survivor: Tocantins” (season 18) and “Survivor: Cambodia: Second Chance” (season 31). A self-described “Fishbach out of water,” viewers watched him score points for the other team in a challenge, struggle through gastrointestinal problems (let’s be real: all Ashkenazi Jews with stomach problems related to this episode), and fail to chop the smallest branches or coconuts throughout the show. He was neurotic and emotional, but also brilliant and cunning. Making it deep into the game in both of his seasons, Fishbach used his self-deprecating humor and strategic gameplay to make friends that carried him far.
Fishbach isn’t the only nervous Jewish “Survivor” player to make it far: Adam Klein, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, won season 33, “Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X.” Hannah Shapiro, fellow Jew, made it to the final Tribal Council with Klein. Both players used their nebbish and flustered natures to succeed in the game by quickly making friends through their relatable dispositions.
While watching the Jewish personalities play out on “Survivor” is always fun, relating to the players had a deeper meaning for me. Ultimately, Fishbach, Klein and Shapiro’s clumsy and anxiety-inducing personalities helped me, an incredibly neurotic Jew, come to terms with my own anxiety. I’ve often viewed my anxiety as a tremendous roadblock. Type A and nervous, I’m always thinking two steps ahead, overthinking to the point of mental exhaustion and inertia; I feel like a klutz packaged with some strange combination of worrier and goofball. Ultimately, my constant unease has kept me from taking risks and enjoying daily social interactions with friends. However, the Shapiros and Kleins of “Survivor” embraced their anxiety. They used what seemed like weaknesses (insecurities and overthinking) as strengths (self-deprecating humor and crafty gameplay) to make allies and go far in the game. In addition to being neurotic, they were also unapologetically emotional and goofy. Rather than letting those traits stop them from excelling, they capitalized on them and succeeded.
Other Jewish players — like Eliza Orlins, who recently ran an inspiring campaign for Manhattan DA as the only public defender candidate — were quirky and passionate (see the famous “it’s a F*cking Stick!” clip) but also eloquent, intelligent and quick-witted. Seeing these players embrace not only their Jewishness, but also their social anxiety on national television helped me to accept my own nerdy disposition as something I can harness to achieve my own goals.
To be clear, not all Jews on “Survivor” are neurotic or anxious. Whether nerdy or not, they are all confident and bold, making moves, dominating challenges and representing the Jewish diaspora in diverse ways. Take Ethan Zohn, winner of “Survivor: Africa” (season 3), and competitor on “Survivor: All-Stars” (season 8) and “Survivor: Winners at War” (season 40). While he now considers himself “an old, neurotic Jewish guy, married with two cats,” in his earlier seasons Zohn, a retired professional soccer player, presented himself as both a genuine physical and social threat. In Africa, he helped his tribe win five team challenges and later won two individual immunity necklaces.
Zohn credits his Jewish upbringing for his success on the show: “It was more about being selfless in a selfish game, being the teacher, being a member for the community, being a leader who works well with other people. Those are things I learned growing up within the Jewish people.”
I mean, you just have to cheer for the guy who wrote that his pet peeve is “weird bagel flavors. It’s not a bagel unless it’s sesame, poppy, plain, or everything.”
Season 41, the current installment of “Survivor,” introduced four more Jews who notably depict different representations of what it means to be Jewish. Evvie Jagoda is a progressive Jew who also happens to be the first nonbinary and genderqueer player, and Liana Wallace is a Black Jewish student and activist at Georgetown. While Evvie (who is getting her Ph.D. in evolutionary human biology at Harvard) definitely fits the “nerd” archetype, the Jewish contestants portray different sides of Jewish identity and culture that aren’t often represented on screen. Plus, this season blessed us with Jewish contestant Tiffany Seely’s “Baruch Hashem” moment.
It’s exciting to see vastly different characterizations of Jewishness on “Survivor,” and I can only hope that the show will continue to give me Jewish tribe members to root for. Even so, it’s the neurotic Jewish players that continue to hold a special place in my heart — that make me feel seen and part of a community of nervous Nellies who can overcome their anxieties and succeed.
So yeah, I’m a dork and a little high-strung, but those traits don’t have to keep me from excelling. Maybe not in the jungle — but perhaps the next time I get clammy hands thinking about public speaking, I’ll remember that if Stephen Fishbach spent 68 days on “Survivor,” I can spend four minutes at the front of my class.
Jamie Guterman (she/her) is a second-year honors student at Florida State University studying psychology and information technology.
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