The Four Janets

The Four Children seems to suggest that there are four types of people and four ways to approach Jewish study. But that template also serves for robust discussions and interpretations: How do we define any of these categories? Is there wisdom in silence or in intellectual challenge? Is simplicity and lack of intellectual curiosity a form of wickedness?

As I was about to tackle the four main characters on NBC's life-after-death sitcom “The Good Place” in a Four Children context, I came across a graphic that had taken the first step. It designates moral philosophy professor Chidi as wise, self-proclaimed “Arizona trashbag” Eleanor as wicked, socialite Tahani as simple, and dim Darwin Award winner Jason Mendoza as the one who doesn’t know how to ask.

In really thinking about these characters, I realized that Eleanor is wise enough to figure out season one’s spoiler twist and lead the group onto a better path. And Chidi’s inability to make decisions could mark him as a wild card: Is a life without decisions simple? Does his inability to form constructive questions keep him in purgatory? Tahani doesn’t know how to ask a question that’s not about herself or relate to people who aren’t obscenely wealthy. And Jason — who constantly asks questions — is the one who sees life simply and happily. The boundaries are blurred.

For me, “The Good Place” image that best represents this idea is from season three’s “Janet(s)” episode, in which actress D’Arcy Carden, who normally plays an omniscient, not-a-girl/not-a-robot, Siri-Alexa-esque character, plays all four of the main characters. (Why is complicated, but the result is brilliant--see image above.) Applied to the Four Children context, the four Janets represent a complex and nuanced inner life: four essences, four approaches to life. This image shows that the outside may seem the same, but internal character can’t always be discerned by looking at a person or hearing someone say a single sentence like “What does this mean to you?” Janets — and people —are much more complicated than that.

(excerpted from "Pop culture can enrich the seder but the Maisel haggadah is a gimmick," by Esther D. Kustanowitz, in J.: The Jewish News of Northern California, April 2019)

haggadah Section: -- Four Children