For the past two months, I’ve been thinking: what if? What if we weren’t in a pandemic? What if everything was back to normal? In a time when I’m constantly imagining what could be, The Plot Against America helps shape my understanding of a shocking what-if scenario for American Jews in the 1940’s.
HBO’s The Plot Against America is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, in which Charles Lindbergh is elected as president. In six episodes, spanning from 1940 to 1942, we see dramatic shifts in what it means to Jewish in America. Furthermore, we’re promoted to consider what it means to be an American.
The show follows the Levin family, who lives in a predominately Jewish area of New Jersey. The Levins are a tight-knit family that has strong opinions and values. Herman (Morgan Spector) and Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan) deliver incredible performances of two parents grappling with new realities. Their sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson), also demonstrate their struggles with their new realities. Both Elizabeth and Herman are proud of their heritage. In one of the first episodes, we see a striking image of the Levins openly celebrating Shabbat without any worry or fear.
Throughout the show, we witness how politics and political affiliations can cause rifts within family. The Levins are tested when their eldest son, Sandy, participates in a program called Just Folks, designed for youth in cities to work in rural parts of America. Specifically, the program targets Jewish youth, separating children from their parents for the summer. Sandy comes back in full support of Lindbergh.
Adding on, Elizabeth’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) becomes entangled with Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who is a strong supporter of Lindbergh. Even though both come in contact with anti-Semitism, they still remain loyal to Lindbergh. Both Herman and Elizabeth remain outspoken in a time of uncertainty. Elizabeth contemplates the idea of moving her family to Canada, as we see other Jews do. However, in the face of fear and unknown, they decide to stay.
I’ll admit, at first, I had a hard time getting into the show. Some episodes felt as though they were dragging on. I was expecting there to be immediate impacts once Lindbergh was elected. Looking back, I realize that is actually the brilliance of the show: we see a slow progression of changes happening in society. In the beginning, nothing seems to be different. However, anti-Semitism starts to become transparent, even though it was always looming in the background.
The show ends with an election, and the Levins are filled with hope. In one of the final scenes, we see ballots being burned. We’re left with an unknown, much like we are right now. The Levins, as well as Jews, cling to a what-if scenario of their own, hoping that a change in leadership will come. The Levins find comfort in the power of voting and democracy: core American values.
If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend watching this show. Not only do we witness incredible performances by all of the actors, but also so many themes can be translated into life today, both from American and Jewish perspectives. Now is the time to watch.