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In Defense of Jill Zarin

A word of praise for a much-maligned Housewife

Alana Newhouse
June 04, 2010
Jill Zarin.(Flickr)
Jill Zarin.(Flickr)

In the historic battle between the Jewish Mother and her various combatants, I have generally—sometimes even publicly—sided with the detractors. I didn’t need more fodder, but more has been provided by Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City, whose Jill Zarin—wife of Lower East Side fabric czar Bobby Zarin—has spent three seasons as a walking embodiment of the caricature: presenting oppressive enmeshment as familial warmth, costuming manipulation as concern, haughtily asserting herself as the benevolent, wisecracking, all-knowing Den Mother, before vengefully lashing out when others deigned to develop relationships that did not flow through her or make decisions without running them past her. In case she was being too subtle about the whole act (she wasn’t), Zarin published this two months ago.

Of all the characters on whom Zarin has bestowed the gift of her toxic love, she was perhaps most generous with Bethenny Frankel, the Housewife who, until this season, wasn’t a wife at all; as the only single member of the cast, Frankel essentially emerged as the Jewish daughter to Zarin’s Jewish mother: beautiful, primped and eternally presentable, yet alone—and thus clearly (clearly) in need of guidance. Zarin and Frankel luxuriated in the bathos of their mother-daughter dynamic for two seasons—until, that is, Frankel found a man and belatedly began doing what children do: separate, as in individuate (and not, as both Zarin and Frankel would later describe it, as in a husband-and-wife split).

Given the obscurantist editing of reality television, it’s unclear how exactly a few wrong moves snowballed into the slow hacking murder of a relationship, though the subject has been Talmudically parsed by viewers and critics alike. The vast majority of folks have been siding with Frankel—New York Magazine included in their weekly round-up a recurring feature outlining “why Jill Zarin is a disgusting person”—a group to which I belonged until last night. In the season finale, Zarin offered Frankel the most heartfelt apology that will ever grace one of these absurd shows, to which Frankel responded with the self-satisfied churlishness and unearned righteousness of a hormonal teenager (“You have a lot of changing to do,” she tells Zarin, at the close of the episode). But why? Frankel is at a wonderful moment in her life, in which—according to her—she finally has everything she has always wanted: a husband, a career, an apartment “downtown” and a new baby. Isn’t this the time to be generous, to be forgiving? As I watched her maintain iciness, I couldn’t help but think: Jesus, Bethenny, basta already with the kishke-schlepping.

And then, all of a sudden, it occurred to me: The daughter is becoming the mother.

She still has some distance to go, though. As her former friend could teach her, there’s a time to kvetch and there’s a time kvell: When the camera panned to Zarin in her last encounter with Frankel, she looked both genuinely contrite and also happy for someone she loved—even though the brat was too spoiled to appreciate it. At that moment, Zarin was, in a word, a mother. A Jewish one? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly a good one.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.