by Sara Fredman

Luke Perry and the Mishna: A Love Story

Close to two decades ago, I sat with my cousin on the concrete structure separating Rockaway Beach from the street our grandparents lived on. It was September and we were waiting for Rosh Hashanah to begin. Now that I’m a parent, I can’t imagine letting a nine-year-old hang out at a deserted Rockaway Beach entry without adult supervision but the 90s were special—and I’m sure the adults were glad to have us out of their hair while they prepared for the holiday. Meanwhile, we were doing the essential work of engaging in the great debate of our time: Dylan vs. Brandon.

Neither of us can remember who took which side but looking back, I understand that this was my first time actively participating in pop culture, having the same conversation as many other people, at the same time. That participation was hard-fought and delicately-brokered. My modern Orthodox parents weren’t enthused by the idea of a show about teenagers and sex, so we made a deal. I, a nine-year-old child, would be allowed to watch this show featuring adults playing teenagers, as long as I attended the children’s Mishna class at our shul on Shabbat afternoons. 

Reader, I attended that class through all manner of weather, illness, and highly-involved board games. Let this dedication be noted in my obituary. And let it also be noted that, as an adult, I spend a fair amount of my time writing about television and grappling with the rabbinic tradition, though not always at the same time.   

Now the actor who played Dylan is dead—suddenly, shockingly–and I’m the same age my parents were when I first begged them to let me watch Beverly Hills 90210. As a parent myself, I recognize that there is a speech bubble hanging over every child that is invisible to everyone but that child’s parents and it reads: “Who will I become?” For parents like my own, who imagine that their children will live in two worlds at once, that question is qualified by another: which side will I choose? Living in two worlds at once is no easy thing and modern orthodox life is premised on a mythical balance between inside and outside that is ever pursued and never achieved. My parents must have felt that life was always going to be about balancing what we were learning inside our yeshiva day schools with what was going on outside of them and, bless their hearts, they decided that the right recipe was a splash of 90210 on Thursdays followed by a healthy dose of Torah on Saturdays. 

That I now relate more to my parents’ quandary than I do to my own nine-year-old desperation is, I think, among the reasons women around my age are mourning the loss of Luke Perry more than we may have anticipated. We are reminded of the passing of time, and that none of us are promised any particular measure of it. Of course it’s our youth we’re mourning along with the guy who played our collective first pretend boyfriend. Of course. 

And we’re also nostalgic for a world in which everyone sat down to watch a show at the same time every week. Thinking about my dedication to a show that was completely age inappropriate highlights another important role that teen soaps play in our lives, perhaps more so the younger we are. Even now, in my elderly state, I can conjure up the excitement I felt watching the opening credits. Like the AOL dial-up noise a couple of years later, it promised entry to a different world, a world that was mysterious and also full of possibility.

Dylan McKay was all of that mystery and possibility dressed up in a very handsome human body with kind eyes. Along with our parents, we wondered who we would become—but while their question was tinged with fear, ours luxuriated in a bubble bath of wonder. We wondered about the possible lives we could one day live and the doors we hadn’t even approached yet, but were sure existed.

 Now the balance has tipped and it’s more fear than wonder. There are few good surprises. So much of our story is already written and we’ve mostly become who we were going to become. Luke Perry is gone, and with him the mystery.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine