phelps-family

Eric Richard Bittle is Jewish

Tw: mentions of antisemitism

Ok, hear me out. I know there is a lot of evidence pointing to Bitty being a good Southern Christian Gay and like, that is completely plausible and if that’s your jam, great! But because I love projecting and rubbing my Jew-y hands on everything, here is a theory about Bitty being an extremely assimilatory southern Jew who only really gets in touch with his culture and Jewish identity once he gets to college in the North East.

So I did some research and while “phelps” (Bitty’s maternal family name) isn’t the dead ringer that “Birkholtz” or “Zimmermann” is, it still has a history of being a Jewish surname in the Anglo-Saxon region. So to me, Bitty is Jewish on his mom’s side, but his paternal family is very southern Christian and so, really that’s what he grew up with, because being Jewish in the south? Well… that’s a whole thing.

My mom grew up in Atlanta Georgia, and in her high school, she was the only Jewish person by a long shot. My grandfather taught at Emory and so they didn’t belong to a temple, and went to Hillel sometimes during the bug holidays, but for he most part she wasn’t involved in religious affairs because it wasn’t “normal”.

I think something along the same lines happened to Bitty. His Moomah always made Jewish food for their family, but only made Southern food for company. At Chanukah, they would put up a Christmas tree, but put a Jewish star as an ornament and call it a “Chanukah bush.”

Bitty had a friend in second grade named Timmy who came over for a play date one day, only to never come back because his mom saw their mezuzah on the front door and forbid them from hanging out again. “Timmy doesn’t need to be influenced by that kind”

After that, well, Bitty stops asking his mama to make kasha varnishkas for his lunch (someone once told him it looked like he was eating pasta with dirt in it) and he stops going to temple on rosh hashana, and he starts calling his Christmas tree a Christmas tree. When someone tells him he “doesn’t look Jewish” he knows it’s a compliment.

The Monday at school after the Closet Incident, there’s a swastika keyed into his locker.

Because it’s one thing being the gay kid in a small town, it’s a whole other thing to be gay AND Jewish. It’s like he’s had two strikes against him since he was born.

When he moves to Madison he begs his mom not to put up a mezuzah. He can’t understand why she starts crying, but she doesn’t put it up. It’s a fresh start.

The rest of middle school and high school, Bitty secularizes.

When one of his teammates in his coed team tells him he’s acting “like a Jew” when he asks her for money for the team shirts, Bitty bites his tongue so hard he draws blood.

When all the kids in his tenth grade English class throw pennies at Mr. Bloom during his lecture on Eli Wiesel, Bitty stays after and helps pick them up.

Fast forward to freshman year at Samwell, and Bitty is hanging around the haus just before Rosh Hashana.

Holster is talking to Ransom and Jack about putting something together for dinner, maybe picking up some matzo ball soup mix and some ruggies from a deli near by.

Bitty, who shuddered at the though of soup coming out of a box blurted out without thinking “you know, I could whip up some of my grandmas matzo ball soup? And maybe some kugel?”

All three of the other boys look at him with wide eyes.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish Bittle,” Jack quirked a brow in intrigue.

“Well,” Bitty said, face heating up, “I- I’m not JEWISH Jewish. My mom is Jewish. My Moomah is Jewish, but ME? I don’t know.”

Everyone else seemed perplexed by this statement, but Holster’s eyes lowered a bit.

Bitty took that to mean ‘I hate you why would you say that you should just leave’ and promptly scrambled out the door, a whirlwind of “sorry got to go’s”

Later that week, someone knocked on Bitty’s dorm door, and that someone was Adam Jacob Birkholtz, certified Nice Jewish Boy and hulking mass.

“Uh, can we talk?” Holster asked a bit sheepishly.

Bitty agreed and lead them into his room.

Holster sat on his tiny bed and asked, “what did you mean before? When you said your mom and grandma are Jewish but not you?” It was tentative, but Bitty could tell the question wasn’t an accusation.

“Well I mean, I don’t really celebrate anything anymore. For all intents and purposes my house was a secular house all throughout middle school and high school.”

“But bitty,” holster sighed, “just because your half Jewish doesn’t mean you can’t be Jewish. And even if you aren’t practicing that doesn’t mean you can’t be Jewish either. I had a friend in high school that was half Jewish and people at temple would make him feel unwelcome. You don’t have to worry about that here.”

“Oh um, thanks? But it’s not that. Look, I know I’m Jewish. People have been making that clear to me for my whole life.”

“What do you mean?” Holster asked.

Bitty then began to regale all of the things he’s experienced. All of the prejudice, the slurs, the pennies, the swastikas. All of the pain that came with being the Jew in the south.

Holster listened, “Bits, that’s really rough dude. And like, I get it, some things are too painful. But it’s not like that at Samwell. Sure there are assholes everywhere, and it’s not like there’s never any antisemitism but, if you haven’t noticed based on the hockey team already, you aren’t alone here! There’s a whole Jewish community that’s got your back.

"Listen, why don’t you come to Hillel with me for Rosh Hashana, we can make your Moomas soup together! And maybe even Jack will help and not complain. Just, I don’t want you to have to feel like that about yourself.”

Bitty begins to decline the invitation but then something stops him. He remembers being a little kid, dipping apple slices in honey and chasing his mama around the house with sticky fingers.

“Alright I’ll go.”

And he does.
And he loves it.

He starts going to Hillel with Holster after that, and sometimes Jack tags along, sometimes so does Shitty. And in his Sophomore year, Nursey comes along with, and then his junior year comes Tango.

He makes matzo ball soup by the barrel, and re-learns the prayers for the Shabbat candles.

But it’s in his freshman year that he goes home for Winter break and pulls out the old Star of David ornament and puts it on the tree.

He asks his mom if he could help light the Chanukah candles and she looks shocked at first, but then she smiles and says “of course sweetheart.”

Later he hands her a present. It’s a long and thin box wrapped in silver paper with a little blue bow on top.

She takes it from his hand carefully, like its a shard of glass or something.

She opens it and It’s a silver mezuzah cover.

It’s a fresh start.

The Blacklist Appreciation Week, Day Four: Favourite Story Arc

                               Tom Keen’s Redemption Arc


I’m a sucker for deeply layered, dark grey characters that get fantastic redemption arcs. That could explain a lot about me and my love for Tom Keen. 

Tom is a dangerous man, there’s no two ways around it. He’s highly intelligent, highly skilled, and highly trained. He comes from a background in which, even though he was adopted and spent around a decade with the Phelps family, he never felt love or like someone cared about him. Then, on top of that, he was taken in by the Major at the impressionable age of fourteen and taught to be a deep cover operative. We’ve seen that he has weapons training, martial arts training, surveillance training, enhanced interrogation training, and probably a lot more that he’s picked up over the years. He spent years in his field and came recommended as the best from the Major’s St Regis program when Red needed an operative.

The set up for his redemption arc started prior to the show. In 2.19, Tom states that he worked for Reddington for two years, which probably means that there was around a year or so that he fulfilled the contract he was working and protected Liz from the shadows. Somewhere in there, something changed. He met Liz face to face on July 9, 2010 at a cafe (1.21) when a friend set them up.

There was something about her that made him willing to cross his own boss and Raymond Reddington.

I’ve said before, redemption arcs aren’t for saints, they’re for sinners, and Tom certainly had a few sins to contend with. He lied to Liz all through their time dating and throughout their first marriage about who he was and he continued to run ops while married to her (R1.01) behind her back. He may have loved her, but he didn’t know how to love her.

“Liz, I know who you are. I took that for granted for a long time, but I don’t now.” (3.04)

There were several times in S1 that he could have come clean to her and chose not to. The first was when he found out that she had found his go-box (1.05), the second when he realized that she knew who he was and when he left Hudson on the doorstep (1.19), and the third was when he was tied to the chair in their dining room just before she broke his thumb (1.19). Every time, I think fear got the better of him. He wasn’t at a place to understand that to love someone, to really love them, they have to come before everything. The job, his own fears, his own trust issues… everything. As dark as S1 and 2A got between these two, it set up the redemption arc both for Tom and for them together up very nicely.

Tom’s first big step in his redemption arc was hopping on that plane from Dresden to DC and marching himself in to the courtroom. Yes, he killed Eugene Ames. He was responsible for the man’s death, but as Bud said later on, he went to the feds for her. He didn’t care what happened to him. He had no safety net, but he was going to try to be hers.

It was a good first step, but he definitely wasn’t there yet.

Fast forward a couple of episodes. Tom tried to go back to his old life, contacted the Major, and just about took a bullet to the face for it. He was even willing to sell out his boss again to the Germans that kidnapped them if they promised not to hurt Liz, but it wasn’t enough. When Liz asked him about his passports in 2.18 (after they had spent most of the episode together working on her case) he lied straight to her face. He goes back to that fear, which while it’s understandable, wasn’t the right move. He didn’t choose to trust her. Instead, he fell back on a lie instead of fessing up about Reddington, working for him, and everything that could have added yet another target on his back if Liz chose to go to Red with it and Reddington lashed out (which we’ve seen after Kate is a very valid fear).

Liz’s line in that scene is, to this day, one of my favourites in the show.

He needed to hear it. He needed her to walk away. Liz did it for herself, but it gave Tom the kick that he needed to jar him into a decision. What did he really want? Did he want to be the cold blooded operative that just walks away from a life and someone he loves? He could have gone solo. It would have been tough, but he could have. He could have taken his boat and left too. Instead, he called her up and told her everything about Reddington, working for him, and all the many, many things that could have gotten him in trouble. For the first time in full, he chose Liz over the job.

From there he chooses to fight for a man he hates because Liz cares, tells her what he knows about Red, stalls his plans to leave (with McCready on his heels) to help her track down Andropov, and then when she says she has to go… he lets her. He doesn’t protest, he doesn’t manipulate. Instead of reminding her that she said she’d run away with him he gives her that sad little smile of his and tells her that she won’t be back.

So he goes. He thinks she has everything she needs to clear her name and he leaves.

Until he finds out that she didn’t and that she’s still in trouble and he turns right back around and goes to the man that, last time they ran across each other, threatened to throw him in jail.

Tom gives up his own chance to run and start over to help Liz find her second chance (risking his life multiple times).

We see a huge change in him in the way that he approaches Asher Sutton during this time. Yes, he uses him, but the man was already chest deep in with the Russians, and when Asher is taken Tom saves Gwen and tries to save Asher. He doesn’t really fight Asher until the other man draws blood, and even when he kills him, there’s that moment where you can see the regret that takes over.

He works hard to give Liz her second chance, and when her name is (mostly) cleared…. he doesn’t push it. He doesn’t take advantage and he doesn’t tell her that he played a key role in helping clear her name. He waits until she’s ready.

He finds out he’s going to be a dad and I think that starts a whole new level of his arc. He regresses (because a good redemption arc isn’t easy) and goes to Gina for help when he feels pinned in by Red taking the Boston job off the table, but even that screw up is done in a different fashion than old ones. He acknowledges he was wrong and apologizes for the stress it’s put on Liz. Then, he gives Gina (who tried to kill him) a second chance, hoping that maybe he can provide to her what he’s received in that.

I’d say the next huge step is Tom and Liz’s wedding day when Gina shows up and Bud ends up dead in the Keens’ living room. He could have scrubbed the floors, buried the body, put on the tux, and said the vows (supposedly), but when he got there he went in immediately to Liz and confessed everything that happened and laid it out what that meant. His past was dangerous, which made their future dangerous, and he gave her a way out. This showed just how far he’s come since S1 where she was begging him for honesty at the table and he lied to her. This time, with the woman he loved and their child being in his life on the line, he chose to do what was right. He told her everything. He trusted her.

And she trusted him in return.

Not only did she walk down the aisle to marry him, but when Agnes was born and Kate offered a way out, Tom became a single parent for a month or more, solely responsible for their daughter’s safety.  I think he grew a lot during this time. Having a daughter, an innocent little soul watching his every move, has changed the way Tom approaches things. Yes, he can still kill, but he’s more hesitant since that moment in Cuba where he was about to break a man’s neck and found those little blue eyes staring at him from the crib. 

I think something clicked there. These days, he’s more hesitant to land the killing blow. Not that he won’t when his life depends on it, but he’s hesitant.

Tom Keen is still capable of dangerous things, but the events of his life since meeting Liz have changed his approach. This redemption arc has changed his approach. In S2 he didn’t even remember Eugene Ames’ name. It seemed to strike him as odd right then, like he realized just how terrible that sounded, yet in S4 when he tortured Little Nikos to find Mato to lead them to Agnes, you can see the guilt (something much newer in him) reflected in his stuttering apology to Kate.

He’s not perfect. He’s made good choices and bad. He’s chosen to go in behind Liz’s back when Kirk had Agnes and he chose to trust Howard when his father (seemingly) was using him to set Scottie up. Tom is human, but he’s more than a cold blooded killer. He’s assembled a soul, and that, without a doubt, is the arc that has a very special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to see where they take it next.

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This guy.