Seinfeld at 25: How it gave us a golden age of TV Jews

The iconic sitcom's legacy is the proliferation of Jewish characters on every network comedy in the US

May 09, 2023 14:32

Seinfeld changed Jewish television forever. Twenty-five years after the final episode was broadcast, we can only now look back and appreciate its significance in full.

Before Seinfeld Jewish characters were rare, but following its success, they began to surface on every network. The “Jewish sitcom” was now a reality. Going back to the earliest years of network broadcasting in the US, Jewish comedy was afraid to wear its Jewishness too explicitly. Apprehensive of antisemitism and fearing that their work would be perceived as “too Jewish”, those Jewish executives, writers, producers, and directors who were the driving forces behind network television exercised a form of self-censorship by toning it down.

Famously, the then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff (himself a Jew) described the pilot of the show as "Too New York, Too Jewish" before ordering the smallest episode run in the network's history.

The titular Seinfeld is a stand-up comedian named Jerry who spends his time kibitzing with his three friends George Costanza, Elaine Benes, and Cosmo Kramer played by Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards respectively.

The result was invisibility and crypto-Jewishness — what critic Leslie Fiedler described as referring to characters who were in “habit, speech, and condition of life, typically Jewish-American, but are presented as something else — general American,” that is, reinvented as gentile or goyish to make them more universal.

Previous to Seinfeld, Jews on sitcoms as The Jack Benny Program or The Dick Van Dyke Show were assimilated or closeted. Jewish writers created lead characters who celebrated Christmas and made no overt reference to their faith whatsoever. By the 1970s, in shows like Rhoda, Jews became stereotyped and self-deprecating. Sitcoms did not address Jewishness or Judaism but rather relied on a series of subtle clues and in-jokes, nods and winks to the audience.

Seinfeld threw that book out of the window as Jerry came out of the Jewish closet. He kept and wore his oh-so-Jewish name with pride. He didn’t fill his apartment with Christian markers like a Christmas tree, just a Superman action figure and a bike on the wall.

As befitting a younger generation of Jewish creatives, growing up in a different era, Seinfeld was ethnically proud and post-assimilatory. It featured Judaism (rabbis, mohels, bar mitzvahs), Jewish food (kasha, rye bread, babka) and language (bris, shiksa).

Whole episodes revolved around Jewishness and Judaism. In the Yada Yada episode, Jerry’s dentist, Tim Whatley, has just converted to Judaism and is already making self-deprecating Jewish jokes. Jerry confesses to a priest that he thinks Tim only converted for the jokes. When the priest asks him if he is offended, he replies not as a Jew, but as a comedian. Kramer then accuses Jerry of being an “anti-Dentite”.

The Bris features a twitchy and neurotic mohel who, as Jerry holds the baby, ends up circumcising Jerry’s finger instead. Schindler’s List was at the heart of another episode in which Jerry and his girlfriend are caught making out while watching the movie. It is allegedly a thinly veiled reference to Steven Spielberg’s dependence on Seinfeld humour while directing his extremely depressing film.

Elaine goes to the bar mitzvah of her ex-boss Mr Lippman’s son Adam who celebrates by giving her a French kiss. The word gets out, and she is invited to six more bar mitzvahs. When she tells Adam the kiss was inappropriate, he bitterly renounces Judaism. Then Lippman kisses her. George explains to Elaine that it is because Jewish men are attracted to non-Jewish women, a concept called “shiksappeal”. Sceptical, she consults a rabbi who comes on to her as well.

But perhaps my favourite is The Hamptons episode when, having been humiliated by Jerry’s Jewish kosher girlfriend, George deliberately feeds her lobster in her scrambled eggs in a petty act of revenge.

Despite these obviously Jewish markers, though, Seinfeld still held elements of the old era. While Jerry is explicitly Jewish — his parents live in Florida, noch, and his dad is always after a bargain — the ethnicity of George, Kramer and Elaine is more ambiguous despite George and Elaine being played by Jewish actors.

Seinfeld manages to have it both ways. While Jerry is explicitly Jewish and the show is rooted in New York City culture in a way that, say, Friends is not, the interpretation of the other characters as Jewish relies on decoding clues such as who plays them, how they look, how they talk and so on. They are crypto-Jews, deliberately, playfully and thinly disguised.

Take Jerry and George’s parents. While Jerry is explicitly identified as Jewish, his parents are played by two non-Jewish actors: Barney Martin and Liz Sheridan. By contrast, George, whose last name suggests he is Italian and is nowhere explicitly identified as Jewish, is played by Jewish actor Jason Alexander and his parents were played by Jewish actors Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller.

George’s parents have other stereotypical Jewish tics. They lack the proper decorum; they are one remove from civility but, more importantly, do not realise it. They are loud, cranky aggressive, pushy, cheap and hysterical. They are the source of all George’s failures. And when Frank invents “Festivus” in place of Christmas, a holiday when family members gather round the table to air their grievances, it hits a little too close to home. This could be any Jewish dinner table, anywhere, anytime.

Yet despite the appearance of rabbis and such Jewish rituals as a bris or a bar mitzvah, at other times Jewishness is removed where we would expect to see it. During The Pony Remark episode, no one wears a kippa at a Jewish funeral. Nor are there any other Jewish symbols.

Seinfeld’s success lay in how it struck a balance, a middle ground that satisfied both its Gentile and Jewish viewers by having characters who possessed just enough Jewishness to suggest their ethnicity but not enough to alienate their non-Jewish audiences who could just see them as white and middle class.

Seinfeld was Talmudic. For one thing, it was long. Forming nine seasons, it totalled one hundred and eighty episodes. Billing itself as a “show about nothing”, like the Talmud it explored the minutiae of everyday daily life, dealing with both big (antisemitism, masturbation) and little (buttons) topics.

The similarity was so profound that one US professor even set up a “Seinfeld Yomi” group devoted to discussing one episode daily.

Jarrod Tanny has even written a Seinfeld Bavli: Seinfeld as analysed by those Sages of the Near East who gave us the Talmud which, as he puts it “depending on whom you ask, is either the most comprehensive corpus of Jewish law ever produced or thousands of pages about nothing.”

But while the use of four main characters can be read as a nod to the legend of the four rabbis and the Pardes, or the four sons in the Haggadah, Seinfeld is not an uplifting series. There are no parables here or moral lessons to be learned.

The four of them are not Mensches. They are mean-spirited and selfish. They refuse to improve themselves, evolve, or even show the slightest desire for change. The final two episodes recap almost every slight they have inflicted as their victims line up to get even and the finale loops back to the beginning to emphasise their stagnation.

Yet Seinfeld ushered in an era of peak Jewish television. Today, in the age of streaming services, Jews on television have proliferated and are of every stripe. We find incidental Jews who are just part of the landscape in a host of iconic shows like The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy.

Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul, a shyster lawyer if ever there was one, takes on a Jewish name because he considers it better for business. Krusty the Klown (neé Herschel Krustofsky) would have been many viewers outside the US' first experience of a Jewish character

And we find whole shows like Transparent or The Marvelous Mrs Maisel where, if you removed the Jewishness, there would be no show.

And not all of these Jews are likeable, the nadir of which is Seinfeld co-creator Larry David playing a version of himself in his long-running series Curb Your Enthusiasm. For all of that, we have Seinfeld to thank.

Nathan Abrams is Professor in Film, School of Arts, Culture and Language, Bangor University.

May 09, 2023 14:32

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