Sandy Rashty

The point is: could Friends be any more Jewish?

It’s not just the characters, it’s how they behave, it’s their stories, and it’s their pride in Israel


Actress Lisa Kudrow attends the TrevorLIVE LA, on December 3, 2017, in Beverly Hills, California. / AFP PHOTO / VALERIE MACON (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

June 04, 2021 11:41

The plan was clear: our phones would be off and dinner ready. There would be no social arrangements and the baby would sleep for two whole hours straight. Last Thursday night was dedicated to Friends: The Reunion, a one-off show that brought the six-strong cast together on screen for the first time since the finale aired 17 years ago.

Like most millennials, I grew up with the decade-long series following the friendships, love lives and careers of the “20-somethings” living in New York. Over lockdown, I started to re-watch the programme from its first episode. I still take great pleasure in being able to recite the dialogue in sync with the actors. Friends is on so often in our home, our baby turns his head every time he hears the opening theme song, I’ll Be There For You, by Jewish composer Michael Skloff and lyricist Allee Willis.

We laugh especially hard when we pick up on the inside Jewish jokes and characters, created by the show’s co-founders Kevin S Bright, David Crane and Marta Kauffman. Thanks to them, the series is just so completely Jewish.

It celebrates the heart, humour, eccentricity and even the neuroticism of the community we have all grown up in. You can only truly appreciate Friends if you appreciate this.

Whilst two of the main actors (Schwimmer and Kudrow) are Jewish, three of the core cast play Jewish characters. Dr Ross and Monica Geller compete for the affection of their parents, Jack and Judy, whose home is shown with a mezuzah. Throughout, the characters refer to their Jewish backgrounds. Monica cringes as she recalls Ross performing a rap at her batmitzvah. Meanwhile, Ross pines after his childhood crush, Rachel Karen Green.

To an extent, Rachel is the archetypal Jewish American Princess from Long Island. The daughter of Dr Leonard and Sandra Green, she flippantly talks about her privileged background, her early nose job, calls her grandma her “bubbe” and has a penchant for shopping. She abandons her wedding to an orthodentist and forges a successful career in fashion.

Over Chanukah, the set is adorned with channukiyot, from the main apartment to the Central Perk coffee house. When Phoebe performs a festival song, she belts out: “Monica, have a Happy Channukah!” In another episode, Ross whips out a dreidel as he tells the story of the “miracle of lights” to his son Ben. Competing with Santa Claus, he dresses up as the Holiday Armadillo.

The writers do not shy away from references to Israel. Entering with a bottle of bubbly to celebrate getting tenure, Ross offers the group “a bottle of Israel’s finest”. Chandler — who has an on-off relationship with the nasal-voiced, curly-haired Janice Litman-Goralnik (née Hosenstein), before marrying Monica, counts a former Israeli soldier called Aurora as an ex.

Watching a popular show that is so comfortable with Jewish culture is liberating. As is watching a show that makes unapologetic references to Israel. Watching the reunion last week was equally refreshing. Perhaps we have to thank its director, British Jew Ben Winston.

Kauffman told how her rabbi was heavily invested in the Ross-Rachel love story. And in a segment drawing on some of the series’ most iconic outfits, Justin Bieber appeared as the Holiday Armadillo. How many TV writers would do the same now? How many would make unashamed references to Israeli produce, the Israeli army, Jewish holidays or their rabbi?

I caught up with Ben Winston. He was optimistic, pointing out that an increasing number of shows made positive references to Judaism. “The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel is one of the most successful shows in the world,” he said. “That has more wonderful Jewish references than anything I have ever seen.” He went on to list Transparent, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Kominsky Method and Grace and Frankie. “I could go on,” he added.

“There are even popular shows about the Jewish way of life. Netflix’s investment in Shtisel as a series, to their amazing short series Unorthodox.”

I couldn’t argue with him, at least when it comes to American TV. And here in the UK, last weekend Channel Four celebrated 10 years of Friday Night Dinner. For the sake of a good Jewish joke, celebration of our community and brilliant TV, I hope for more great Jewish shows.

June 04, 2021 11:41

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