Author Archives: Joyce Antler

Joyce Antler

About Joyce Antler

Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.

Religion on Television: Negative Portayals

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Television tends to depict Jewishness in secular, cultural terms rather than focus on any religious dimensions of Jewish identity. Although this in itself is neither surprising nor necessarily problematic, what has troubled members of the Jewish community is the frequent ridicule with which religious themes and characters are portrayed when they do become subjects of TV shows.

A case in point are Seinfeld episodes that depicted a rabbi and a mohel in decidedly unflattering and–according to many observers–“intolerable” ways. The mohel episode (“The Bris” Oct. 14, 1993), showed a mohel per forming a brit milah in a manner that one reviewer called a “cruel caricature.”

matt stone and trey parker

The creators of South Park have covered
Judaism on their show numerous times.
Courtesy of ensceptico.

Jonathan and Judith Pearl, who find that Seinfeld has been unfunny, and even hostile, on Jewish issues, described the episode as “tasteless, humorless, and embarrassingly bad: if one could imagine the notorious wedding scene of Goodbye Columbus combined with a scene from Woody Allen at his self-disparaging worst, all transformed to a brit milah, this would be it.” But Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer disagrees. “It’s a funny idea to have a mohel who’s jittery…It’s not making fun.”

Two years after presenting the mohel as a “greedy, whiny shlepper,” a Seinfeld episode introduced a new character, Rabbi Kirschbaum, whose “nervy mannerisms and conduct unbecoming a spiritual Leader” as one critic described it, resulted in over 100 angry calls to the Anti-Defamation League. The story line involved Jerry’s friend Elaine, who seeks counsel from the rabbi, her neighbor, to deal with some problems that have made her depressed.

Played by Bruce Mahler after a character he developed in his comedy act, the rabbi listens to Elaine’s problems but then betrays her confidence with other neighbors, Elaine’s friends, and then later on his cable talk show. Seinfeld’s sister and manager, Carolyn Seinfeld, replied to those who protested the depiction that no harm was meant and that “the greatest Jewish tradition is to laugh. The cornerstone of Jewish survival has always been to find humor in life and ourselves.” The show’s defenders do not believe that Seinfeld is “self-hatingly Jewish,” in the words of Tom Shales, writing in the Washington Post; they argue, instead, that it is an equal-opportunity offender of many different kinds of groups.

Intermarriage on Television

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

As far as Jews are concerned, intermarriage has been the predominant theme of the 1990s. The trend toward mixed couplings of Jews on TV sets Jewish romance apart from those of many other racial and ethnic groups.

So pervasive has been intermarriage and interdating on television that it has been virtually impossible to find a Jewish couple anywhere on the screen. When the intermarriage rate in the population at large hovers around 50 percent, on television it is well over 95 percent, and growing. While most interfaith marriages or romances have been between Jewish men and non-Jewish women, two reverse couplings occurred during the 1997-98 season. 

mad about you

Mad About You featured
an intermarried couple.

On CBS’s The Nanny, Fran Fine finally trapped her man, her blueblood employer, Mr. Sheffield, while over on ABC, the dippy Dharma Finkelstein married preppy WASP lawyer Gregory Montogomery. These plots may indicate that Jewish women now have the same right to marry non-Jews as do Jewish men, but they do not signal a triumph for the Jewish family.

Romantic Jewish Women

Only rarely is a specifically Jewish woman portrayed romantically on TV shows, as for example the character Elaine, the former girlfriend of Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, who appears in one episode merely to free Fleischman from the constraints of his New York past.

In a few Seinfeld episodes, Jerry dated an observant Jewish woman named Rachel whom Jerry’s friend George tricks into unknowingly eating lobster. Examples of Jewish-Jewish romances are also infrequent, although there are a few older married couples (the parents of Paul Buchman in Mad About You, or Seinfeld’s parents, or the Costanzas, as hidden Jews) whose portrayal does not suggest much joy in their unions. What in fact would happen if Jewish men and women would become each other’s love interest, asks one critic. “Would the television explode in fireworks of obsession, compulsion and sharp conversation?”

Jewish Mothers on Television

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Jewish mothers have been shown even more negatively than younger Jewish women. In discussing the TV Jewish mother, New York Times critic John J. O’Connor notes that television seems “curiously partial to neurotically overprotective, brash and often garish mothers of the unmistakably Jewish persuasion.” “Sure, caricature is endemic to prime time,” he acknowledges. “But why do Jewish mothers seem to have a monopoly on its more extreme forms?” O’Connor asks. “In years past, white Anglo-Saxon mothers in shows like Father Knows Best were models of decorum. Today, black mothers…are paragons of warmth and nurturing. But too many Jewish mothers, it seems to this puzzled goy, become props for humor that often teeters on outright ridicule or even occasional cruelty.

joan rivers

Joan Rivers portrayed a
Jewish Mother on Suddenly Susan.
Photo Courtesy of Underbelly Limited.

While the Pearls argue that mothers who are negatively stereotyped as “anti-Semitic caricatures or misogynistic foils” are “more the exception than the rule,” the reverse seems to be true today. Today, the “ridicule” and “occasional cruelty” that O’Connor cites is more typical than not in portraying Jewish mothers on the television screen. The Jewish mother figure is usually a total nuisance in the lives of her children, whether married or single. Although never a central character, as Molly Goldberg was, she impinges on her children in other ways, nagging, whining, annoying.

Almost all TV Jewish mothers fall into this stern-faced, nagging, guilt-tripping caricature. Witness the Sylvias-Sylvia Buchman (Cynthia Harris) on Mad About You and Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor) on The Nanny; Jerry’s mother Helen (Liz Sheridan) and George Costanza’s crypto-Jewish mother (Estelle Harris) on Seinfeld; Conrad’s mother on the short-lived Conrad Bloom (Linda Lavin); Grace’s mother (Debbie Reynolds) on Will & Grace, and Vicki Groener’s mother Edie (Joan Rivers) on Suddenly Susan. Even cartoon character Kyle Broslovski’s mother, Sheila, on the animated show South Park, is drawn as a pushy yenta who calls Kyle “bubbie” and orders him around.

The Nanny

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The Nanny, a show about a thirtysomething Queens-born former salesgirl who finds a position as nanny to three children of a British theatrical producer, debuted in 1993. Written and produced by Fran Drescher, who plays the title character, and her ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, the show became an unexpected hit and was often at the top of the Nielsen charts. While Jewishness is not essential to the plot, which requires only that the uneducated, lower-class Fran winds up teaching her social betters, aspects of the character’s Jewish background are featured in most episodes.

Negative Stereotypes?

From the nasal whine, to Yiddish words (a Nanny Web page includes a Yiddish glossary), to the nanny’s Jewish female desires-like getting married, preferably to a nice Jewish doctor-and certainly, shopping (“My first words” says the nanny, “were can I take it back if I wore it?”), mannerisms that are identified as Jewish along with Jewish princess stereotypes fill the air. The contrast–the key to the show’s slim plot device–is between the nanny’s authenticity, however coarse and ostentatious, which is a product of her ethnic, supposedly lower-class origins, and the sterility of the British upper class and their hangers-on.
the nanny
The Nanny has received a great deal of critical comment-much of it negative. Typical are those from the Jewish press, which see Drescher’s character as a “princessy, irritating, Jewish woman,” a “whiny, manipulative, clothes-horse hunting rich (non-Jewish) men” a “flashy, materialistic, and champion whiner.” With The Nanny, comments one source, “the woman of valor has become the woman of velour” one who “loves shopping, gabbing, whining, polishing her nails at every moment, spouting ‘Oy!’ after every sentence, searching for a rich husband, and putting plastic seat covers on the furniture.

How an exaggerated Jewishness provides the central image and dramatic device of the show is exemplified in an episode aired in April 1996, on which the nanny is dating the young cantor of her mother’s synagogue. When the star of Mr. Sheffield’s forthcoming Broadway musical falls ill, he taps the cantor to play the lead. “God has sent us a nice Jewish boy” Mr. Sheffield intones. But Fran’s mother Sylvia (played by Renee Taylor) is deeply agitated that no one in her temple will talk to her since they blame her for the loss of their cantor. Sylvia threatens her daughter that she will get even: “our God is not a merciful God” she warns. With that, locusts appear and there is lightning and thunder. Overlooking the disturbances, Fran’s eye falls on an advertising circular on the hallway table. “Oh my God, I missed the Loehman’s yearly clearance” she wails. “God, why are you doing this to me?”

Gender Stereotypes in Television

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Television, especially comedy shows, tends to depict both Jewish men and women in formulaic ways.” Some executives and creative personnel argue that stereotyped portrayals are de rigueur in situation comedies that must develop their characters quickly. Even in drama, the tendency is to “heighten, tighten, and simplify.” According to this view, the increasing visibility of exaggerated Jewish characters on television may in fact be cause to celebrate. “It is a healthy development” when ethnic shows are considered saleable, says New York University media critic Neil Postman.”

david schwimmer ross

David Schwimmer played Ross on Friends.

Yet the gender gap in the portrayal of Jewish men and Jewish women is cause for deep concern. Although they are often seen as “neurotic, whining about their relationship problems, writers’ blocks, kvetching about their parents and analyzing their struggles with commitment,” Jewish men usually appear as sympathetic, caring, and sensitive, often with a wry sense of humor. An example is the character Miles Silverberg (played by Grant Shaud) in Murphy Brown, the TV producer with a persecution complex who whines his way through many a script but does get the girl he’s after.

Despite their “annoying qualities,” says one writer about such characters, underneath Jewish men are “mensches.” “We might not find the common media stereotype of glib, verbal, insecure, and neurotic [male] Jews to be especially flattering,” agrees Michael Medved, “but the writers and directors who employ that stereotype unquestionably intend for audiences to react with sympathy and affection.”

Wimpy & Awkward

More often than not, Jewish men on TV are brainy and sharpwitted; however, they can also be clumsy and awkward, both socially and physically. Even the appealing Ross on Friends is a wimp, and Seinfeld‘s pseudo-Jewish George, schlemiel extraordinaire, is the show’s perennial loser. The stock type is easy to call up: a much talked-about show on Fox network’s fall 1999 lineup, Action!, which delivered a devastating critique of Hollywood itself, offered such a character in its premiere show, a writer named Alan Rafkin (Jarrad Paul), whom the tough lead character, producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), hires by mistake. (“You mean we spent a quarter of a million dollars and we got the wrong Jew!” he bellows.)

Invisible Jews on Television

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Even Seinfeld actors and creative and production teams disagree about the Jewishness of Seinfeld characters, especially George and his family. Writer Carol Leifer insists that the Costanzas are not Jewish, attributing any confusion to their status as New Yorkers. But co-producer Gregg Kavet believes that “George Costanza, with an Italian name and all, is Jewish,” because his mother was written as a Jewish character, even though her Jewishness was not explicitly revealed. 

jason alexander

Was George Costanza Jewish?
Photo courtesy of antisocialtory.

When she first started in her role as George’s mother, actress Estelle Harr is was confused, and went to the show’s co creator Larry David, who served as the model for George, for clarification. David replied elliptically, asking her why she cared whether or not the Costanzas were Jewish. Harris eventually came to believe that the vagueness of her character’s ethnicity allowed everyone to relate to her. She is proud, she says, that Jews and non-Jews tell her that “you’re just like my mother.”

Nonetheless, according to Jerry Stiller, who plays George’s father, the Costanzas are in fact a Jewish family “in a witness protection program.” Stiller insists that his character is, in fact, Jewish because he is Jewish–“every time I play a role, it’s a Jewish character, because I am Jewish.” Jason Alexander agrees, declaring “George is Jewish” because “I’m Jewish.”

Neurotic & Obsessive

Producer Kavet explains that diversifying the main characters’ religion made the show more interesting, but perhaps the fear of making the show “too Jewish” was equally determinant. On the part of many viewers, confusion reigns. Whatever their apparent identities, says one viewer, George and Elaine–“Neurotic. Obsessive. Compulsive. Insecure. Immensely human”–are still Jews.

David Marc believes that however the question of identity may be disguised, Seinfeld breaks new ground as a “Jewish” show. He disagrees with those who write off the program as simply being about self-hating Jews or barely identified “bagel and lox” ones. In Marc’s view, the program shares more with the early Philip Roth than with sitcoms like The Goldbergs, Rhoda, or the Dick Van Dyke Show:

Jews in Television: 1970s & 1980s

Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The 1970s witnessed a substantial increase in ethnic shows on the air, especially those dealing with African Americans, a response to the more tolerant social climate of the period and the growing ethnic pride movement. By 1975, more than half of the top twenty shows involved major characters who were members of recognizable minority or ethnic groups–e,g, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Chico and the Man, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, and Rhoda, which had a Jewish character in a leading role.

In 1974-75, the peak year of this ethnic celebration, six out of the seven top television shows had leading minority characters. From “virtually denying minorities representation on the air” television thus moved to a “seeming obsession” with them. The extraordinary success of the 1977 miniseries Roots, which followed an African-American family from slavery to the present, perfectly captured the public’s desire for programming that reveled in ethnic heritage; the next year came the miniseries Holocaust, which similarly attracted huge interest both in the United States and abroad. 

valerie harper

Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern on
The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Photo courtesy of Maggiejumps.

The first program to portray the massive horrors of the Holocaust, the show not only opened up the devastation of the Shoah to full public scrutiny but, in the words of Jonathan and Judith Pearl, “cemented the permission for Jews to be fully Jewish both on screen and off.”

Rhoda Morgenstern

In terms of comedy, the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, heralded another milestone for Jews, marking the first appearance of a Jewish woman in a leading role, post-Molly Goldberg. This was Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s wisecracking loyal best friend, played by Valerie Harper. Vivacious, gutsy, and proud of being Jewish (if neurotically obsessed with her weight, appearance, and men), Rhoda fought against the constraints of her situation whether her self-perceived unattractiveness, her envy of Mary’s perkiness, or the meddling of her parents, who wanted her married off.

Jews in Television: 1950s & 1960s

Reprinted with permission from

The Norman Lear Center

at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

During its so-called “Golden Age,” television had many variety show hosts who were Jewish–e.g., Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, George Jessel, Morey Amsterdam, Sid Caesar, and “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle. Star of the variety show Texaco Star Theater, Berle drew in over 75 percent of the viewing audience in the program’s first years (1948-1951), when its audience was almost exclusively urban. To the increasing number of rural midwesterners who began to receive the show over the coaxial cable, however, Berle’s abrasive style (not to mention his cross-dressing) seemed “objection able,” “loud,” and “vulgar.” 

 

milton berle

Milton Berle at 41st Emmy Awards.
Photo by Alan Light.

 

Milton Berle & Sid Caesar

What some critics call Berle’s “Jewish shtick” and “ethnic vaudeville humor” quickly lost their appeal; by 1956, the show was off the air. “Too fast, too urban, and too Jewish to be broadly acceptable;’ Berle’s show could not meet the medium’s requirement that its stars emanate from mainstream America or at least blend in with “heartland” values.” The demise of the program signified how quickly television had come to “disdain ethnic and racial differences, in both program content and the look of its performers.”

Caesar, like Berle, brought broad physical comedy and other characteristic Yiddishisms into his show (which was written by a stable of Jewish writers, including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon). David Marc contrasts the “Jewing-out” of such “electronic toornlers” to the more subdued sitcom characters like Benny and Burns, who played themselves as fully American characters who celebrated Christmas, joined golf clubs, and seemed, in every way, non-Jewish.

Esther Romeyn and Jack Kugelmass agree, arguing that while most Jewish variety show comedians avoided explicitly Jewish impersonations, their portrayals were implicitly coded as Jewish–for example, Sid Caesar’s gibberish-talking European refugee intellectual. Romeyn and Kugelmass suggest that TV’s “Yiddishization of American humor” replicated the vaudeville model of gags, skits, and improvisations but also embodied a particular Jewish “outlook,” portrayed through the “klutz” body language of a Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye or the scheming of a Buddy Hackett or Don Rickles.