Invisible Jews on Television

While not made explicit, many characters on television had very Jewish traits.

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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:

Like Portnoy, Jerry lives out a dilemma that is simultaneously his deepest source of anxiety and his richest source of strength. He can do more than pass for a successful American since he is one, militantly bourgeois in attitude and bank account, freed of burdens of millennial suffering, ready to take on problems of sexual gratification , unchecked consumerism and dinner at good restaurants in an existential universe.

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Joyce Antler

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