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.

Yet at the same time, Jerry is "heir to the legacy of the Diaspora." His sense of humor, which allows him access to Gentile-style success, remains rooted in a "marginal point of view that grows out of exclusion"; Jerry is, in fact, "unexcludable without his Jewishness," Seinfeld thus creates his Jewishness out of an "elegantly constructed balance of American, Jew, and Jewish-American."

Nonetheless, Marc argues that Jerry needs sidekick George to remind him of his Jewish identity; "hopelessly nebbishy," George is a schlemiel and a schlimazel by dint of his neuroses and physical traits." Despite his name and phony "Italianness," George's Jewishness thus lies at the core of the entire show. That Jewishness (though of an implicit rather than explicit kind) stands at the core of a show that is widely recognized as "the signature TV smash hit of the decade" marks a fundamental shift in contemporary television.

Crypto-Jews

According to historian Jeffrey Shandler, the masking of Jews on television has created "crypto-Iews"-- characters who, "while nominally identified as having some other ethnicity or religion, are nonetheless regarded [by some viewers and even some creators] as Jews in disguise." In Shandler's view, such crypto-Iews are a sign of the "ethnic relativism" that marks much of contemporary American culture.

Through such portraits, Jewish identity emerges not as "innate" but as "perform-ative" depicted through such character attributes as "being aggressive, neurotic, clever, or talkative." Not only do actors widely recognized as Jewish, like Jason Alexander and Estelle Harris,play unmarked Jewish roles, but non-Jewish actors frequently use intonation, gesture, and accent to depict Jews on the screen.

Seinfeld, of course, is not the only recent show where several of the characters' Jewishness is masked. The ethnicity of the characters on another leading prime-time show, Friends, created and produced by two Brandeis graduates, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, both of them Jews, is also oblique. Although the characters Ross and Monica Geller are presumably Jewish, the smart, funny, and insecure Ross (David Schwimmer) seems more Jewish than his china-doll-like sister Monica (Courteney Cox).

According to David Crane, Ross is "half Jewish because Elliot Gould is his father, but Christina Picker (as Ross's mother) sure is not." If Monica is Jewish then what about Rachel Greene (Jennifer Aniston), Monica's childhood friend from Long Island?

An early episode, "The Nose Job," referred to the fact that both girls were unattractive adolescents: then Rachel had a nose job, and Monica slimmed down. Now they are pert and fetching but, ironically, not at all Jewish-looking , When one reporter surveyed her friends to find out if they thought Rachel was Jewish, however, the response was "uniform confusion." Producer Crane notes, however, that Rachel is Jewish because her father is played by Ron Leibman, an authentic ethnic like Gould. Yet the character's mother is played by the non-Jewish Marlo Thomas, making her a "half-and-half" like Monica and Ross.

The Jewish nature of these characters is never clearly visible. As one commentator points out: "The observant viewer might catch a quick glimpse of a mezuzah on the parents' front door, or Ross polishing a Hanukkah menorah while his friends string Christmas decorations." These indications, however, are irregular and they are merely clues. Ross, his sister, and her friend are usually indistinguishable from their Gentile friends. Even Ross is "unmarked" compared to the very Jewish Janice.

Elliot Gould argues that a deep Jewish "value system" underlies the way Ross, his sister, and parents treat each other--"sense of community, family coming first, tradition, the love of charity"--and therefore that the show should be considered Jewish in its ethos. His argument, however, is not compelling." Had it been clear from the very beginning that both Ross and Rachel were Jewish, then those characters' romantic liaison might have been an exciting example of an attractive Jewish-Jewish coupling.

Other Characters

The Jewishness of many other TV characters is apparent only in passing. An occasional reference to a Yiddish phrase, a mention of Hanukkah or bagels may be the only marker of a character's Jewishness when it is not integral to character depiction, themes, or plots. For example, only a persistent viewer might realize that Richard Korinsky (Malcolm Gets), the lead character's beau in one Monday night NBC sitcom of the late 1990s, Caroline in the City, is Jewish.

His last name is a giveaway, but it is not frequently mentioned, and the actor himself, though portrayed as skittish and neurotic in opposition to Caroline's fresh-faced openness, physically plays against the Jewish type. A 1998 Christmas episode had the show's regulars visiting some sort of Santa-land donning seasonal costumes. Only the closing line of the episode, Caroline's wishing Richard "Happy Hanukkah," clued the viewer to his ethnicity.

Popular shows like Mad About You take a middle ground between identification and avoidance. Paul Buchman's Jewishness is rarely if ever mentioned, but Reiser's fairly heavy accent and mannerisms clearly indicate what his roots are. The show seldom focuses on Jewish themes, although guest appearances from Mel Brooks as Uncle Phil in several brilliant episodes--including one probing-Phil's immigrant background--underscore the family's Jewishness.

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Joyce Antler

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