Invisible Jews on Television

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

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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.


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.

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Joyce Antler

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