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Seinfeld and Company

On "Seinfeld" and other 1990s TV shows, Jewishness became part of the American pop culture landscape.

In the early 1990s, the children of America’s baby boomers — the second generation raised on television — came to be known as Generation X, a label that signified their unsure place in the world. The Jewish comedy writers of this period played on the “Gen X” mentality of self-fulfillment and indulgence in scripting films and television programs which spoofed their self-centeredness.

Jewish performers in the ’70s and ’80s who had been largely relegated to supporting roles now emerged as the leads in popular TV sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Friends. So, too, some of the principal characters had Jewish identities, such as Grace Adler in Will and Grace and Kyle Broflovski in South Park — a stark contrast to the ’70s, when Jewish characters, such as Archie Bunker‘s Jewish niece Stephanie, had only supporting roles. The public’s acceptance of this phenomenon affirmed that “Jewishness” had finally become an integral part of America’s pop culture landscape.

Much Ado About “Nothing”

“If I’m the best man, why is she marrying him?” — Jerry Seinfeld

In November 1988, comedian Jerry Seinfeld (a frequent Tonight Show guest) sat across from his longtime friend Larry David (a former writer for Saturday Night Live) at the Westway Diner in midtown Manhattan and bemoaned his inability to create a sitcom vehicle that reflected the “Seinfeld brand of humor” — astute observational comedy. They conceived of a sitcom which would recall classic television: Jerry Seinfeld, like fellow Jewish comedian Jack Benny before him, would play himself, a comedian beset by life’s trials and trivialities.

Spearheaded by Jewish head writer Larry David (the inspiration for Jerry’s friend George Costanza, portrayed by Jason Alexander), assisted by Jewish writers Tom Leopold, Carol Leifer (the model for the character of Jerry’s friend Elaine Benes, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Dave Mandel, Seinfeld soon emerged as the hippest sitcom in America.

Seinfeld’s character reflected the ambitious Jewish man of the ’90s who is unable to make a commitment to a woman, breaking up with girlfriends for trivial reasons; in one episode he dropped a woman for wearing the same dress every day. Lawrence J. Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile, sees Seinfeld’s indecisiveness in matters of love as a metaphor for the inability of many American Jews to affirm their Jewishness. “The longstanding tension between Jewish and American identities is partially overcome in Seinfeld,” Epstein writes, “by having the characters not choose at all, by refusing to be grown up enough to have to choose.”

Seinfeld‘s brand of humor was “a neurotic Jewish craziness and narcissism that just captured America,” comments comedy legend Carl Reiner (Your Show of Shows, Oh, God!).

In one episode, Jerry’s friend Kramer (Michael Richards) meets Jerry’s Jewish girlfriend, who keeps kosher (“Wow! You’re so pious… when you die, you’re going to get some special attention”). Later on, Kramer stops her as she is about to succumb to the temptation of eating lobster. “You saved me,” she says. “I knew you’d regret it for the rest of your life,” he replies. In the end, however, George (Jason Alexander) tricks her into eating the forbidden food. This twist reveals the essence of Seinfeld: comedic interplay between kindness and cruelty.

Seinfeld‘s writers, however, did not condone heartless behavior. In the final episode, Jerry and his friends land in prison for standing idly by as a man is robbed of his car. The show’s closing message: Even in Seinfeld‘s amoral universe, one cannot escape ethical responsibility. With its openly Jewish leading man and Jewish themes, Seinfeld, the most successful sitcom of the ’90s, was a watershed in the portrayal of Jews on TV.

A Family Of Friends

“Um, because if Santa and the Holiday Armadillo are even in the same room for too long, the universe will implode!” — Santa Claus (Matthew Perry), when Ben (Cole Sprouse) asks why the Holiday Armadillo (David Schwimmer) has to go away, on Friends

In 1994, a new sitcom focused on six single New Yorkers, two of them Jewish. Created by Jewish comedy writer Marta Kauffman and her writing partner David Crane, Friends explored the lives of these 20- and 30-something platonic friends, lovers, roommates, and siblings who form an extended family.

In a classic episode, Ross Geller, a single Jewish father (played by David Schwimmer), tries to teach his young son Ben (Cole Sprouse) about the meaning of Hanukkah. Ben, who’s been celebrating Christmas (Ross’s ex-wife is Christian), can’t imagine not having a visit from Santa. To please him, Ross sets out to buy a Santa suit, but can only find an Armadillo costume.

Dressed as the “Holiday Armadillo,” he wishes Ben a “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.” Ben then asks, “Are you for Hanukkah too? Because I’m part Jewish!” Elated by his son’s reaction, Ross tells his friends: “I’m finally getting him excited about Hanukkah!” The episode’s message: With so much intermarriage, divorce and assimilation, it isn’t easy for a young Jewish single in a state of limbo to raise a child with his Jewish identity intact.

Interfaith TV Couples

Interfaith couples became commonplace in ’90s sitcoms. In The Nanny, an outspoken, self-spoofing Jewish nanny (played by Jewish actress Fran Drescher) eventually married her proper English employer. Dharma and Greg explored the comedic contrasts between a new-age Jewish hippie and her button-down WASP businessman husband. Mad About You delved into the lives of Jewish filmmaker Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser) and his beautiful non-Jewish wife Jamie (Helen Hunt).

In stark contrast, a generation earlier, the 1972 series Bridget Loves Bernie (about the relationship between a Jewish man and his Irish Catholic wife) had to be cancelled because of protests from both the Jewish and Catholic communities.

Jewish, Female & Proud

Grace: “Well, what makes you think that you have the better candidate?”
Will: “Grace, he’s gay.”
Grace: “Well, mine’s a woman and Jewish. That makes two victims to your one.”
–Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) arguing about political candidates, Will and Grace

Will and Grace, a comedy series featuring a gay male lead, broke new ground when it premiered on network TV in fall 1998. Created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick (both Jewish), the show explores the platonic relationship between Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a gay WASP lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), a heterosexual Jewish interior designer.

In addition to its honest portrayal of homosexuals, the series is trailblazing in its depiction of a beautiful, proudly Jewish female lead who is refreshingly free of negative stereotyping.

In the “Cheaters” episode, for example, Grace discovers that Will’s married father George (Sydney Pollack) has taken a mistress, Tina (Lesley Ann Warren). Grace informs a disbelieving Will, who then invites his father and Tina to dinner. Frustrated by the triviality of the conversation, Grace takes Will aside and explains that, in her Jewish family, a matter of such gravity would have been put on the table before the appetizer. Will counters by saying that, in his family, that’s not the way things happen. Finally, as a result of Grace’s prodding, Will and his father engage in a long-overdue heart-to-heart.

The show’s portrayal of a Jewish woman as emotionally forthright and honest contrasts sharply with Woody Allen‘s depiction of Alvy Singer’s loud and outlandish Jewish family in Annie Hall.

Adapted with permission from Reform Judaism  magazine.


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