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Jews in Pop-culture: a Critical Examination Part 1

June 28, 2009 – 10:15 pm29 Comments
A scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm

A scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm

By Anthony Frosh

There is a tremendously interesting documentary titled Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies & The American Dream (1997).  Amongst other things, the film touches on the portrayal of Jews on the big screen. If memory serves, one of its many insights is that despite Jews playing such a large role in establishing Hollywood and the American entertainment industry, unashamedly Jewish characters have been few and far between.

In what we hope will be an ongoing, albeit intermittent series, we are going to examine the portrayal of certain Jewish characters on the small screen. When discussing classic Jewish television characters or series, almost invariably, Seinfeld is mentioned.  While we agree that Seinfeld introduced elements of Jewish comedy to primetime network audiences, we argue that Seinfeld was a sanitized version of a Jewish comedic reality. For example, even though all four main characters of the series were based on Jews, Jerry was the only character who was explicitly Jewish.  Despite the fact that George (played by Jewish actor Jason Alexander, and based on real-life Jew Larry David) was the archetypal Jewish schlemiel in behavior and appearance, it was deemed necessary to give him an Italian surname, and reveal that his father is a member of a Catholic organization.  Likewise, dialogue in a number of episodes makes it explicit that Elaine and Kramer are not Jewish.

The timidity of Seinfeld is highlighted by the more recent and starkly different series Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Seinfeld writer Larry David plays himself. To cite just one example, we do not know of any other Jewish characters on television that would tell their non-Jewish wife “Next time you do one of these [dinner parties], I want some Jews in the house. Some Cohns, some Bernsteins, some Goldsteins… a Schwartz…”

To be clear, we are not criticizing Seinfeld because of the proportion of characters that are Jewish. We are simply interested in the reasons for toning down the Jewishness of the people upon which the protagonists are based. In contrast, in Curb Your Enthusiasm, every character who appears to be Jewish is explicitly depicted as Jewish. It seems significant that Curb Your Enthusiasm was screened on HBO, which is known for running content that the network stations won’t run.

We could write a lot more on this topic (and we will in the not too distant future) but we are more interested in hearing your views on the portrayal of Jews in popular culture, and in particular regarding the watering down of Jewishness.

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29 Comments »

  • The Hasid says:

    Oh, Frochele. Sometimes I wonder if you have installed little bugs in the walls at Chez Hasid! Your posts seem to precipitate my every thought and movement. (This is ripe ground for a conspiracy theory. But I’ll save that for a later post.)

    So, earlier this evening I was partaking of a cup of tea and a shtickle of leykach whilst enjoying an episode of The Golden Girls. (It’s a Sunday night ritual.) I relish GG for the bawdy humour, great dialogue, and retro cane furniture that makes me weep with nostalgia for my Nanna’s old house.

    Anyway, after a particularly choice exchange between Dorothy and Sophia, it occurred to me, how can they not be Jewish?
    Seriously! They’ve retired to Florida. Dorothy volunteers at the museum. I’m pretty sure her on-screen ex-husband, Stan, was meant to be Jewish. They eat cheesecake in their nighties late at night and discuss menopause. They ask rhetorical questions all the time. And the guilt trips! The irony! The over-analysis!
    (Also, Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur were both Jewish. Getty polished her acting chops in Yiddish theatre.)

    So why were their characters Italian? (Not that there’s anything wrong with it.)

  • Almoni says:

    What I am interested in is rather than a Hollywood focus, is some empirically-based discussion on ‘the Jew in the eye/s of Australia(ns).

    Given all the weddings and barmitzvahs etc on TV, what does it end up meaning? Is it seen in the same way as e.g. Italian life. And with Jewish crims and prominent identities, what is the overall cultural affect in e.g. Bathurst? And what is the effect of broadcasters like Jon Faine (agressive, loudmouthed), though unpredictable? Or Saint Ramona of Koval?

    Or the love of the broadsheets for the ‘Jewish angle’/story?

    I have no idea, absolutely, no idea what it would show. I know that the Bureau of Immigration Research did work on perceptions of acceptance and difference that was very interesting in the 1990s, but all that stuff was a) junkedy howard b) is hard to interpret for non numbers people.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    I’m sorry to say that I find this post to be exceedingly myopic.

    Seinfeld and David set out to produce a good comedy that all of America (and later, even, the world) would enjoy. Not just Jewish America, but all of America. One part of America is Jewish America. The writers obviously excelled at inserting Jewish humour into the Seinfeld dialogue due to their backgrounds. But Seinfeld never would have enjoyed the success that it did if it focussed on Judaism to the point of making all four (or even two, which would make them a majority) of its characters of Jewish.

    That is not representative of life. People like shows they can relate to. Oh, sure, the Jewish community would have gotten a massive kick out of a Jewish-only Seinfeld, for the entire one season that it would have run.

    Seinfeld was a masterstroke of balance, bringing the self-deprecating STYLE of Jewish community and applying it to everyday problems of all people. And yes, the smattering within each episode of jokes about Jews.

    Frochel, you need to step back and realise that Seinfeld was so successful because it appealed to so many people. Focussing it on Jews would have made it lose its appeal. Your analysis, as I have stated above, is quite superficial and lacking in any real content. Instead of arguing “NEEDS MORE JEWISHNESS”, you need to analyse the balance of Judaism and other cultures which made Seinfeld so popular to so many people.

    Thumbs down for this post, frochel.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    Couple of errata:

    making all four (or even two, which would make them a majority) of its main* characters
    bringing the self-deprecating STYLE of Jewish comedy*

  • frochel says:

    Hi Daniel,

    We’re glad you disagree with us, as it gives us a chance to better clarify our position.
    We have no problem with the presence of non-Jewish characters on Seinfeld nor any other program. Our criticism is that the producers or the network felt it necessary to ‘de-Jewify’ characters who were based on real life Jews.

    We are not sure why you think that a wider non-Jewish audience would not be able to enjoy a program like Seinfeld if all of the characters based on real life Jews were scripted as Jews. After all, Curb Your Enthusiasm (CYE) is enjoyed by many non-Jews. However, we accept that CYE is a smash hit on HBO, rather than a mainstream network, so will not rely solely on that as the basis for our argument.

    A number of widely loved mainstream network television series have had an almost entirely African America cast. For example, Good Times was a much loved classic, to say nothing of The Cosby Show, which topped the ratings for several years running. We can assure you, these programs did not rely solely on African-American audiences.

    It seems absurd that audiences who related to the Seinfeld protagonists, who acted and appeared very Jewish in character, would not have related to these same protagonists simply because their nominal Jewishness was admitted in the script.

    We believe that the decision to script three of the four protagonists as non-Jews was made simply because the decision-makers at the network (quite possibly Jewish) were not secure enough. We refer you back to the film referred to in our post, Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies & the American Dream, where these insecurities are well documented.

  • frochel says:

    Hi Almoni,

    We’d also be curious to know how various Australian demographic groups perceive the Jewish community. I’m not sure how one would realistically (i.e. funding) go about gathering this information. And that’s just measuring people’s perceptions. Identifying the cause of these perceptions is a far more difficult (almost impossible) task.

    Your comment brings up the age old question of whether the media more influences public perceptions, or more reflects it.

  • Almoni says:

    As I said, the Bureau of Immigration research that was axed by Howard did work on such things. I’ve had a look at a library site with hundreds of entries from the BIR but I can’t locate the reports ) I think there were two) on social distance between ethnic groups in Australia. I just don’t have the time to follow it up. I think the BIR library got absorbed into the Dept of Immigration and I don’t have a clue what happened to such valuable material.

    The internet is a wonderful thing–it wasn’t around when I was involved in this area in early 90s. I found something online: I think the Bogardus social distance scale was used. Apparently it is a widely recognised tool

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogardus_Social_Distance_Scale

  • Daniel Levy says:

    Frochel,

    The fact that other ethnicities being present in Seinfeld in lieu of Jewish ones irks you, betrays your “clarification”. The black population of america is many, many times larger than the Jewish population. There is much more of a draw to watching their lives as they are present in far greater numbers in American life. Focussing on the trials and tribulations of Jews only? Please do not delude yourself that this would have any wide audience outside of Israel.

    I must stress again that your one-eyed view of these shows is particularly distressing. CYE is not about Judaism, CYE is about poking fun at an arrogant, narcissistic characterisation of a fictional Larry David (who happens to be Jewish), more than anything else. This is the STYLE of Jewish comedy, however, to poke fun at big machers. Your post is seemingly devoid of any sort of discussion on how Jewish humour is stylised into Seinfeld or CYE. Again, no real substance to speak of.

    I think your analysis is ludicrous. Of all the possible angles you could have taken regarding “Jews in Pop-Culture”, this was the most banal. When you make EVERYTHING about being Jewish, and don’t stop to think about other communities co-existing with us, you certainly become quite boring and one-dimensional, as was this analysis.

  • frochel says:

    Hi Daniel,

    We would not have a problem with Seinfeld if some of the main characters were genuinely of another ethnicity. Our post is more interested in why characters who act like Jews, and look like Jews, are called non-Jews in Seinfeld. We don’t think that people would find the characters any less interesting if they admitted to being Jewish in the script.

    You seem to be missing our point. Perhaps we’ll try and explain it to you with some contrasting examples, including one that does not involve Jews whatsoever.

    In the film The Beach (2000), based on Alex Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name, the protagonist is an American backpacker; although in the original novel the backpacker is British. Now Daniel, I’m not sure how familiar you are with the backpacking scene in South East Asia, but American backpackers are few and far between. British backpackers are somewhat garden variety in comparison. So why would the film producers feel the need to change the nationality of the lead protagonist? I’m guessing that a focus group of prospective American cinema goers might have been involved. Or perhaps the studio bosses did not even let it get that far. The big film studios (and television networks) are inherently conservative organisations when it comes to managing risk. If they thought there was any risk that American audiences might relate more to an American protagonist (and thus sell more tickets), then they would make it so. The motivation here is purely financial.

    The second example is that of the 1990 film, Avalon, written and directed by Barry Levison (who is Jewish). The film is about the immigration experience of a family. Although the family depicted in the film obviously Jewish, this is never made explicit mentioned in the film, even though at one point in the film the lead patricarch of the family mentions “we do not name people after the living.” Furthermore, in one scene where there is a funeral for a family member, if one looks closely, it can be seen that there are headstones in the cemetery are of Jewish people (Magen David etc). And yet, do you not find it at all curious that in this whole film that runs for over two hours about the immigration experience of this family, it is never once mentioned that they are Jewish?

    In this case, we do not feel financial motivations are solely at play here. This is about the insecurities of the Jewish film-maker to be explicit that his de facto Jewish characters are indeed Jewish.

  • Rhino says:

    I completely agree with Daniel Levy on this one. The questions that Frochel asks are uninteresting and borderline irrelevant. In fact, you provide the answer to your own question: the big films studios do what they do in order to appeal to the largest possible audience which, in turn, is done to make the largest amount of money. If you want to watch a tv show about a Jewish family I suggest that either you move to Israel or start watching SBS.

    This article was really substandard.

  • kugl says:

    Rhino and Daniel are being stupid. It’s a fair enough comment to ask why shows about Jews need to be de-jewed to have appeal. Why do American Jews play down their Jewishness when Italians and blacks don’t need to play down their backgrounds? Maybe its self censorhip because of a culture cringe.

  • Rhino says:

    Kugl-perhaps you should try reading the posts before you comment. Daniel correctly points out that the black/italian market is a lot bigger than the Jewish market. You should study economics 101 – supply and demand!

  • frochel says:

    Rhino and Daniel (We’re not saying that you’re necessarily the same person, but your opinions seem identical, so we’ll address you collectively),

    By your logic, The Cosby Show, which was a top rating sitcom in Australia in the late 1980s, would never have been screened here, let alone been a national ratings winner for a number of years running. Or perhaps you are unaware that the African-American population of Australia was and remains negligible. This is just one of many such examples.

    We think you should spend less time recommending university courses to other contributors, and rather, enrol yourselves in a course on basic logic.

    Furthermore, it is you who are not reading other people’s comments. We have not expressed a desire to watch a TV program featuring only Jews. We simply criticise the decision to delete explicit Jewish references from screenplays.

  • Rhino says:

    Criticise all you like, that is the point of this blog, no?

  • Lazy guy says:

    I don’t agree with Daniel Levy and Rhino, that the article was sub-standard, but I do agree with their point that they wanted to appeal to a wider audience.

    While I saw the Jewish humour in Seinfeld, I also got the feeling I was watching New York hunour. Would that not not be a tribute to the addition Jews have made to the NY melting pot?

    Also I am not sure what is wrong with having characters across ethnic lines interact as it can be hilarious. If you watch the Sopranos there is a Jewish character and the interaction with him and Tony Soprano is great and at times that comes from their slightly different background.

    Frochel maybe later in your blog, you could look at how many shows seem to have a Jewish character, such as the Simpsons? To me that is a wonderful sign of acceptance in the wider community.

  • frochel says:

    Lazy Guy,

    We are not against characters interacting across ethnic lines. In fact, one of the most amusing things about Curb Your Enthusiasm is Larry’s non-Jewish wife attempting to make sense of Larry’s Jewish world, as well as Larry interacting with his wife’s very Christian family. An great example of this is the episode where Larry hilariously uses his father-in-law’s souvenir nail from Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” in order to put up his mezuzah. Another is when Larry inadvertantly stops a baptism of a Jew converting to Christianity, becoming the hero of the Jews and the villain of the Christians.

    The only thing we are against is the de-Jewification of would-be Jewish characters, which only serves to prevent such entertaining drama and brilliant comedy as can be seen in shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    As for Hesh Rabkin in the Sopranos, we agree with you, but this only proves our point. The Hesh Rabkin character is a Jew in the raw, and that’s what provides such a great dynamic between him and the other characters in the Sopranos. In fact, we’re glad you raised Hesh – we may well write about him in a future “Jews in Pop Culture” post.

  • Naomi says:

    Hi everyone,
    not sure if this discussion is still open or not?
    Anyway I’d just like to say how refreshing I find a sitcom such as CYE that does not shy away from Jewish humour! It is always refreshing to see when communities are able to laugh at their own idiosyncratic elements.
    To some extent I completely agree with you, Frochel, the ‘de-jewification’ can be seen in the examples that you raise very clearly and though it can be argued by other comments seen above that for example in. The Simpsons there is a Jew- it still strikes me that often shows tend to have a token example of minority.
    However, I would say that there is always too much emphasis on race and background, and a show like Seinfeld which encompasses the idea of different cultures perhaps mixing is a little more encouraging that shows that only represent purely White or Jewish or African-American, etc members of community.
    As a Jew I find it great to see representatives of Jewish people on television, and were there no Jewish characters on television I’m sure I would have a lot to complain about! Despite the fact I have mentioned the ‘token’ Jew kind of idea, to be honest, I think when it comes to television most people just want to kick back and watch something enjoyable and that they can relate to- regardless of who is being represented- black, white, muslim, jewish, christian or whatever.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Naomi,

    Firstly, a disclosure: The commenter above, Frochel , was co-written by myself and my co-editor Rachel. It was a name being circa mid 2009 for joint comments.

    Now to reply to your comment:
    I think you raise an interesting issue. Sometimes art tries to represent life as it is, while other art attempts to represent life as (the artist/producer) believes it should be to impart positive social messages.

    I think there is a role for both of these. Certainly in children’s programming (but not necessarily limited to this), I think it is better if the producer tries to impart positive social messages e.g. racial and gender equality etc.

    However, from an entertainment point of view, I probably prefer the artist to show life as it is (“it’s funny because it’s true”). As far as television goes, this approach has really been the domain of HBO. And Curb Your Enthusiasm certainly falls into this category. Much of the humour comes from the fact that CYE demonstrates so many truths we don’t normally admit.

    My problem is that when it comes to major American networks (e.g. NBC), they neither portray life as it is, nor is their real aim to impart positive social messages. When they make a ‘Jewishesque’ character ‘actually’ not Jewish in a TV show, because they think the general audience won’t like more than one Jewish main character in the show, they are both representing real life as it is not, and they are succumbing to (perceived) racial prejudice.

  • Dave Nielsen says:

    It would have been a bit unrealistic if Seinfeld had been friends with and dated only fellow Jews. In fact one of the things I dislike about CYE is that virtually everyone Larry associates with is Jewish. They gave him a non-Jewish wife just to throw us a bone.

  • frosh says:

    Dave,

    I don’t think they made Larry’s wife (Cheryl) a gentile to “throw [the gentile viewers] a bone.”
    I think it was based on two things:

    1) In real life, Larry was married to non-Jewish woman.
    2) There is much comedy derived from the fact that Cheryl and her family come from a very WASPy background, and Larry and many of the people they mix (Jeff, Suzie, the Funkhousers, Richard Lewis) with are Jewish.

    As for many of Larry’s friends being Jewish, again, this is based on realism. I’d be interested to know why that’s annoying to you. I ask this sincerely, as it never bothered me that most of the characters in the Sopranos were Italian Americans, or that in Good Times, almost all the characters were African-American etc.

  • Dave Nielsen says:

    I said I disliked it, not that I found it annoying. The reason for that I already gave, which was that it’s unrealistic.

  • frosh says:

    I don’t see why it’s unrealistic that someone from a particular background would largely mix with people of that same background. On the contrary, I would think that is entirely realistic.

  • Dave Nielsen says:

    Larry lives in L.A. If Jews accounted for 99% of the population of that city, I could see it, but they don’t. Unless the show is trying to support the idea that Jews really do run Hollywood. Is that not racist if a Jew says it? It should be.

  • Sam says:

    Dave

    If you have ever watched American crime movies set in the early to mid 20th. century you would observe that the police force on the street consisted predominently of Irish Americans in Chicago and New York. Nowhere near 99% of the population was of Irish origin. Would you say that the selection of police constables in those situations were made on racial grounds? See how ridiculous your previous posting sounds.

  • Dave Nielsen says:

    Clearly you and reason have barely a nodding acquaintance, Sam. Funny post, though. Unintentionally funny, but still.

  • Larry says:

    Firstly: “1) In real life, Larry was married to non-Jewish woman.” Laurie Lennard is most certainly a Jew from Long Island (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3665272/Earth-girls-arent-easy.html)

    I also very much disagree with the sentiment of this article. Whenever a writer creates or writes for a character other than his or herself, they are inherently diminishing certain qualities. ‘Seinfeld’ wasn’t successful because of the makeup of its characters; it was successful because it was well-written.

    Frosh, do you think ‘Seinfeld’ would have been a funnier show had George Costanza been George Schwartz?

  • frosh says:

    Hi Larry,

    I guess I got it wrong when I said in my comment that “In real life, Larry was married to non-Jewish woman.” Perhaps it was a de facto partner of his I read about that he was with prior to his now ex-wife.

    As for you question on George Costanza, no one can answer that definitively. However, as funny as George was, I find Larry David’s character in CYE to be funnier.

    To quote an article from Tablet Mag,

    Larry David has absolutely no ambivalence about being a Jew.
    From his disgust at Cheryl’s enormous Christmas tree, to the glee with which he hangs a mezuzah with his father-in-law’s special Christ Nail, to his inadvertent rescue of a Jewish man from a mildly coerced baptism, David’s outlook is essentially tribal. To him, a Jew trying to pass as a gentile is as ridiculous as a bald man in a toupee. David’s comic pose is less that of the anxious assimilationist eager to fit in than that of the clueless greenhorn making his way in a world to which he’s not sure he cares to belong.

    To me, this provides a lot of comedic value that George Costanza did not quite have.

  • frosh says:

    Here’s an article from this week’s Tabletmag slamming Mad About You for “ethnic cleaning” in its failure to mention that the main character was Jewish, even after being on air for seven years.

    http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/78670/maddening/

  • marvin says:

    Congratulations Frosh on this story that is still relevant now. I am writing a story myself in the Florida Jewish Journal in which I interviewed Richard Lewis and Susie Essman on portraying overtly Jewish characters on TV and film, not only in “Curb”, but in other projects as well.
    It is wonderful to see more Jewish characters on TV and film and a Jewish character on network TV can succeed; how can one forget Fran Drescher, who not only found success as “The Nanny” on CBS, but has played up her Jewishness on just about every character she has played on television since then.

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