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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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