Essay: The Jewish Question |


Essay: The Jewish Question

''Seinfeld'' may have been the best thing to happen to the image of Jews in sitcoms, except, that is, when the subject was Jewishness.

Hard to believe now, but early in its ascendancy, there were some who thought Seinfeld was too New York to be a national success. This was a euphemism, of course: When people say too New York, what they really mean is too Jewish. (Proof: Mad About You, which stars a nudgy, vaguely Jewish New Yorker married to a forthright WASP, has never been accused of zip code chauvinism. And Friends, while ostensibly set in Manhattan, exhibits no signs of New Yorkedness whatsoever, no doubt because the show takes place on a planet that has about as much ethnic authenticity as a blueberry bagel.) Seinfeld, however, has thrived on displaying its New York colors with pride. And why not? From the start, it has made a virtue of being the most Jewish show on TV — a universe of kvetches and phobias, talents and neuroses, pleasures and preferences that speak deeply to the New York Jewish soul. (What other tribe would bring a marbled rye bread as a hostess gift to a dinner?)

But while it revels in the specificity of New York Jewishness, Seinfeld has always made the larger American population comfortable with Yiddishkeit by cleverly doing what performers have done from Edward G. Robinson to Krusty the Clown: played down overt references to true identity. Like Superman — Jerry’s beloved superhero, invented by a couple of Jewish boys from Cleveland — Seinfeld cloaks its superpowers of Jewish humor behind a mild-mannered exterior of blurred ethnicity. And from colorful specificity comes universal appeal.

Was there, dear friends, ever a more Jewish non-Jew in TV history than George Louis Costanza? The family name is meant to suggest Italian heritage, but no one’s buying: Only begotten son of Frank and Estelle (they of the biblical-scale yelling and kasha eating), child of Queens, N.Y., a man weaned on the milk of Jewish neurosis, creation of inspired Semitic comedic misanthrope Larry David, George is, indubitably, the fretting prince of Seinfeld. (How Jewish, you ask? While posing as a neo-Nazi leader — in order to scam a free limo ride from the airport — he whistles ”If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof.) He may fool around with the notion of converting to Latvian Orthodoxy to impress a girl, but George doesn’t fool us.

Jerry, in contrast, admits to being Jewish — at least occasionally. ”Welcome aboard,” he tells his showbiz-loving Gentile dentist when the fellow converts — for access, Jerry suspects, to better jokes. Jerry then consults a priest, who asks whether the dentist’s conversion offends him as a Jew. ”It offends me as a comedian!” Jerry confesses. (Kramer, a man who appears to have been born with no religion in a galaxy far, far away, accuses Jerry of being an ”anti-dentite” for doubting the dentist’s sincerity.) ”If I could say a word here about the Jewish people,” Jerry says to Elaine, by way of explaining the motives of a gossipy rabbi. Surely the senior Seinfelds, Morty and Helen, in their exquisitely named Florida condo community of Del Boca Vista West, speak in the dialect of fussing Jewish parents — and are properly shocked to learn that their son and a girlfriend smooched nonstop during a showing of Schindler’s List.