Monday, November 3, 2008

Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and the Modern Jew

By Daniel Garrihy

Judaism stands as one of the world’s most venerable religious traditions and is a forerunner of both Christianity and Islam. Despite its rich and ancient history and culture, modern perception of the Jewish faith has been muddled by mass media representations particularly in the comedic work of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. As Marsha Woodbury notes in her essay “Jewish Images that Injure”, Jewish identity can be difficult to define: “Jews share some distinctive characteristics such as culture, religion and language. Jewishness comes from birth or from religious conversion, and among the Jewish community there is no definite agreement on who is and who is not Jewish” (Woodbury 123). If the concept of Jewish identity is a mystery even to the Jewish community, it is easy to see how pop culture’s depiction of Judaism becomes an easily accessible definition of Judaism for the masses.

When Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David teamed up in the late 1980’s to create “a show about nothing” they could not have been aware of the cultural phenomenon that they were beginning. The hit sitcom Seinfeld ran for nine seasons and became one of America’s most beloved television programs. Seinfeld and David, the creative geniuses behind the show often worked with “Jewish humour” as two of the show’s main characters, Jerry Seinfeld and George Kostanza (based on Larry David) are Jewish. On the one hand, this program exposed millions of Americans to Judaism in a way that they had never seen it before.

Regarding Jews in politics, specifically Joe Lieberman’s vice-presidential nomination on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000, Jonathan Alter notes that Americans no longer fear and misunderstand Jews: “The main change is cultural--the Seinfeldizing of America. You can get a bagel almost anywhere in the country nowadays (a good bagel is another question), including at that quintessentially American institution, McDonald's. Jewish entertainers are everywhere, and they don't hide their heritage as the old stars and their studio bosses did. Judaism is even hip with non-Jews: Madonna studies the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and the "kosher sex" rabbi counts Michael Jackson among his followers. (On second thought, maybe that's not such a recommendation.)” (Weiss 2). Critics of the show’s representation of Judaism are quick to note, however the overwhelmingly secular undertones that surround the show’s Jewish flavour. Indeed, Seinfeld, while of Jewish heritage, is not by any means, a practicing Jew.

Philip Weiss laments the secularization of the Jewish people and notes that an alarmingly low 30 percent of Jews consider religion and important part of their lives, a significantly lower number than other religious groups (Weiss). Further, Weiss notes that while people retain their Jewish identity for ethnic and community purposes, few pay any heed to the laws or ethics at the centre of the faith. “Of course, Jews consider themselves Jewish for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with mitzvot. Because they are scholarly and intelligent. Because they look Jewish and the world regards them as Jewish. Because of their interior decoration budget. Because they love Seinfeld and use Yiddish words. "I'm a bagel-and-cream-cheese Jew," one former member of the board of the Anti-Defamation League told me” (Weiss).

In Larry David’s own sitcom project, Curb Your Enthusiasm, David takes on his Judaism in more head-on terms. The program, a success in its own right, frequently portrays David in awkward situations that frequently revolve around his Jewish faith. From awkward seder meals to scalping tickets to a high holy day service, David does not hesitate to send up his Jewish heritage. David seems to view his Judaism more as a source of comedic material than as a path to enlightenment, however: “But there's no doubt so much of "Curb's" curbside appeal stems from the jaunty Jewish quips that point to his own embrace of religion. Maybe "embrace" is a bit too warm and huggy for such an un-haimisch heartthrob -- "I'm not one of these guys that goes, 'Hey, I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew,' " he says (Elkin 3).

David and Seinfeld’s decision to embrace their Jewish heritage for comedic purposes put Judaism on the map in American pop culture in a way that it had not been seen before. Ariel Levy believes that Seinfeld’s decision to portray Jewishness as commonplace rather than emphasizing the otherness of the Jew (a la Woody Allen) helped to create a portrayal of Jew as everyman. “So in a way, Seinfeld is less Jewish than his comic forefathers. Of course, this rests on the fragile assumption that Jews are outsiders. But then, the existence of the New York Jew as a central figure in the history of comedy rests on an equally unprovable (if right-feeling) assumption: that Jews are funny” (Levy).

The Jewish stereotypes that pervade the media today are largely the creation of the Jewish people themselves. “And in nearly all of these cases, it is Jews who promote this image. Up until the middle of the 20th century, Jews often felt pressure to "Anglicize" their names and act "American"—assimilation was the name of the game. But today the situation has completely reversed itself and Jews are increasingly proud of their ethnic origin” (Tobias). While to an extent, this willingness to embrace and poke fun at their ethnic identity empowers the Jewish people, there is a fine balance between poking fun at a stereotype and creating a false archetypal representation of an entire people.

Larry David can be seen as a definite culprit of misrepresentation as not only was the character of George in Seinfeld based directly off of David, but also, David plays a very similar autobiographical character in his show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Marsha Woodbury believes that George stands as the mass media representation of a Jewish man: “short, bald, aggressive, obsessive, and constantly trying to overcompensate for his profound insecurity. George is a stereotype- always hot for women who are not Jewish, always trying to impress” (Woodbury 125).

A Jewish blogger also vehemently rails against David’s representation of Judaism in Curb which started out as innocent enough comedy, but the author believes has become insidious and self-loathing. “David exemplifies the worst qualities in the Jewish stereotype and displays them unabashedly, as if they were badges of honor. But what made David¹s show so brilliant was that for the most part, it was funny. That is, until now...” (Bring Back Sincerity online blog).

The representation of Jews in American media is significant not only because of America’s cultural dominance in the modern world, but also because the United States boasts the world’s largest Jewish population with 43 percent of the world’s Jews living in America (Williams 1). Judith Williams suggests that Jerry Seinfeld’s loose affiliation with Judaism in the television series can be seen as many modern Jews’ struggles with their identity. Judaism has long since shifted from a religious identity to an ethnic or ideological identity in American culture and as America continues to change, the question of what it is to be Jewish becomes more and more puzzling for the individual Jew.

While religious observance does not hold the weight that it once did in Jewish society and intermarriage, once an unthinkable concept has become much more the norm, Jews still hold fast to their Jewish identity : “ …virtually all our respondents regard their Jewish identity as inalienable. They are Jews because they are Jews, and no one can become more of a Jew by doing or believing more, or less of a Jew by doing or believing less… In their view, intermarriage does not affect one’s Jewish identity” (Williams).

The dilemma of Jewish representation with regards to Seinfeld is a multi-faceted debate. While some agree with Williams’ and levy’s assertions that Seinfeld was a positive phenomenon for the Jewish people, an opportunity for the world to see Jews as everyday people and not as outsiders and members of a strange and oft-misunderstood faith, there is a counterpoint to this argument. Many believe that Seinfeld and David’s willingness to explore the comedic side of their Jewish heritage slips into the realm of self-loathing.

Some contend that Seinfeld could have used its incredible popularity to portray Judaism in a positive light: “Pearl contends that "Seinfeld" reinforces "unfortunate" stereotypes regarding Jewish clergy, ritual and women, rather than using its prominence to offer honest and positive depictions of Jews and Judaism” (Segall and Ephros). Clearly a program with such incredible mass-appeal and such a rabid fan following is prone to generating fierce debate as it becomes ingrained into everyday life and culture.

Most feel that the writers of the show were not too harsh with Judaism but were in fact comedic geniuses. Prominent Jews have embraced Seinfeld for what it is, a comedic take on life in New York City with ample references to the Jewish culture that so influenced the writers and characters’ lives. “Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a huge "Seinfeld" fan, believes Pearl may be missing the point.

‘Getting more positive messages out about Judaism is not what `Seinfeld' is about,’ he says. ‘It's comedy’” (Segall and Ephros). Seinfeld clearly cannot speak to the thousands of years of Jewish culture that preceded it, nor can it present itself as an authority on the complex and ancient Jewish faith. What the program does, quite effectively however is to observe the life of several Jewish characters in modern times. Because of its unprecedented success, Seinfeld did become a significant cultural force for modern Jews. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David make no claims to speak for Judaism they are simply two Jews with an ironic worldview that got together to make a highly successful television program. It was perhaps inevitable, however that Seinfeld did come to represent modern Judaism for many people as the relatively small world Jewish population is often misunderstood. As Woodbury notes in her article, Jewish identity is difficult to define even for Jews themselves.

Cultural representation is a difficult and sensitive issue facing modern media. While Seinfeld was able to successfully combat previous hegemonic ideals as Jews as outsiders, it did influence a whole new hegemony of Jews as caricatures of the characters in the show. Was jerry the true everyman that some claim him to be? If so, then America truly embraced a Jew like never before. Or was George and later Larry David, the self-loathing, curmudgeonly Jew the image that most resonates as “Jew”.

It seems that the issue of representation in Seinfeld is so difficult to examine because of the ever-changing nature of Jewish identity in America. As Jews puzzle over their cultural and religious background (an area in which cultural and ethnic pride seem to have surpassed religious observance), perhaps Jerry’s unique relationship with Judaism is the same as most modern Jews’. In any event, the long lasting cultural impact of Seinfeld has brought to the forefront Judaism and the issue of representation of Jews to the forefront. Perhaps Jerry has formed a new identity for modern Jews or perhaps in the wake of Seinfeld, Jews will continue to shape their own unique identity and place in modern culture.

Work Cited
Alter, Jonathan. Post-Seinfeld America. Newsweek, 00289604, 08/21/2000, Vol. 136, Issue 8
Dworken, Arye. “Milk Products and Larry David bad for the Jews?”. Bring Back Sincerity Blog.
Elkin, Michael. “Curb Appeal”. September 6, 2007.
Levy, Ariel. “D’You Laugh?”.
Luck, Zach. “Wait, Larry David is Jewish?”. The Columbia Current.
Segall, Rebecca and Ephross, Peter. “Critics Call Show ‘Self Hating’: Was Seinfeld Good for Jews?”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Friday, May 8 1998.
Tobias, Josh. “Meet the Fockers, Larry David, and the Jewish Archetype”. Brown University.
Weiss, Philip. “To Some Jews, Faith Means Lox, Bagels, and Seinfeld”. The New York Observer. November 11, 1999.
Williams, Judith. “Raising Jews on South Park and Seinfeld”.
Woodbury, Marsha. “Jewish Images that Injure”. Images that injure : pictorial stereotypes in the media, (2nd Ed.), London : Praeger, 2003, ch.15, pp.121-130.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Are Religion and the Media Compatible?

By Shona Chandani

Religion and media are two of the most influential forces in people lives and in human culture. Are these institutions two separate and irreconcilable pods or can they find a happy balance of co-operation? Is it possible for their ideologies to have similar nuances?

Even back as far as the early 1970’s there have been investigations and reports on how the secular media and religion interact. No other generation has had the freedom the new media has given to discuss, explore and practice religion and this has sparked massive interest from all sides; scholars, journalists and the public.

In the contemporary world the media are now moving at the centre of the western religious experience, projecting our culture and values to the rest of the world. It is a huge part of the way we communicate; it can connect the entire world in just a few seconds. Our culture, values and customs are all shaped by what we see on TV, read in magazines and newspaper and download from the internet.

Different media has the power to shape our religiousness. A pioneer in understanding this, and using the media to promote her religion was Aimee Semple McPherson. For the period between the two world wars she built a mass media empire designed to bring people back to the church. McPherson also used media within her church services which helped make them immensely popular. While religion can be given meaning by the media can also be given credibility by religion; it’s understanding and responsible promotion of it.

Similar to the argument why politics and religion should always remain separate, some say that because of this religion and media should be kept in two separate pods because their ideologies could never mesh. There was once an invisible line drawn around religion protecting it from scrutiny but it has long since been dissolved by the ever growing and universalising media. It is important that we begin to think more clearly about the possible consequences of this technology for religion, even though we are still only at the dawn of the Internet age and fumbling over ourselves to understand it.

There is a distinct difference between religious media and mediated religion. There is a thriving religious, largely Christian, media in Australia, the UK and America. In Australia alone there are 34 radio stations, over 300 narrowcast stations and 9 TV channels devoted to religious media. This is completely separate to the secular media’s interaction with religion. On the surface the universe of discourse that religion inhabits is completely separate from the workday world of the press. Although, many religious organisations have high stakes invested in the media.

Scholars are now trying to find the common ground to provide a mechanism for interaction between the two. Hosseini considers three approaches to defining the relationship between media and religion. The Functionalist, Essentialist and Interactive approaches. The Functionalist outlook generally sees the media a mere tool used by religious concepts and notions. There are serious criticisms of this argument as being shallow and erroneous. The essentialist approach claims that the media intrinsically have an independent cultural and historical identity therefore in their interaction with other aspects of life the compatibility or lack-there-of with other entities should be fully taken into consideration when reflection on their relationship.

Hosseini’s own view is the interactive approach. This theory tries to find a way to interconnect the two important elements. The considerable expansion of mass media in since the 1970’s has led religious leaders to call for interaction between arguably the planets two largest social institutions. The Vatican has even expressed a very positive view of the interaction between media and religion describing it as a divine gift and blessing. Hoover stresses that religion cannot be reduced to an individual experience; it is not confined to a sacred domain bit in inseparable from culture. As the media is also inseparable from and gives meaning to human life these two entities should naturally work together.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and reviewer, has a slightly different idea; he believes that journalism, and by extension the media, is itself a religion. Rosen identifies eight categories in which he compares elements of journalism to those of a religion. He highlights an interesting feature of the media; there is a priesthood of the press with a high church, ceremonies and rites of passage. The Journalists Creed was written by Walter Williams in 1906 to be a code of ethics for journalists. It reads very much like a religious text; part indoctrination, part theology and part sanctity. Finally, the media has a God... the public. They are considered to be the controlling or guiding force of journalism. The morality of journalism itself stands for the way things should be. It’s implicit belief — you could call it faith — is that people can make a difference when they know what is happening in their world.

As religion continues to infiltrate mainstream media, journalists are finding themselves with more opportunity to report on religious issues or less choice to not. For journalists the religion beat holds appeal because of its versatility, reporting ranges from hard news to politics, social issues and world events. It is impossible to political events, like the US presidential election, without a fairly extensive knowledge of religion these days. The Journalism School and Columbia University even offers a combined course is journalism and religion.

How do journalists keep neutral when writing about religion, be it their own beliefs or something completely different? Goldman said he avoids criticizing any religious belief, except in the most extreme cases of violence or danger. “I see my role as to tell the story and not put a value judgment on it,” he explained. The press plays an extremely important role in the way that religion is understood by those outside of it. “The media often falls into extremes and not the mainstream because they’re boring,” he said. “The press isn’t interested in Muslims that say ‘we condemn violence.’” Rosen says that “The public climate is partly our creation, they said. If it turns murderous, we need to admit our part in that. And find some way to redemption”.

Having pushed the boundaries as far as possible with food, sex and sport it was only a matter of time before religion got the reality treatment. In a society obsessed with the make-over it is unsurprising that faith is getting one too. These shows are one of the few ways religion has infiltrated mainstream television. Major networks like MTV are getting on board the new phenomenon.

The leading religious network in India, Aastha has developed a program that’s part Idol, part Songs of Praise. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, star of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, is now a celebrity. It is one of the stations most highly rated shows pulling in about 700,000 viewers, this makes it more popular than some of its home improvement and fashion and makeover programs. According to the Rabbi "It's a show about family," said Boteach, who is known as Rabbi Shmuley. "To the extent that religious thought can be brought to bear on healing them, then of course, I do that. But these truths are universal . . . applicable to men, women and children of every denomination, every way of life."

The show has proved so popular that TLC is now launching another spiritually motivated show. On the British Islam channel, eight mosques competed for the title of Britain’s Model Mosque in 2007. The organisers were not only keen to show other mosques what their possibilities are but to dispel fears about Islam of non-Muslims. While they also appreciate the popularity of reality TV with younger audiences and the effectiveness of this medium in reaching generation Y the show should not be interpreted in a non-religious way. They want a smooth transition of power to the next generation and this TV program can facilitate this by involving them. Secular programs are also using religion to attract audiences. The Dr. Phil Show uses essentially religious narrative and indoctrination to attract participants and hook audiences. It was found that TLC’s A Wedding Story supported current hegemonic religious views but it has the potential to show audiences more diverse religious portrayals.

These shows allow people to experience other faiths and belief systems far different from their own in a non-threatening, entertaining and accessible way. The Aastha show has been praised because “It also shows how religious leaders and activists are trying to use new media to appeal to young Indians, who are increasingly exposed to, and attracted by, Western culture.” The show is to be less about competition and more about teaching young people to appreciate more traditional religious music. If religion is going to engage a new generation it needs to be enjoyable. The major problem with these shows is that they give, at best, a watered down version of reality. They cannot depict any particular religion in any specific detail. Engstrom and Semic believe that despite this and although A Wedding Story reaches a limited audience it is the perfect, unthreatening way to introduce lesser known religions through a common ritual.

Using data from several search engines it is clear that religion is flourishing online. There is a plethora of religion and religious information available on the internet. You can do everything from attending services to go on virtual pilgrimages to consulting with a rabbi or priest. There is an ocean of online communities are thriving and religion is just getting its feet wet. Blogging, Facebook, email and online communities have become as popular, if not more so, than face to face communication. Even dating is now done largely online. If religious organisations don’t keep up, they’ll fall into obscurity. Online is a place where religious freedom can reign supreme in a sometimes painfully PC world. The Internet has truly become a haven for an abundance of alternative religions and spiritualities, from lesbian witchcraft to white-supremacist apocalypticism.

Cyberspace allows freedom because it removes the stigma of living a atypical religious lifestyle. There is a definite difference between religion online and online religion however. Religion online is the extension of existing religion into cyberspace where online religion is a new phenomenon; entire religious movements that have come to be on the World Wide Web.

Religion online has triggered notable changes in the traditional religious experience also. Heidi Campbell came to several conclusions from her research into religion in computer mediated communication (CMC). Online religion has not replaced the traditional church service; it is not causing people to shy away from real world participation. People did note that relationships are lacking in the offline church. There are however serious limitations to how far relationships can progress online.

Trustworthiness and truth are very difficult to determine without physical contact. Users of online church and religious communities highlighted that their characteristics are a vision of what the church or Christian community could be like. When the online community may not be complete in some respects users find that the spiritual connection and freedom they find on the web is not something they can get in the real world.

Ritual and myth are essential elements of religion. Cyberspace and its far reach have transformed traditional ritual space and time. For years television has been bringing people from their home into the action, the internet is now doing a similar service.There are some criticisms or religion going digital; some say that the web is a dehumanising medium and has no place in the spiritual field. Helland found that the greatest difficulty with online religion was keeping pace with its rapid development. The scale at which online religion and religion online is growing is phenomenal.

There is no consensus between scholars as to the exact nature of the way media effects culture and religion, only that it does. The nature of the relationship between media and religion is constantly changing as technology advances and spreads. The media are the ultimate conveyors of messages so most organisations will find it necessary to interact with them and religion is no longer protected from this. Modernity has given man a renewed thirst for meaning; this seems to be leading to the revival of religion in the modern sphere which is largely controlled by the media. Religion has begun to make savvy decision with regards to using the media, particularly TV, radio and the internet. The media too has stepped up its religion coverage, journalists are more aware than ever of religious issues. If religion wants to remain a seminal institution, to appeal to the next generation, it must find a way to work in harmony with the media. Their ideologies must also find common ground and this is well on the way to being achieved.

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