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.

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