Monday, August 24, 2009

Jewish Observances on American Sitcoms: The Passed-Over Story and The One with the Holiday Armadillo

Marni Hershbain

Starting from 1989 and continuing into the early 2000s, there was an increase in the number of American sitcoms featuring Jewish characters that came to television. Some of the characters on these shows were recognizable as Jewish only by their last names, while others were portrayed as observing Jewish customs and still others were only Jewish in that the writers creating them envisioned them as such (Brook 1). When producing these shows, there was often the question of what is “too Jewish” and what is “not Jewish enough” (Brook 13)” It is probably for this reason that many of the 1990s Jewish sitcom characters were assimilated, half-Jewish, and did not partake in religious or cultural practices on screen (Brook, Fallacy of Falcity 299). Two rare occurrences of on-screen Jewish religious observances can be observed in the Friends episode The One with the Holiday Armadillo and in The Nanny episode The Passed-Over Story.

Monica and Ross Geller on Friends, a show about six thirtysomethings living in New York City, were half-Jewish. There was little indication of their religion on the show other than their last name and the episode The One with the Holiday Armadillo in which Ross attempted to teach his son Ben about the holiday of Channukah. Ben was reluctant and wanted to know where Santa was, and when Ross’s friend Chandler walked in dressed as Santa, Ben lost all interest in the Jewish holiday. However, Chandler-as-Santa convinced Ben to listen to the story, and both Ben and the audience learnt how there was once a group of people called the Maccabees, and that the miracle of Channukah was that a little bit of oil burned for eight days. They then lit the Channukah menorah to observe the holiday.

To the show’s credit, the pieces of the story that the audience heard were as much as many Jewish people know about the holiday. The episode was not only an opportunity for non-Jewish viewers to learn about another religion, but also a rare opportunity for Jewish television viewers to identify with what they were seeing on the screen. Amongst all of the Christmas specials that air every year, here was something different. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote about the importance of seeing Judaism on television, “[it’s] the medium that I think, then and now is the most important medium in our culture […] if you’re not on it, you don’t exist (Gabler, Rich, and Antler 14)” At the same time, in order to put Judaism on the screen, the creators of the show had to find the line between being too Jewish and being Jewish enough. How do you show a Jewish holiday without isolating the vast majority of viewers who aren’t Jewish? You can have Santa sitting on the couch listening as well. You can have a joke about Superman flying the Jews out of Egypt, a reference to an altogether different holiday. You can strengthen the connection between Christmas and Channukah, a connection that only exists because they sometimes happen to fall during the same month.

The Nanny
, on the other hand, was a show that was much less afraid of being too Jewish. The Nanny was the story of Fran Fine, a flashy Jewish woman from Queens that showed up at the Park Avenue Townhouse of British producer Maxwell Sheffield selling makeup but became the nanny of his three children, and as the series progressed, his love interest. Much of the show’s shtick revolved around Jewish humor and stereotypes; yet, in the six seasons of the show, only two episodes directly featured Jewish holidays. The Passed-Over Story was one of these episodes, and included the gentile family that Nanny Fine works for joining her for Passover at her parents’ apartment in Flushing.

Most of the episode took place outside of the actual Passover seder, but the audience did see the gentile butler Niles prepare traditional Jewish foods and Gracie, the youngest of the children Fran cared for, open the haggadah and read The Four Questions, a summary of ways that Passover is different from all other nights. It was a serious and sentimental moment that showed the two families coming together, a foreshadowing of when Ms. Fine and Mr. Sheffield marry and do form an interfaith family. However, the sentimentality was broken when Fran’s mother pointed out that Gracie forgot the last question added by Mrs. Fine herself, “When is daddy going to marry my daughter already?” The show is a comedy and humor is to be expected, but for some it could easily be viewed as sacrilege. At the start of the episode, Passover is reduced to “the one where you hide crackers from small children, then stuff yourself”, as opposed to “the one where you light candles, then stuff yourself” (Channukah) or the one where you build a straw hut, then stuff yourself” (Sukkot). Depending on one’s point of view, this summary could be a sinful way of describing sacred holidays, or a means for Jews to have a laugh at themselves, and non-Jews to have a look into the self-mocking culture that Jews have long embraced.

After Niles the butler tells Fran that he’s made kreplach, kneydlach and tsimmis, she informs him that “it takes a lot more to being Jewish than just cooking. There’s a whole other wiener you gotta schnitzel.” While this is yet another example of a joke based on Jewish religious tradition, this time that of the brit milah or covenant of circumcision, within it is a serious statement. There is a lot more to being Jewish than what is presented in The Nanny or Friends, but these shows are entertainment, not Hebrew school. The Nanny was a show that was not afraid to be too Jewish and Fran Drescher, who played Nanny Fine, was described as “the only reigning Jewish actress on television with the chutzpah to celebrate her ethnic ‘otherness’” (Brook, Fallacy of Falsity 292), which was also a religious otherness. Although Friends was more cautious in its display of Jewish observances, The Holiday Armadillo was still an opportunity for Jews to see themselves on screen and non-Jews to be exposed to a new story that holiday season. There can be benefits to media representations of Jewish practices, even if “Jewish enough" and “too Jewish” are yet to be quantified.

Brook, Vincent. "The Fallacy of Falsity: Un-"Dresch"-ing Masquerade, Fashion, and Postfeminist Jewish Princesses in The Nanny." Television & New Media 1(2000): 279-305.

Brook, Vincent. Something Ain't Kosher Here: the Rise of the "Jewish" Sitcom. illustrated. New Jersey: Rutgers
University Press, 2003.

Gabler, Neal, Frank Rich, and Joyce Antler. Television's Changing Image of American Jews. Los Angeles: The Normal Lear Center, 2000.

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