Foreword by Nick Shell:
For the past decade of my life, I have been fascinated by the Jewish influence on American pop culture. Part of this is because I was thought I was part Jewish, on the Italian side of my family tree. But then a month ago, I took a DNA test through MyHeritage and was surprised to learn that not only am I not Jewish at all, but instead I am a little bit Middle Eastern.
But even more shocking… I’m not even Italian! Apparently, my “Italian” ancestors who moved here from Italy were a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Latvian, and Iraqi… something like that.
So while I admit it’s a little sad to know that I do not share blood with the Jewish people, who I respect so much, I can still appreciate and acknowledge their influence and contributions to American pop culture.
In fact, one of my most popular blog posts here on Family Friendly Daddy Blog, is The Ethnic Backgrounds of the Cast of Friends and Seinfeld, which I published 7 years ago. It points out the fact it’s nearly impossible to name a sitcom in which one or more of the main actors is not Jewish in real life:
Ross, played by David Schwimmer, and Phoebe, played by Lisa Kudrow, on Friends
Jerry, played by Jerry Seinfeld; George, played by Jason Alexander; Elaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on Seinfeld
Denise, played by Lisa Bonet, on The Cosby Show
Kevin, played by Fred Savage; Wayne, played by Jason Hervey; and Paul, played by Josh Saviano on The Wonder Years
Cory, played by Ben Savage, on Boy Meets World
Screech, played by Dustin Diamond, and Jessie, played Elizabeth Berkley, on Saved By the Bell
Considering that Jews only make up about 2.2% of the American population, I made it clear there is undeniably a disproportionate number of Jewish actors in American entertainment… and that’s not a bad thing!
Nancy Fingerhood discovered that blog post last week and took the time to submit to me what appeared to be a guest blog post. Even though that wasn’t her intention, I easily talked her into it.
So now, I pass the mic to Jewish writer and performer, Nancy Fingerhood…
Was the Alex Rieger character in “Taxi” a Jew? There are a couple of allusions to his religion. What about Gabe Kotter in “Welcome Back Kotter”? He did say the Yiddish word “yutz” once on screen, so probably. While there might have been a reference or two to his Jewish identity, it certainly wasn’t at the forefront of many of the shows back in the 70’s and 80’s.
Today, there are a slew of Jewish characters and storylines on television. Think “The Goldbergs”, “Transparent” and “Difficult People” (a show I found difficult to watch). As a Jew, I should be excited about this. But I wonder – in some of these shows is it symbolic of Jews being more mainstream or are they just easier to make fun of?
Let me pick apart one of my favorite shows, “Transparent”. I do love it but some parts irk me. “Transparent” depicts a culturally Jewish, yet non-religious family dealing with the patriarch’s revelation he is transgender. He has three grown children and an ex-wife played by the actually Jewish, Judith Light. Ms. Light does an extraordinary job of portraying the mother as authentically neurotic as my mother (sometimes I cringed when her acting hit so close to home). Yet, I started to get annoyed by her overuse of Yiddish words. She used “oy gevalt”, “fakakta”, and “mashugana” in one sentence (or some variant of those). It seemed overkill. Almost like a schtick to get laughs (pardon my Yiddish).
I loved the scene when the rabbi, Raquel, played by Kathryn Hahn (who isn’t Jewish but should be) has a conniption as the eldest daughter, Sarah, tries to prepare a makeshift Seder. Raquel saw through Sarah’s quest for spirituality through Judaism as a sham and blows up at her, rightfully so. Her outburst was one of the most genuine reflections on Judaism in the show.
Although there are moments of Jewish cliches in the series, they do show holidays and traditions up close. I believe the religious facets are part of the story development, unlike some of the other series out there. I offer my advice to sitcom writers – ask yourself are the main characters purposely Jewish to create a well-developed and nuanced character or a vessel for easy jokes? I don’t want to feel used by these writers the way Cindy from “Orange is the New Black” uses Judaism to get better food in prison.
Seriously, is there a Jewish Renaissance on TV or a ploy for cheap laughs? It just seems like it’s a more popular gag and people are getting on the bandwagon.
Oh! The Jew thing works! Most shows focus on the Jewish kvetching and neurosis. Maybe I need to watch more television (although my waistline says “I think not”) to find a sitcom that incorporates the culture and traditions. Comedies thrive on neurotic characters. Perhaps that’s why writers are naturally attracted to that personality type and Jews seem to have a monopoly on that market.
I’m not sure if I’m offended or simply more curious about Hollywood’s interest in Jewish-ness. When I get curious about intentions, I tend to wander towards a negative train of thought which make me a skeptic. Oh, how Jewish of me!
While I don’t balk at exaggerating stereotypes for the sake of comedy, it would be nice to see more than just exaggerated stereotypes. It would be nice to see Judaism develop character and plot and not just be used to increase ratings.
Nancy Fingerhood hails from New Jersey and moved out to Colorado 13 years ago. While she has been a writer and performer for many years, her filmmaking career began 4 years ago with the creation of the video spoof, Middle Aged Women Gone Wild. After winning the Open Screen Night film makers’ competition in Denver in January 2014, she went to write, produce, direct, edit and star in the spoof commercial, The Fubra. She again won Open Screen Night in March 2015. Since then she has created many more comedy videos including her web series Mile High Nancy based on a single mother by choice who is an aspiring comedian and hosts a 420 friendly cooking show. Several of her videos have been screened at The Emerging Filmmakers Project and Colorado Independent Women in Film festivals.