Is It Chic to Be a Jew on TV? (By Guest Blogger, Nancy Fingerhood: Who Unlike Me, Actually is Jewish)

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.

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Being a Handsome Man Vs. Being a Hot Guy

And why it ultimately doesn’t matter anyway thanks to a little something called “charm”.

Recently I asked my facebook friends via my status update, this question:

Females, I need your input for something I’m writing: What is the difference between a guy who is “handsome” and a guy who is “hot, sexy, etc.”?

To summarize the similarities of the responses, with a man who is “hot” there is an attraction (mostly physical), whereas  with a man who is “handsome” is someone who simply is a good-looking guy, though there is not necessarily any kind of attraction there.  Of course the ironic thing about this can best be summed up by what my friend Holly Arnesen said:

“if i refer to a guy as handsome, it usually means that physically speaking he’s nicely put together, but doesn’t necessarily mean i’m attracted. hot and sexy usually has to do with more than what a guy looks like. like some women think intelligence is sexy so, they’ll go for a smart guy over one that they think is nicer to look at.  i once heard someone say, ‘men fall in love with women they are attracted to, and women are attracted to the men they fall in love with.’ i’m not a guy, but i’m pretty sure this tends to be way things go.”

On the right, Bronson Pinchot, who played "Balki" on Perfect Strangers.

What enticed me to walk up to my future wife on October 5, 2006 and talk to her the very first time I saw her from across a large crowded room was her appearance.  Though it wasn’t until four months later to the day, on our first date (I knew it was a date but she didn’t until it was over), that she actually thought of me in any kind of romantic way.  My physical looks were irrelevant to the equation up until the point I made it clear I was interested in her, given that I’d shared with her my personality and character prior to day that we crossed the line from being friends to dating.

Until we started dating, I was just another average-looking dude.  A forgettable face.  Perhaps the most memorable physical trait would have been my dark hair.  Based on the celebrities that people have told me I look like in the last couple of years (“Cory Matthews” from Boy Meets World, “Balki” from Perfect Strangers, “Ross” from Friends, as well as David Arquette and Paul Rudd), I evidently have the looks of a Jewish-American comedian, which all of those Nick Shell look-alikes are.  Men that are remembered not for their looks, but for their personalities and talent.  Are those men handsome?  Sure, why not.  It’s irrelevant either way.

Ben Savage, who played "Corey Matthews" on Boy Meets World.

Speaking of David Schwimmer, I don’t believe anyone could have played the part of Ross better.  But to be part of one of the most popular romantic American TV couples ever, he was a very ordinary looking guy.  Fans of Friends always think of Ross and Rachel fondly, though never once have I ever heard anyone comment good or bad on David Schwimmer’s looks.  But regarding Jennifer Aniston, it’s not that way at all. Her looks were so relevant she actually started a hairstyle craze in 1995 called “The Rachel”.

When my wife and I reminisce on when we first started dating, she always says, “You always had interesting stuff to say so I knew we’d never run out of things to talk about.”  It’s possible that’s what won her over.  My quirkiness.  Some people would call it my ability to “think some crazy crap up”.  Others more reverently refer to it as “thinking deeply”.   My lifelong habit of daydreaming during math and science class definitely paid off.  I charmed her.

So if a guy is simply average-looking, how can he improve his situation?  The “Makeover Week” on the TV show The Biggest Loser would tell us he would need to slim down, get his hair cut shorter, shave off his beard, and wear nicer clothes.  But I know my wife always prefers me to wear jeans, t-shirt, and a ball cap, and she never notices or cares whether I have a beard or not.  There’s really no official way for a schlub or average Joe to gain “handsomeness” or “sexiness” since that’s up to the girl they’re trying to attract.

The more colorful and eye-catching cockatiel bird is on the right. The female is on the left.

And I think that’s why it’s a guy thing to not care as much about our appearance as females do.  Because unlike male birds (which are always more attractive and attention-grabbing than the females they attract), male humans know they can attract a woman who is out of their league looks-wise as long as they are funny enough, smart enough, rich enough, strong enough, sensitive enough, or whatever else it takes to charm their love interest.  From Doug Heffernan to Barney Rubble, charm certainly has its advantages.

The Ethnicity of the Cast of The Wonder Years (Plus, Who Did the Voice of Kevin Arnold as an Adult?)

The classic All-American drama/comedy was played mainly by minorities: Italians and Jews.

Fred Savage (Jewish) as “Kevin Arnold”

Dan Lauria (Italian) as “Jack Arnold”

Alley Mills (English) as “Norma Arnold”

Jason Hervey (Jewish) as “Wayne Arnold”

Olivia d’Abo (Italian but raised in England) as “Karen Arnold”

David Schwimmer (Jewish) as “Michael”, Karen’s boyfriend/husband

Josh Saviano (half Jewish, half Italian) as “Paul Pfeiffer”

Danica McKellar (half Portugese; Scottish-Irish-French-German-Dutch) as Winnie Cooper

Ben Stein (Jewish) as Mr. Cantwell

To learn the mysterious setting of The Wonder Years, read The Wonder States- Using Deductive Reasoning to Determine the Setting of The Wonder Years, My Name is Earl, and The Simpsons.

And lastly, who did the voice of Kevin Arnold as an adult?

Daniel Stern (Jewish)

He’s probably most familiar from Home Alone (1990) and its sequel two years later, as Marv, the more idiotic burglar.

One of his first major acting roles in a movie was Diner (1982).  After the first Home Alone, Stern did City Slickers (1991) and its sequel a year later.  Mostly recently he starred in the TV show Monk and the Drew Barrymore movie Whip It! both in 2009.

Lastly, if you’re hoping for The Wonder Years to be released on DVD set anytime soon, keep hoping.  Remember all the awesome music from the show?  Red tape, legal issues, and a very high price tag associated with the soundtrack may indefinitely keep us from ever buying the show on DVD.  Sadly, The Wonder Years may simply remain a part of our own “wonder years”.

The Ethnic Backgrounds of the Cast of Friends and Seinfeld (Yes, Most of Them are Jewish; Even Matthew Perry)

 

After the recent overwhelming success and popularity of The Ethnic Backgrounds of the Cast of LOST, I decided I am among the thousands who are also intrigued by the vast different backgrounds of the actors of all-American TV shows.  Starting with curiosity of my own ethnic background, I soon stumbled into a new hobby/obsession: studying and memorizing the ethnic backgrounds of celebrities.  I am officially claiming to be an ethnic background specialist.  And I’m half serious, half joking when I say that.

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Of course for me, the most fascinating part is always discovering the Jewish actor(s) and writer(s).  Being that there are more than twice as many Asians than there are Jews in America, in theory, for every Jewish actor in a show there would be two Asian actors.  Or, being that Jews make up 1.7% of the American population, for every 100 actors in a show or movie, only two would be Jewish.  But that’s almost never the case.

So with that in mind, I felt the best way to officially start “The Ethnic Backgrounds of the Cast” series is by examining two highly popular Jewish sitcoms.  Whereas most sitcoms have at least one Jewish actor as part of the cast who plays a plain ole’ American mutt, both Friends and Seinfeld featured Jewish actors who occasionally incorporated their “Jewishness” into their  characters and the culture of the show itself.

To keep from being confusing, unless specifically stated, “English” simply means the actor is American but of English descent.  Same thing with “Scottish”, “Irish”, etc.  However, if the actor was actually born in England and is not an American, I will specifically state they were born in England, or whatever country they were raised in.

If the actor is Jewish, and I know what country their family moved to America from, I will say “descended from” or “of (ex: German) descent”.  In other words, each actor is American born, unless otherwise stated with the phrase “born in”.

Friends:

David Schwimmer (Jewish, descended from Germany) as “Ross Geller” (Jewish)

Courtney Cox-Arquette (English, though she is married to David Arquette, who is Jewish, she did not convert) as “Monica Geller (Jewish)

Jennifer Aniston (half Greek, quarter Italian, quarter Scottish) as “Rachel Green” (American)

Lisa Kudrow (Jewish, descended from Russia) as “Phoebe Buffay” (French)

Matthew Perry (half Canadian-English, half Jewish) as Chandler Bing (Scottish)

Matt LeBlanc (French, Italian, Dutch, Irish) as “Joey Tribbiani” (15/16 Italian, 1/16 Portuguese)

Elliot Gould (Jewish) as “Jack Geller” (Jewish)

Christina Pickles (English, born in England) as “Judy Geller” (Jewish)

James Michael Tyler (English) as “Gunther” (Dutch)

Hank Azaria (Jewish, descended from Greece) as “David the Scientist”, Phoebe’s on-again-off-again boyfriend (American)

Paul Rudd (Jewish, descended from England) as “Mike Hannigan” (Irish)

Created by David Crane (English) and Marta Kauffman (Jewish, descended from Germany)

Seinfeld:

Jerry Seinfeld (Jewish, of Polish, Ukrainian, and Syrian descent) as “Jerry Seinfeld” (Jewish)

Jason Alexander (Jewish, of German descent) as “George Costanza” (half Italian, half Jewish)

Michael Richards (half Italian, half English) as “Cosmo Kramer” (Jewish)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Jewish, of French descent) as “Elaine Benes” (Czech)

Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (Jewish)

And if you’re interested in taking a DNA test like I did to find out if you might have Jewish DNA, here’s the link to MyHeritage.

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