October 16, 2018

Fellow Seinfeldians…

Seinfeldian. n. A Jew whose major source of Jewish connection is an attachment to reruns of the “Seinfeld” show.

I imagine that to be the definition. I first heard the term this afternoon on a NPR broadcast, in which a panel of young Jews were discussing the Pew report – especially the report’s insight that a large number of American Jews believe that having a sense of humor is central to Jewish identity.

One of the young panelists said (and, I believe, correctly) that Jewish identity cannot lose its religious basis and simply devolve into, well, stand up.

Stand up has a long and venerable history in Jewish life. Consider the traditional role of the badkhn – the jester. His main job to make fun of couples at their weddings — even telling the bride that she was ugly, or disparaging their wedding gifts. After the Chmielnicki massacres in Ukraine in 1648, communal leaders believed that those terrors had befallen them because religious observance was too lax and that there was too little Leviticus and too much levity.The badkhn was almost out of business. 

What saved the badkhn? One rabbinical authority noticed that the badkhnim were mostly involved in social satire that was often abusive. They weren't funny.  So, apparently not being funny, they were no threat. They could stay around. WHich is how we wound up with Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, and the whole rest of the list. 

But back to “Seinfeld.” For those of you who watch the re-runs incessantly, what could you be learning about the contemporary Jewish condition?

A little history. In 1989, the late Brandon Tartikoff sat down with two fellow NBC executives to watch a pilot for a new sitcom, then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” “Too Jewish,” he assessed. So, the very history of “Seinfeld” is a chapter in American Jewish identity. 

Let’s move to the actors themselves.  Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish (has visited Israel). Jason Alexander is Jewish (ditto – and has been very committed to Jewish causes). Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris (affirmatively Jewish). (Michael Richards, who played Kramer, is apparently not Jewish, so he is out of this discussion.)

So, four Jews in the cast – each one with a Jewish identity that would show up somewhere, positively, in the Pew report.

But then there’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine. 

She is a Dreyfus, which is one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish families in the world, going all the way back to Alsace. She is related to Alfred Dreyfus, and somewhere along the line, the actor Richard Dreyfuss. Their family tree goes back to RASHI, the great medieval commentator, and even further back, to King David himself. They are Jewish royalty.

But, alas: Julia L-D does not identity as being Jewish. (Yet. See below).

And the characters on “Seinfeld?”

Kramer is not Jewish. Elaine is also not Jewish.

Jerry Seinfeld, playing himself, is Jewish. In one of the most “Jewish” episodes, he had the temerity to make out with his kashrut-observant girlfriend Rachel during a showing of “Schindler’s List.” This, of course, was reported to her parents by the unspeakable mailman Newman, who (we hope) is not Jewish. And Jerry’s parents? Excuse me — Del Boca Vista? But, it’s Jewish as metaphor, as vague ethnicity, as attitude. 

What about the Costanzas?

George Costanza is the classic schlemiel, of whom Sanford Pinsker wrote:  “The schlemiel has a hand in his destruction; the more he attempts, the greater seem his chances for comic failure.” 

But are the Costanzas, in fact, Jewish? They observe Festivus, a holiday “for the rest of us.” They have an Italian surname. Italian Jews?

Jason Alexander has said that the Costanzas are, in fact, Jews — who are part of the Federal Witness Protection Program. Jews in hiding. Ridiculous, modern day Marranos.

So, take the actors and the characters they play, throw them together, line them up, and you meet some of the stock figures of the Pew survey.

You get: affirming Jews; Jews who have been to Israel; a kosher Jew (Rachel, Jerry's girl friend); ethnically obvious Jews (Mr. and Mrs. Seinfeld); ambiguous maybe-Jews (the Costanzas), and a non-Jewish Jew (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of America's funniest comediennes. (Check out “Veep”). She is one of many Americans who have a connection to a glorious Jewish past. 

And so, I started with “Seinfeldian.” I end with “Louis-Dreyfusian.” It refers to the opportunity that we have with our “non-Jewish Jews” or folks with some Jewish ancestry.

Experience shows: introduce them to serious, gutsy, engaging, idea-driven, joyful Jewish study – and we can win them back. 

Jewish history is filled with them. 

Without that effort, American Judaism will truly become “Seinfeld.”

Which is to say: a show about nothing.

It is so worth the effort.


PS: Check out my video of “The Jews, We Are A-Changing.” “>http://jewishlights.com and Jewish Publication Society.