The elusive essence of Jew-ness

More than two decades after Neal Gabler published his magnum opus, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” audiences haven’t tired of hearing about Hollywood’s Jewish history. On Feb. 28, the author returned to the topic at Temple Israel of Hollywood, alongside a panel of artists who’ve lived it: comedian Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; actor-writer Carl Reiner of “The 2,000 Year Old Man” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; actor Leonard Nimoy, also known as Mr. Spock on “Star Trek”; and sitcom creators Marta Kauffman (“Friends”) and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”).

During a speech that more or less reiterated the book, Gabler attempted to define the “Jewish sensibility” — what makes a Hollywood Jew, or any other Jew, for that matter, Jewish. “What gets into our heads that makes us think about the world differently than many other folks?” Gabler wondered.

His answer, in part, came from defining what the Jewish sensibility is not, dismissing a trove of classic cliches. The notion of the Jew as other, outsider, or alien? Too generic — the struggle to retain ethnicity in a homogenizing, larger culture is a challenge for all ethnic groups, not just Jews. “The Groucho Marx approach,” (“You don’t let me in? Screw you!”) didn’t work for Gabler, either. Nor did tragedy: “If poverty and violence were the basis for a sensibility, then where are all the Albanian sitcoms?” he asked wryly.

Gabler’s answer for what distinguishes the essence of Jewishness — wait for it — is that Jews don’t believe in Jesus. “The primary difference between Jews and Christians is not rye versus white bread, mayo versus mustard, Jay Leno versus Lenny Bruce or Cheever versus Roth,” Gabler magisterially declared. “The real difference in consciousness is that for Christians, the messiah has already come, and chances are, if you’re a Jew and you’re in this audience, you’re still waiting.”

Because Christians believe in happy endings, they can’t possibly write good sitcoms, Gabler argued. Whereas Jews — tragedy-prone, misery-laden and suffering-obsessed — can parlay the uncertainty of redemption into marvelous entertainment.  “Since there’s no redemption, can never be any redemption, and we’re all screwed, we live in an existential condition of screwdom all the time.” This will still be true, he added, “24 millennia from now.”

Gabler’s theory requires some suspension of disbelief, as it was actually Jews, not Christians, who introduced messianism to the world. The concept appears in much Jewish literature, including the books of the Prophets, not to mention Maimonides’ famous declaration “Ani Ma’amin,” which in its extended Hebrew version proclaims his unwavering, even “perfect” belief in the coming.

But never mind, because whatever it is, the other panelists deftly demonstrated that they have it.

Starting with Reiner, who turned to Gabler after his 40-something-minute speech and quipped, “You used up every word that exists! You’re a pisk [“big mouth” in Yiddish], as my mother would say.”

If the evening proved anything, it was that the old stereotypes about Jews being skilled comedians, good writers and dominant in Hollywood still ring true. A rapid succession of Jewish jokes, one-liners and anecdotes kept the nearly 500-person crowd in stitches for almost two hours.

Sample query:

Gabler: “Marta and Phil, you had non-Jews on your writing staffs, right?”

Marta Kauffman: “One or two.”

Gabler: “Was there a difference?”

Kauffman: “On our staff, we called them ‘The Harvards.’ ”

Phil Rosenthal: “On our staff, we had them fix the computers.”

On the subject of what led him to comedy, Jeff Garlin told tales of cleverly slinking out of fights by being funny. “I didn’t even graduate college,” he said, marveling at his own success. “Being a Jew in Hollywood, they had a job waiting for me.”

The sitcom creators compared notes on characters who were not technically Jewish but still possessed Jewish quiddities. Rosenthal described Ray Romano on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as almost Jewish, because he’s Italian — according to Rosenthal, Jews and Italians are basically the same: “All problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone,” he said.

Garlin brought up Jerry Seinfeld’s non-Jewish foil, George Costanza, whom Garlin considered Jewish, as he was played by Jason Alexander (Jew) and based on “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David (Jew).

“I love the reversal,” Gabler said excitedly, noting that things have changed since the era described in his book when Jews stringently avoided their identity. “Once upon a time, nobody could be Jewish. Now everybody is Jewish; sometimes disguised, but unmistakably Jewish.”

Not so fast, Garlin warned. He recounted a time he pitched a show in which Gina Gershon (“Jewish”) would play a rabbi, but it was rejected by the network.

“You actually said the word rabbi?” Rosenthal interjected, incredulous. “No wonder it got rejected.”

“And you know who’s rejecting it?” he added.

Almost in unison, the panel said, “Jews!”

Nimoy regaled the crowd with stories about the Jewish inspirations for his character Spock on “Star Trek.” The hand signal used as a greeting in “Vulcan culture” came from watching Orthodox Jews daven on Yom Kippur. Because as a skinny Jewish kid, Nimoy said he wasn’t much in a fight, he came up with the idea of defeating his “Trek” enemies by pinching the back of their necks.

Despite Gabler’s attempts to get the panelists to answer big, sophisticated questions (“Is there a tragic sensibility that is the equivalent to the Jewish comic sensibility?”), what emerged was a Joycean stream of anecdotal ethnicity. Judging by this panel discussion, much of how Judaism informs Hollywood’s creative choices is subconscious. Pinning down a Jewish sensibility is as elusive as defining “What is a Jew?”

But Gabler’s point about Jewish cynicism was well taken. Reiner even had a joke to go with it:

“Two gentiles meet on the street. One says, ‘How are you?’ The other says, ‘Fine.’”