Jewish Humor and Antisemitism Twenty-Five Years After “Seinfeld”

The elusive yet pervasive Jewishness of “Seinfeld” speaks to the story of American Jewry.
May 19, 2023
Seinfeld – Episode #04-0715 1996 Castle Rock Entertainment. (Photo by Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago this month, in May 1998, NBC aired the final episode of “Seinfeld.” Critics and fans have universally celebrated the series’ transformative role for the sitcom genre, creating a cultural phenomenon through quirky characters, deceptively simple storylines, and an endless spate of “Seinfeldisms,” stock phrases that found their way into the daily discourse of millions of viewers.

Television critics and scholars, including me, have also documented how the show was a watershed in the depiction of Jewishness in situation comedies. Before the 1980s Jewish characters occasionally appeared on sitcoms, but with the exception of “Rhoda,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and the short-lived “Bridget Loves Bernie” they had not been centered as the chief protagonists since “The Goldbergs” had ended its run in 1956. Following the unprecedented success of “Seinfeld,” Jewish characters began to surface regularly on every network. Although Jewish executives, directors, producers, writers and actors had often been the driving force behind network television, the “Jewish sitcom” was a new phenomenon.

It is safe to conclude that “Seinfeld” still speaks to audiences today. It is broadcasted in syndication throughout the week, and for cord-cutters, Netflix began streaming it in November 2021. And in honor of the finale’s twenty-fifth anniversary, critics have been paying tribute: Maya Salam argues in The New York Times that “the sitcom has taken on new relevance,” while Nathan Abrams writes that “Seinfeld changed Jewish television forever.” The show remains universally available for consumption today, and it would be impossible to not notice how “Jewish television” has saturated the airwaves since the late 1990s.

If one aspect of “Seinfeld” disappointed critics and angered fans it was the series finale, the episode we are commemorating this month. The finale finds Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer stranded in a small New England town, where they mocked, filmed, and failed to help the victim of a robbery in progress, thus landing them in jail for having violated a local “Good Samaritan Law.” The second half of the episode centers around their trial, which finds an array of witnesses—everyone they managed to ridicule, malign and offend over the course of nine seasons—testifying to their cruelty and borderline criminality. The judge sentences them to a year in prison to contemplate their wanton behavior. The plotline may have been clever, but it was poorly executed, thus ending a wild ride of groundbreaking entertainment on a rather low note.

Yet the finale offers important insight into the series, Jewish popular culture, and even American Jewish history if one views it through a Jewish lens.

Yet the finale offers important insight into the series, Jewish popular culture, and even American Jewish history if one views it through a Jewish lens. Television scholar Vincent Brook notes how the finale represents a clash between Jews and Christendom. Brook points out that they are tried in as puritanically goyish a milieu as possible in accordance with a law bearing the name of a parable straight out of the New Testament (Luke 10:30-37). Throughout the trial, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are referred to as the New York Four, thereby underscoring their alienness to their WASPish surroundings. For as Lenny Bruce quipped, if you live in New York you’re Jewish, whether you are actually Jewish or not.

That there are no explicit references to anything Jewish in the finale is in keeping with the modus operandi of “Seinfeld.” What made the series groundbreaking TV is the way in which its writers cleverly inscribed Jewishness into the series: although a mere 11 (out of 180) episodes contain plots that reference Judaism or Judaic ritual, the writers nevertheless ascribed Jewish stereotypes to its characters (most notably the cheap, neurotic, effeminate George) without naming them as Jews, and crafted its stories and dialogue around arguments over the minutia of daily life that not only mimicked Jewish speech patterns but in many respects parodied the Talmud’s stereotyped penchant for endless debates about nothing. The show is recognizably Jewish to anyone who is Jewish or familiar with Jews, i.e. to a New Yorker, but not to someone from Butte, Montana, who, to quote Lenny Bruce again, is by definition a goy. “Seinfeld” was implicitly Jewish, and the finale was in keeping with this tradition.

If the New York Four ended up incarcerated for violating the puritanism of White Christendom, one could argue that the finale signifies the persistence of antisemitism in America. Christianity superseded Judaism, and once the proverbial Jew leaves the safety of multi-ethnic New York, he needs to adapt to Christian cultural codes of behavior; Jews are only tolerated as long as they fit in.

The United States, of course, is not Europe, and American Jewry has largely been protected from the blood libels, pogroms, expulsions and genocide that their ancestors endured for centuries. Jews tend to let their guard down when antisemitism seems to recede; instead of expressing fear, we make jokes, which is precisely what Jerry did on several occasions. In “The Shower Head,” Jerry’s cantankerous Uncle Leo accuses the kitchen staff at Monk’s café of antisemitism because they overcooked his hamburger; Jerry later appears on “The Tonight Show” and publicly ridicules his uncle’s persecution mentality: “I had lunch with him the other day, he’s one of these guys that anything goes wrong in life, he blames it on antisemitism. You know what I mean, the spaghetti’s not al dente? Cook’s an antisemite. Loses a bet on a horse. Secretariat? Antisemitic. Doesn’t get a good seat at the temple. Rabbi? Antisemite.” In another episode Jerry is caught making out with his girlfriend during a screening of “Schindler’s List,” which in American culture has been solemnly sacralized as if the film were the Holocaust itself. Jerry’s parents are livid, but he does not see the problem. Nazi and Hitler references are sprinkled throughout the series’ nine seasons, and the characters consider them little more than topics of conversation and vehicles for humor.

There is of course a long history of Jewish comedians making jokes about antisemitism and even the Holocaust. But “Seinfeld” grapples with the subject in a manner that speaks to the uniqueness of American Jewry. On the one hand, the lack of overt discrimination, especially after World War II, suggests that the generation of “Seinfeld” is rather indifferent to Jew-hatred; it was something that happened in the past and “over there.” On the other hand, the legacy of European antisemitism has marked the Jews as different and often less than welcome, albeit with greater subtlety.

Jewish entertainment, especially Jewish TV, is a prime example of the awkward place of the Jew in America. Although the principal TV networks (before the advent of cable channels such as HBO) were largely run by Jews, there was a pervasive belief in Hollywood that nobody wanted to watch Jews on TV. This is why there was an absence of Jewish characters on sitcoms for decades; this is why Brandon Tartikoff, the President of NBC, had nearly vetoed “Seinfeld” because he viewed the 1989 pilot episode as being “too New York, too Jewish,” notwithstanding the total absence of anything Jewish in it. Jewish entertainers—not only on TV, but also in film and even stand-up comedy—for much of the twentieth century muted their Jewishness on stage and on screen. Entertainers had little leeway in expressing Jewishness because this was a Christian land, where Jewish acceptance was imagined to be conditional.

This began to change in the late 1950s with Lenny Bruce, who was not afraid to get up on stage, act outrageously Jewish, and revel in acerbically deriding Christianity, its hypocrisy, and its legacy of antisemitism. He even mocked the Passion, taking personal credit, on behalf of the Jewish people, for the crucifixion of Jesus. Such antics landed Bruce in jail multiple times, charged with obscenity and later convicted, most notoriously in Chicago in the early 1960s.

In reality, the infraction Bruce had committed was blasphemy, but in the U.S. it is unconstitutional to charge someone with maligning religion. Nevertheless, the media, the police, and local church officials in Chicago made it clear that Bruce had mocked Christendom. One journalist described the trial as if it were something out of the middle ages: “Eventually, the trial took the form of a Catholic inquisition: with a Catholic judge, a Catholic prosecutor, and an all-Catholic jury, every single one of whom showed up on Ash Wednesday with a black smudge on his forehead.” Bruce had deployed Jewish humor to dismantle the religious edifice that had persecuted Jews for centuries, and Christianity struck back, declaring his comedy impermissible.

Bruce had deployed Jewish humor to dismantle the religious edifice that had persecuted Jews for centuries, and Christianity struck back, declaring his comedy impermissible.

Perhaps the Hollywood moguls who sought to keep explicit Jewish humor off of network TV for decades to come had Lenny Bruce in mind. Although we shall never know, the finale of “Seinfeld” suggests such a possibility. On trial for violating the Good Samaritan Law, the prosecutor’s opening statement underscored the New York Four’s long “record of mocking and maligning.” And they were convicted because their “callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built.”

But Jerry is a comedian, a Jewish comedian, and in the closing scene of the finale, we find him practicing his oeuvre onstage in the jailhouse, ridiculing the prison system, telling a heckler convicted of murder to lighten up, and warning someone in the audience convicted of grand theft auto to not “steal any of my jokes.” Jerry’s Jewish comedy is what made him who he is, and it served as the building blocks of “Seinfeld” and all its subtle Jewish references. But it ultimately led to his incarceration for violating American puritanical Christendom. Jewish humor in public was deemed unkosher.

The elusive yet pervasive Jewishness of “Seinfeld” speaks to the story of American Jewry. We have been welcomed in this land of refuge and freedom on the condition that we do not violate Christian cultural codes. Antisemitism may have receded, but it has not been consigned to the trashcan of history nor has it been erased from Jewish collective memory. The uptick in bigotry and violence against Jews since 2017 demonstrates that becoming too comfortable, or rather too comfortably Jewish in public, may come at a price. Jewish comics have always known this and have found ways to be irreverently Jewish in a Christian land, always on the brink of crossing the line, but rarely doing so. “Seinfeld” is an integral part of this story. And twenty-five years later, we should be celebrating it.

Jarrod Tanny is an associate professor and Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press) and the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network. He is also the author of the forthcoming “Seinfeld Talmud” (Academica Press), in which the rabbinic sages of antiquity debate each and every Seinfeld episode.

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