June 24, 2019

Payback Time

You’ll never find “The Cadillac,” on any critic’slist of top 10 “Seinfeld” episodes, but I don’t care. “The Cadillac,”episode 124 in the Seinfeld oeuvre, IMHO (in my humble opinion, forthose who don’t use Internet shorthand), is the real thing, among theshow’s most authentically Jewish episodes, revealing theuncircumcised heart within a sitcom generally acknowledged to reflectonly callousness, narcissism and an urbane hipness in post-shtetlAmerica. And, in a small way, “The Cadillac” changed my life.

Here’s the plot of the show that ran February 8,1996 as a 60-minute “Seinfeld” special.

Morty and Helen Seinfeld have been worrying foryears about their son’s ability to earn a living as a stand-up comic.Morty, in particular, has suggested over time that Jerry enroll in abusiness internship program or go back to school. Anythingstable.

Now Jerry’s nightclub act really is making it big,and to prove it, he buys his folks a Cadillac. Immediately, the giftbackfires. The car, enormous, obvious, and an egregious symbol ofAmerican success, makes Morty and Helen a spectacle among the formershmatte salesmen and other luftmenschen of their Florida condoproject where Morty is president.

None of Morty and Helen’s neighbors believe thatJerry can afford to buy the car for his parents. Suspicions aboutMorty become so strong that he faces impeachment as condo president,and has to prove to his arch-rival Jack Klompus, that he himselfdidn’t embezzle the money to buy the car. After endless complexity,the Cadillac is returned.

Why did this show make such an impact that myfriends and I were laughing about it weeks later? Just the words “TheCadillac,” has become shorthand to us, indicating a host of familialjoys and tensions which until then had gone unarticulated.

Well, of course, it’s because we’re in “TheCadillac” stage of life too. For what are the 40s in the course of anadult life if not “payback time.” The time of the commandment tobring honor to thy father and thy mother; when we show them who weare. The 40s are the time when parent-and-child stuff finally getssorted out, and the gifts of kindness, generosity and considerationbegin to flow the other way.

But in a way it’s too late. As “The Cadillac”shows, reconciliation is not easy. Jerry’s parents have stoppedwaiting for their payback; Helen and Morty have moved on and nowaccept Jerry as the limited, sarcastic being he has become. TheCadillac means less to them than the respect of their peers.

Moreover, what does it mean to have a son who canafford to buy you a Cadillac? It’s a mixed blessing to be upstaged,diminished in your child’s eyes. For many older “Seinfeld” watchers,writer Larry David is merely updating the wisdom of Lao Tsu: Bewarewhat you wish for, you may get it.

But how ironic it is that only now, when itmatters less to his folks, does Jerry want to please them. Theparents who have eternally been the butt of jokes for their boringstolidity now seem paragons of loyalty and islands of admiration. Atshow’s end, Jerry is bewildered that he can’t persuade Helen andMorty to keep the car. He shrugs, as if to say: see, no good deedgoes unpunished.

For most of “Seinfeld’s” nine-year run, Jerry andhis buddy George (Jason Alexander) have slowly, painfully and withlimited success been working to see their parents as people, not asjudgmental tyrants. What’s striking is the strength of that need;these hardened cynics, who can drop girlfriends and best-friendsbecause they don’t like the way they answer the phone, still feel theumbilical chord strongly attached. In the midst of the “Seinfeld”universe, where people use, abuse and lie to each other without asecond’s guilt, it’s amazing to find an ongoing plot line concerningparents and adult children who try to turn things around.

Another of my favorite continuing story linesconcerns George’s parents (played by Jerry Stiller and EstelleHarris), who are having marital troubles.

GEORGE: Oh my God! You know what I just realized?!If they get divorced an’ live in two separate places? That’s twice asmany visits!

JERRY: I never thought of that.

GEORGE: Imagine if I had to see them both on thesame day? [mirthless] Haha! It’s like runnin’ the doublemarathon!

ELAINE: Hey George, did you have any idea thatanything was wrong?

JERRY: Have you ever spent any time with thesepeople..?

George and Jerry never actually stopped judgingtheir parents. But sometime during this show’s great run, it seems tome that I have.

So if I never buy my parents a “Cadillac,” I have”Seinfeld” to thank for that.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist at theJewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com. Her5-session writing retreat”Writing and Reading for Heart and Soul”begins May 16 at the Skirball Cultural Center.


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May 1, 1998Israel: Reclaimingthe Feminine


April 10, 1998The ExodusThroughout the Years


April 3, 1998A Worrier’sDelight


March 27, 1998Clinton and theFeminists


March 20, 1998Shabbat, AmericanStyle


March 13, 1998The PublicMan


March 6, 1998Taster’sChoice


February 27, 1998 ALiberal Feminist Meets Modern Orthodoxy


February 20, 1998Spinning theWeb


February 13, 1998How Do We DoIt?


February 6, 1998One by One byOne


January 30, 1998TheDaughter


January 23, 1998Babysitters NoMore


January 16, 1998FalseAlarms


November 28, 1997As AmericanAs…


November 21, 1997The ThirteenWants


November 14, 1997Music to MyEars


November 7, 1997Four Takes on50


October 31, 1997ChallengingHernandez


October 24, 1997CommonGround


October 17, 1997Taking Off theMask


October 10, 1997Life’s a MixedBag


October 3, 1997And Now ForSomething Completely Different


September 26, 1997An OpenHeart


September 19, 1997My BronxTale


September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints


August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew


August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship


July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange


July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own


July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes


July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes


June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life


June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites