November 18, 2018

Seining Off

American Jewswoke up in a different country today, now that “Seinfeld” signed off.

We no longer live in a country whose favoriteentertainment is to turn on the tube and watch a New York Jew sitaround schmoozing dyspeptically with his friends. After nine seasonsand 170 episodes, Jerry and his three pals, George, Elaine andKramer, will exist only in syndicated reruns.

Big deal, you might say. Television has showcasedJewish comics before, going back to Jack Benny, George Burns andMilton “Mr. Television” Berle. As for Jewish characters, think of”The Goldbergs,” “Northern Exposure” and “The Nanny.” What’s sodifferent about “Seinfeld”?

Well, firstly there’s a matter of scale. It’s thebiggest thing on the tube. His show has topped the ratings for fiveyears running. For two years now he’s been named personally in Harrispolls as America’s best-liked television personality. He is aphenomenon. And unlike Berle and Benny, he never changed hisname.

Television, media mavens say, is a “cool medium,”up-close and intimate, lowering walls between performer and viewer.Viewers choose shows, so the programmers believe, based on whomthey’d most like to invite into their living rooms. Right now that’sJerry Seinfeld.

In effect, America has chosen a Jew as itsfavorite Thursday night date. This is not a small thing.

When Seinfeld and real-life pal Larry David firstpitched their sitcom idea to NBC, network chief Brandon Tartikoffdismissed it as “too Jewish.” No self-hating assimilationist,Tartikoff was a fairly devoted Jew by Hollywood standards. His jobwasn’t promoting Jewish art, though. It was building TV audiences. Hedidn’t believe viewers in the heartland would bond with a gang ofcosmopolitan Jewish slackers trading angst in Manhattan.

A non-Jewish underling thought differently andordered four episodes. But the show’s Jewishness was toned way down.Ultimately, two of the four characters, George and Elaine, were madeexplicitly non-Jewish. Only Jerry remained openly Jewish.

Not thatanybody was fooled. George, especially, was one of the most wildlyJewish characters in TV history, regardless of what the scripts toldus. Oceans of ink were spilled comparing him to Woody Allen, terminghim a “nebbish,” noting that he was based on the very Jewish LarryDavid. George’s parents, Frank and Estelle Costanza, were played tothe hilt as stereotypically suffocating,health-and-rye-bread-obsessed Jewish parents by Jewish characteractors Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris.

As for Seinfeld, his Jewishness was clear from theoutset. One of the earliest episodes depicted a family dinnercelebrating his Polish-born cousin Manya’s 50th anniversary inAmerica. Jerry offends Manya by denigrating ponies, unaware she hadone in the old country. She’s so upset, she keels over and dies. Theepisode established both Jerry’s Jewishness and his trademarkmisanthropy.

The kosher-on-wry combo was a hit with Americanviewers, who tuned in with growing loyalty. The one group that had aproblem with it was Jews. Every time another Jewish plot twistappeared — a bris, a rabbi, a girlfriend who keeps kosher –switchboards would light up at the Anti-Defamation League. Twoprofessional Jewish media monitors, Rabbi Jonathan and Judith Pearlof New York, declared “Seinfeld” a continuing hotbed of anti-Jewishstereotypes.

A few TV critics piled on, too. The WashingtonPost’s Tom Shales, who long disapproved of the show’s nastiness,recently wrote that “Seinfeld” was “self-hatingly Jewish.” He wasseconded by the Atlanta Constitution’s Bob Longino.

Compare these reactions to those of, say,Latvians. In a classic 1993 episode, George tried converting toLatvian Orthodoxy to woo a young lady. The producers got a stack ofthank-you letters from Latvian-Americans, grateful for the attention.Latvians, it seems, can take a joke.

Actually, so can some Jews. In a survey lastJanuary by the Middle East Institute, Seinfeld came in second, rightbehind Elie Wiesel, as the Jewish American most admired by his fellowJews. Evidently the guardians of Jewish honor don’t speak for all theJews. No, “Seinfeld” did not practice warm, kind comedy. Everyone wasmade to look foolish. If the writers went after Judaism more oftenthan Latvian Orthodoxy, that’s because they were mainly Jews, notLatvians. “You write about what you know,” Larry David once told aninterviewer.

Of course, lots of television shows had Jewishwriters. But there was only one “Seinfeld.”

In real life, only one of the show’s four leadactors is not Jewish: Michael Richards (“Kramer”). Another, JuliaLouis-Dreyfus (“Elaine”), could be described as not particularlyJewish. Born to an assimilated French-Jewish investment banker and aNew York writer, she attended non-Jewish prep schools here and abroadand is married to a non-Jew.

That leaves Jerry Seinfeld and Jason (“George”)Alexander. Alexander was born Jay Greenspan, son of Alexander andRuth Greenspan of Newark, N.J. His stage name, chosen at 15, isactually his own name: Jay-son (as in ben-) Alexander. Married to aJew, father of Gabriel and Noah, he serves in his spare time as aspokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, narrating their publicservice announcements. The relationship began in 1991, when ADL senthim on what he calls a “life-changing” mission to Israel. In 1994, ina celebrity “Jeopardy!” charity appearance, he named ADL to receivehis winnings, a tidy $11,800.

As for Seinfeld himself, he is an enigma, or triesto be. Famously reticent about his private life, he has admitteddabbling in Scientology and oriental religions. What he hasn’t sharedis that he is a major donor ($10,000-plus) to New York UJA-Federationand gives heavily to other Jewish causes as well. One of his recentJewish donations was $1,800, or 100 times “chai,” which an officialat a major Jewish philanthropy called “an extremely informeddecision.”

And, of course, there was his girlfriend. How manyTV idols date women named Shoshanna?

This is not Jewish self-hatred. It’s somethingelse: a new generation of Jewish humor. Unlike Berle or Benny — orthe Three Stooges, the real antecedents of “Seinfeld” — Jerry andcompany wore their Jewishness comfortably on their sleeves.

It’s a Baby Boomer Jewishness: at home in America,taken for granted, more than a little ambivalent. It’s as much a partof them as family, sex and work, and just as ripe for satire. There’snothing worshipful there. You can take it or leave it. Most of usloved it.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for TheJewish Journal.