On Media / Pop Culcha

May 14, 1998 / 18 Iyar, 5758

Who's the shlemiel now?

On the eve of Jerry and the gang's farewell, David S. Oderberg, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Reading (England), examines two very different ways in which Jewish identity is played out by Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld --- and raises some searching questions about both stereotypes.

WITH THE COMPLETION of the fabulously successful sitcom, Seinfeld, it seems many people are going into mourning, if they haven't begun already.

The announcement by Jerry Seinfeld that the show is over has, in its wake, prompted acres of newsprint to be devoted, in America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, to the question of what made the show one of the most successful ever, what made it tick.

Seinfeld has famously been called a "show about nothing," and commentators have spent much time trying to figure out just what that "nothing" is. The consensus, it appears, is that the program captured the essence of the narcissistic lifestyle of the 30-something professional class in the 1990s, capable of obsessiveness about trivialities.

While this is true, there are other important aspects that need to be explored.

Writing recently in The Age, Adrian Martin claimed that Seinfeld is a "highly democratic" show, with a "generous assortment of personality types of behaviors." This was in response to criticism that the sitcom did not have room for minority characters such as homosexuals, blacks and the handicapped.

Now, I do not think it is the function of television comedy to pander to such political correctness. But in any case, Martin is arguably wrong in another, more interesting way, having to do with the manner in which Jews are portrayed in film and on television.

We have become used to the stereotypical portrayal of Jews epitomized by Woody Allen: the nervous, insecure, wacky intellectual, charming the gentiles around him with a craziness that hides a supposed deeper insight into the absurdity of modern metropolitan life.

The non-Jews Allen typically peoples his movies with are relatively normal, if rather boring and repressed; martini-drinking bourgeois professionals, formal in manner, and adept at idle chit-chat. Allen spends most of his time trying to enter into that world, to belong, to be --- well, normal.

In Seinfeld, however, things are very different. George, Elaine and Kramer are not Jewish, despite all the speculation (fanned by a reticent production team, of which more later). They are also, in their own ways, bizarre and abnormal, displaying frequent bouts of manic behavior, tortured self- obsession, and emotional turmoil: Kramer is arguably just plain mad.

Jerry, on the other hand, is a very normal Jew in the eye of a storm of gentile weirdness. True, he is also prone to self-obsession ("Am I a nice person? Hey yeah, I really am a nice person!"), but on the whole he stands on a different level to that of the others.

He is calm and collected most of the time, admirably self-deprecating, capable of long periods of quiet while the gentile madness rages around him, looking all the while with a jaundiced eye upon the foibles of his friends.

This perception is reinforced by the very physical appearance of the characters. Jerry stands head and shoulders above George and Elaine, and his unruffled dress and unremarkable physique places in relief the electric-haired, twisted loudness of Kramer.

One cannot watch Seinfeld without thinking something like the following: Jerry is basically a "cool dude," the others are strange at best, borderline psychotic at worst.

The leap from Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld is a remarkable one. Is it, though, an improvement in the way Jews are portrayed? The answer is mixed. Perhaps it's good that the nebach (nebbish) or shlemiel-persona (to quote Sam Girgus in The films of Woody Allen) has been left behind; also the paranoia about anti-Semitism. (Who can forget Alvy/Allen in Annie Hall, always hearing "Did you?" as "Jew!")

Whereas Allen "craves and achieves gentile approval" (Girgus), Seinfeld neither needs nor wants approval from the nutty non-Jews around him; if anything, they want his approval.

On the other hand, there are two areas of commonality between Allen and Seinfeld which might leave cause for concern.

First is the very need to use a kind of negative stereotyping in order to highlight a character's identity. Certainly, the anxious intellectualism Allen endears him to many, including those who, imagining generalities really are all as tight-lipped and repressed as Allen's films, prefer the way Allen wears his turmoil on his sleeve.

But there are others who are turned-off by Allen, seeing him as the embodiment of rootless secular Jewish cosmopolitanism, searching for meaning but destined never to find it.

Perhaps Jerry Seinfeld himself has been influenced by this latter interpretation; hence the stable normality of his character. The cost, however, has been a certain negative portrayal of non-Jews in order to highlight that normality.

To be sure, comedy needs its stereotypes, its improbable characters, and the like: but the question is why a more normal portrayal of a Jewish character has to cost an equally Allenesque depiction of gentiles.

Secondly, the question of religion looms large. Neither Allen nor Seinfeld can handle it. Both poke fun at rabbis and Jewish practice such as keeping kosher and having a bris, circumcision. (Several Seinfeld episodes have prompted complaints to the ADL.) And both skim laughingly past Catholicism (In Hannah and her sisters, Mickey/Allen thinks that to be a Catholic you just need to buy a Rosary and some devotional pictures; in Seinfeld, Kramer improbably holds a Jewish singles function at the Knights of Columbus hall to which George's father belongs.)

Knowing just how controversial the portrayal of religion can be, Seinfeld producers, as well as those of Friends, Mad About You and other well-known programs, have kept silent or else been deliberately ambiguous about the religious affiliations of their characters. When Estelle Harris, who plays George's mother asked the show's co-creator, Larry David, whether her character is Jewish, he answered: "What do you care?" Even though the Costanzas are most definitely not Jewish.

This inability to come to terms with religion is a problem. Perhaps serious religious exploration does not make for good comedy. But, then again, no decent sitcom avoids dealing at some point with serious issues.

Further, it may be that the disdain for religion found both in Woody Allen and Seinfeld -- the inability to depict even one serious religious character -- detracts significantly from the content of their work, to the detriment, among other things, of the portrayal of Jews in film and on television.

Must the choice be between rootless secular cosmopolitan and honorary, or rather substitute, gentile? Here's an idea: Maybe Jerry and Woody should make a movie about it.


Courtesy of the Australian Jewish News