Critics call show self-hating: Was Seinfeld good for Jews

NEW YORK — Considering how many of the "Seinfeld" writers are Jewish — more than half the team, at least — it's no surprise the show would be rife with jokes about parents in Florida, girlfriends who keep kosher, Jewish singles events and even Nazis.

After a top Jewish television executive reportedly dismissed the original pilot for "Seinfeld" as "too Jewish," NBC gave the show a second chance a year later, in 1990.

Now, as Jerry and his sidekicks close their nine-year run atop the Nielsen charts, and as millions of devoted fans around the globe prepare to watch the show's final episode Thursday night, it is obvious that the characters' quirky witticisms and neurotic, oddball idiosyncrasies are not too Jewish for America.

But was "Seinfeld" good for the Jews?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, television critic Tom Shales declared that the sitcom was not "too Jewish" but too self-hatingly Jewish.

There's no doubt that Shales' argument holds water. Think of some episodes that dealt specifically with Judaism:

*After the non-Jewish character Elaine seeks counseling from a rabbi, he then divulges one of her secrets on a national television talk show.

*A neighborhood soup stand's exacting chef-proprietor is called a "Soup Nazi."

*The mohel that Elaine finds for a friend's child's brit milah is so high-strung that he mistakenly cuts godfather Jerry's finger instead.

*Jerry's arch-enemy, Newman, catches Jerry and his current girlfriend making out during "Schindler's List."

*In an episode titled "Shiksappeal," Elaine discovers that Jewish men like her because she is not Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan and Judith Pearl, co-directors of the Jewish Televimages Resource Center, a project that traces the way Jews are depicted on television, agree with Shales.

"`Seinfeld' became unfunny" whenever it "dealt with Jewish issues," says Jonathan Pearl, a media scholar and Reconstructionist rabbi living in Queens, N.Y.

"I think when someone pokes fun out of love and affection, it comes through no matter how stereotypical or offensive it might seem," he says.

But the Pearls, who will soon publish their first book on how Jewish themes and characters have been portrayed on television, feel "Seinfeld" is blatantly hostile toward Judaism.

Pearl contends that "Seinfeld" reinforces "unfortunate" stereotypes regarding Jewish clergy, ritual and women, rather than using its prominence to offer honest and positive depictions of Jews and Judaism.

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a huge "Seinfeld" fan, believes Pearl may be missing the point.

"Getting more positive messages out about Judaism is not what `Seinfeld' is about," he says. "It's comedy."

Foxman takes issue with only two episodes — the one with the "Soup Nazi" because, he says, it trivializes the Holocaust, and the one involving the nebbishy, untrustworthy rabbi who betrays Elaine.

But Foxman adds, "The Jewishness of the `Seinfeld' characters was worn comfortably and naturally on their sleeves."

"There were no bizarre or eccentric Jews," which is a development for Jews in America, he says. "`Seinfeld' is human, universal."

Defenders of "Seinfeld" point out that the Jewish characters are no more blatantly stereotyped than are other minorities. The show pulls no punches when it comes to using midgets, homosexuals or hard-of-hearing characters for a laugh. And the show often uses those players to attack the main characters' stereotypes about them.

But Jews are among the show's biggest fans. And judging from numerous discussions in Jewish chat rooms on the Internet, the vast majority are not irked by the questionable depictions of Jews.

"The Jews have arrived," says Encino Rabbi Harold Schulweis, in the sense that in the show they are portrayed as average Americans.

"We no longer are asking, `What will the anti-Semites say?'" says the former spiritual leader of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham, who now serves Congregation Valley Beth Shalom.

But the flip side, he adds, is that the show also reflects how Jews have lost their uniqueness.

"`Seinfeld' accurately reflects a lack of purpose and spirituality in the life of most American Jews today," Schulweis says.

Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor," places the issue in a historical perspective. He says there are two types of Jewish humor in "Seinfeld": "Jewish humor" and "Jewish-style humor."

What he calls Jewish humor emerged from the cultural uneasiness that emerged after the birth of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, in the early and mid-19th century. That humor resulted from the more modern, European-oriented Jews making fun of their "country bumpkin" cousins, the Jews of the shtetl, and their Chassidic rabbis, who were often depicted as charlatans.

When "Seinfeld" ridicules rabbis or mohels, it is taking part in this tradition, according to Waldoks.

Jewish-style humor, by contrast, resulted from the tension between Jewish comedy and American culture that began earlier in the 20th century.

The balancing act of children of immigrants caught between the Old World and the New helped to mold that style, which is full of cynicism and wordplay, Waldoks says.

But the comedians, afraid of negative reactions, often de-Judaized their subjects.

Vaudeville comics and the Marx Brothers were prototypical examples of that tradition, Waldoks says. For more recent examples, watch any early Woody Allen movie.

But if "Seinfeld" can be seen as part of those longstanding traditions, the show has also — perhaps as a reflection of contemporary America's ethnic pride — altered that tradition: Jerry Seinfeld, unlike George Burns or Woody Allen, never changed his name.

Seinfeld's own real-life childhood is one that many American Jews would recognize. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Massapequa, Long Island, the comedian graduated with honors from Queens College with a degree in communications.

Although he has kept his conspicuously Jewish name — and occasionally made headlines dating a younger Jewish woman — he is intrigued by Eastern religions, and by the pragmatism of the Church of Scientology, he told the Washington Post.

The show's other real-life Jewish actor, Jason Alexander, changed his name to a non-Jewish-sounding one, but his Jewish affiliation is stronger than the star's.

Playing Seinfeld's high-strung, bald, chunky sidekick, George Costanza, Alexander was born Jay Greenspan, and is now an occasional spokesman for the ADL.

"Alexander went on an ADL trip to Israel," Foxman recalls, and "came back and said he wanted to do something."

Indeed, Alexander has done some public speaking for the group and has narrated and starred in an ADL film.

A few weeks ago, Foxman says, Alexander walked away from the taping of an episode of the comedian Garry Shandling's cable show because they were staging a simulated game show involving Adolf Hitler.

The show's host tried to keep Alexander on the set by saying desperately, "But you guys did `Soup Nazi,'" Foxman says.

"That's totally different," responded Alexander as he left the set.