Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays Richie in "The Bear." (Photo/JTA-FX-Hulu)
Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays Richie in "The Bear." (Photo/JTA-FX-Hulu)

Hulu’s ‘The Bear’ brought up ‘Jewish lightning’: What does it mean, and is it antisemitic?

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There are some light spoilers for “The Bear” in this article.

(JTA) — “The Bear,” FX and Hulu’s drama series about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Chicago restaurant, has been one of TV’s most acclaimed series since debuting last year.

The first episode of its second season, which debuted June 22, brought up a controversial term that caught the attention of critics: “Jewish lightning.”

Most found the reference funny but didn’t want to touch it. A Vulture critic wrote,” I’m not even going to go into what ‘Jewish Lightning’ is.”

But what does it mean, and is it as antisemitic as it sounds?

This season focuses on the restaurant’s transition from Italian sandwich stop into a more high-end restaurant called The Bear, a transformation that requires heapings of money and effort. Protagonist Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), a decorated chef, returned to Chicago at the start of the series to run the restaurant following the death by suicide of his brother Mikey (Jewish actor Jon Bernthal, who appears on the show in flashbacks).

In the first episode of Season 2, a character falls into a hole in the wall. When the characters wonder why there’s a hole there, veteran restaurant employee Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) describes it as “the result of some failed Jewish lightning.” At one difficult point for the restaurant years earlier, Mikey, in the throes of drug addiction, had “thought that if this place were to accidentally burn down, that maybe there’d be some insurance money.”

Richie explains the term correctly — it’s used to describe arson aimed at collecting insurance money. The American Jewish Committee calls it “a derogatory phrase…rooted in Jewish stereotypes of stinginess and greed” and “an ethnic slur that should be condemned.”

It’s not clear where or when the term originated, but it dates at least as far back as the 1970s, when Earl Ganz published a short story in the Iowa Review called “Jewish Lightning.”

The “Bear” characters acknowledge that “Jewish lightning” is a problematic term.

“I think the explanation of Jewish lightning does cement it as something that we shouldn’t say,” says sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who adds that she would like to “add it to the list” of terms not to be said in the restaurant. In an effort at “personal growth” that is one of the season’s continuing arcs, Richie had earlier vowed to no longer pejoratively use other non-politically correct words such as “gay” and “retarded.”

There’s a payoff to the arc in the season’s eighth episode, in which restaurant employee Fak (Matty Matheson) suddenly realizes ahead of an important inspection that Mikey’s arson attempt was the reason why he couldn’t figure out how to get the gas system in the restaurant to work. Fak bursts into a meeting Richie is having with staff, blurting out “Jewish lightning!”

“Let’s just take a quick break while I go address this problematic individual,” Richie tells the staff.

Carmy and his family are established as Catholic and Italian-American, although some of his relatives are played by Jewish performers, including Bernthal as his brother. Jamie Lee Curtis — whose father, mid-20th-century movie star Tony Curtis, was Jewish — plays his mother. Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who plays Richie — who Carmy calls “cousin,” despite their lack of blood relation — had a German-born Jewish father.

Unlike the brouhaha after an episode of “And Just Like That” that included an incongruous Holocaust joke last year, the “Jewish lightning” moment hasn’t sparked a critical online reaction. That’s likely because it’s relatively clear that the show is not endorsing antisemitic sentiment but rather poking fun the type of casual bigotry that Richie seeks to grow beyond. (It helps that the arson scheme is executed by characters who are not Jewish.)

This is not the first time a prestige TV series has referenced “Jewish lightning.” In 2001, in an episode in the first season of the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” a character discusses a fire at a rival funeral home by stating “You ever heard of Jewish lightning? Oh, sorry. Did I offend you? I’m Jewish. I can say that.”

In an infamous sports radio moment in 2015, a prank caller to Mike Francesa’s show on WFAN, in talking about the New York Mets and their suffering in the fallout of the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, asked if the team’s stadium, Citi Field, “might get struck with some Jewish lightning.” Francesa noted that the caller had waited on hold for two hours.

(The term has also been used in more surprising and positive ways. A two-part superhero erotica series called “The Shocking Adventures of Jewish Lightning,” featuring a female hero of that name, was published in 2021 and 2022 by Deep Desires Press. The books are by Kitty Knish, who is also the author of a collection called “Thong of Thongs: 69 Sexy Jewish Stories.”)

The new season’s especially acclaimed sixth episode, set at an extremely tense and claustrophobic Christmas dinner among bickering relatives, has been compared by multiple people on social media to the 2020 movie “Shiva Baby,” which had a similar vibe but depicted a Jewish family at a shiva. The two works have something else in common — in both, the protagonist’s love interest is played by the Jewish actress Molly Gordon.

Stephen Silver

Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributor