Ear­li­er this week, Jen­nifer Keishin Arm­strong shared 6 things she learned about Jew­ish cul­ture from watch­ing Sein­feld. With the release of her book Sein­fel­dia: How a Show About Noth­ing Changed Every­thing ear­li­er this week, Jen­nifer is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Jew­ish writ­ers, pro­duc­ers, and actors have been among Hollywood’s most promi­nent since the tele­vi­sion indus­try began in the 1940s. So it’s no sur­prise that they even­tu­al­ly began to tell their own sto­ries: the strug­gle to bridge tra­di­tions in mar­riage to non-Jews, the feel­ing of being out­siders, the pride in their own unique cul­ture — and, of course, the grand Jew­ish tra­di­tion of turn­ing to wit­ty humor in deal­ing with it all.

Here, some of the best shows in which Jew­ish­ness took cen­ter stage:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (197077)
From 1949 to 1956, in the ear­ly days of tele­vi­sion, The Gold­bergs had been a hit — one of many that crossed over from radio. But since then, Jew­ish lead­ing char­ac­ters had vir­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared from TV as the medi­um grew more pow­er­ful. That changed in 1970 with The Mary Tyler Moore Shows Rho­da — a side­kick to the main char­ac­ter, cer­tain­ly, but a cen­tral and scene-steal­ing one. Played to per­fec­tion by (non-Jew­ish) Valerie Harp­er, Rho­da was a bold, fun­ny New York­er who’d moved to Min­neapo­lis. She became so pop­u­lar that she got her own spin­off in 1974. Only one episode dur­ing her time on Mary Tyler Moore bla­tant­ly dealt with anti­semitism: In Some of My Best Friends Are Rho­da,” Rho­da is exclud­ed from a coun­try club Mary’s new friend invites her to. Despite the excel­lent episode title, the effort comes across a lit­tle too preachy. Bet­ter are the sub­tle, every­day ways Rhoda’s dif­fer­ences come across, as when Rhoda’s par­ents renew their vows in front of a rabbi. 

Rho­da (197478)
Harper’s Rho­da got her own sit­com in 1974 — a big deal for sin­gle, fun­ny, Jew­ish girls who’d fig­ured the best they could do is be a side­kick. The series focused on Rhoda’s move back to her home­town of New York City, where she soon met a tall, hand­some, not-at-all-Jew­ish divor­cée named Joe. They’re soon engaged, and eight weeks into the series, they get mar­ried in an hour-long spe­cial that broke rat­ings records. More than 52 mil­lion peo­ple tuned in, mak­ing it the most-watched TV episode of the 1970s at the time, and the sec­ond-most-watched of all time behind I Love Lucys birth episode in 1953. Mon­day Night Foot­ball announc­er Howard Cosell acknowl­edged the nation­wide inter­est, wel­com­ing view­ers to the in-progress game when the episode end­ed on a dif­fer­ent chan­nel. Rhoda’s Jew­ish­ness seemed to be fad­ing from view with her main­stream star­dom — a judge, not a rab­bi, presided over the small cer­e­mo­ny in her par­ents’ apart­ment. On the oth­er hand, she’d achieved the heights of main­stream stardom.

Sein­feld (198998)
Net­work exec­u­tives at NBC famous­ly expressed their doubts about Sein­feld before putting it on the air: Too New York, too Jew­ish.” A few years lat­er, when the show was dom­i­nat­ing TV rat­ings and water­cool­er con­ver­sa­tions, many Jew­ish lead­ers debat­ed whether it was Jew­ish enough. It was, for sure, far more about being a come­di­an in New York than about being reli­gious­ly Jew­ish; but Jew­ish cul­ture crept in at times, via foods like bab­ka and mar­ble rye. And once in a while, even reli­gion came into play. Jer­ry and Elaine serve as god­par­ents at a bris. A kid kiss­es Elaine at his bar mitz­vah to cel­e­brate becom­ing a man,” prompt­ing George to explain that she has shik­sap­peal.”

Curb Your Enthu­si­asm (2000- )
Sein­feld co-cre­ator Lar­ry David explored his Jew­ish­ness much more open­ly on his HBO show in which he plays a ver­sion of him­self. In one episode, he acts Ortho­dox to kiss up to the head of the kid­ney con­sor­tium in hopes of get­ting his friend bumped up on the wait­ing list. The Israel-Pales­tine dis­pute plays out in a Pales­tin­ian restau­rant where the chick­en is so good it caus­es some seri­ous soul-search­ing for Lar­ry. (Fun fact: Alec Berg told me that this was a sto­ry­line he had left over from his days at Sein­feld.) Lar­ry scalps tick­ets for High Holy Days, goes full goy when he (mis­tak­en­ly) thinks he was adopt­ed, and invites a sex offend­er to a Passover seder, test­ing the lim­its of let all who are hun­gry come and eat.”

Sex and the City (19982004)
Char­lotte York, the very def­i­n­i­tion of a WASP, falls in love with her Jew­ish divorce lawyer, Har­ry Gold­en­blatt. When he tells her he can’t mar­ry a non-Jew, she is, at first, incensed. Nev­er one to back down from a chal­lenge — par­tic­u­lar­ly a roman­tic one — she deter­mines to con­vert. But she doesn’t take the deci­sion light­ly. Soon she’s much more seri­ous about Judaism than her future hus­band. She works all day to pre­pare a Shab­bat feast, only to catch him watch­ing a game on a near­by TV on mute dur­ing the meal.

Trans­par­ent (2014- )
It’s easy to get dis­tract­ed by the showy premise — a mid­dle-aged father, Mort, comes out as a trans­gen­der woman renamed Mau­ra to her adult chil­dren. It’s mere­ly a side­note that the fam­i­ly at the show’s cen­ter, the Pfef­fer­mans, are undoubt­ed­ly Jew­ish. Per­haps that’s why they can show their Jew­ish­ness like no TV fam­i­ly before them: one of Maura’s chil­dren, Sarah, plans a Jew­ish wed­ding to her girl­friend, Tam­my. Anoth­er of Maura’s chil­dren, Josh, dates a female rab­bi. Key scenes take place in her syn­a­gogue, includ­ing an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly exten­sive depic­tion of tash­lich. And through­out fam­i­ly flash­backs in the sec­ond sea­son, a con­nec­tion between trans­gen­derism and Judaism emerges: A rel­a­tive, a trans­gen­der woman, stayed behind dur­ing the Holo­caust because she refused to trav­el under her giv­en male name.

Orange Is the New Black (2013- )
Netflix’s hit about life in a women’s prison is at least as much com­e­dy as dra­ma, and that was appar­ent in the third season’s increas­ing­ly seri­ous sto­ry arc about pris­on­ers pre­tend­ing to be Jew­ish to get the (slight­ly) bet­ter kosher meals. In the end, one ded­i­cat­ed pris­on­er, Black Cindy,” sin­cere­ly pur­sues con­ver­sion, to touch­ing effect. As far as God is con­cerned, it’s your job to keep ask­ing ques­tions and to keep learn­ing and to keep argu­ing,” she explains of her attrac­tion to the faith. It’s like a verb. It’s like, you do God.” Lucky for us, Jew­ish writ­ers and pro­duc­ers also do com­e­dy — and they’ve made some of the best TV of all time.

Jen­nifer Keishin Arm­strong has writ­ten about pop cul­ture for Enter­tain­ment Week­ly, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Com­pa­ny, New York, BBC Cul­ture, and oth­ers. She is the author of Mary and Lou and Rho­da and Ted, a his­to­ry of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and is cur­rent­ly tour­ing through the JBC Net­work for the 20162017 sea­son on her new book, Sein­fel­dia: How a Show About Noth­ing Changed Every­thing.

Relat­ed Content: