Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, out this week from Simon & Schuster. Jennifer will be guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
I’m a Midwestern shiksa who knew exactly one Jewish person in the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic area. Jessica Terman was a grade-school friend of mine who had to get up in front of the class every December to explain Hanukkah to the rest of us before we could get on with our Christmas-inspired projects and celebrations. Then she moved away, I think around fourth grade, so I was back to square one with my Jewish studies.
That is, until Seinfeld came along in 1989, when I was a freshman in high school. I was a huge TV geek, and within a few years, Seinfeld had grown into the kind of show so popular that essentially everyone watched — it was assumed in many circles that any person, regardless of age or religion or hometown, would get any Seinfeld reference. This was particularly funny given that NBC executives at first expressed their skepticism about Seinfeld’s potential by saying it was “too New York, too Jewish.”
Maybe it was, but I personally loved that about it. I related to the characters and thought they were funny even though they lived lives so different from my own. And throughout their nine seasons on the air, they slowly, hilariously expanded my tiny worldview to include signs of Jewish culture that went far beyond the dreidel:
1. I am a shiksa!
Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a compliment, but I so wanted to be one once I realized Elaine had shiksappeal—she spent an episode attracting Jewish men left and right, despite her non-Jewishness. Interestingly enough, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine to such shiksaperfection, has Jewish (Alsatian) ancestry, at least on her father’s side.
2. Only Jews get to make Jewish jokes — and it is not okay to convert just for the jokes.
Jerry was very clear about this when his dentist, Tim Whatley, started making jokes after his conversion. Then suddenly Jerry was counter-accused: of being an anti-dentite.
3. Babkas sounded delicious.
Wait, these come in chocolate and cinnamon?
4. And there is also something called a marble rye?
I might mug an old lady, too, if it came to that. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I ended up with a Jewish guy because of Seinfeld’s delicious-sounding Jewish food references. And holiday feasts have yet to let me down.
5. Ah, so that’s what a mohel is.
6. Being Jewish is no sin.
A priest told Jerry so when he went to confession to tell on Tim Whatley. So at least we can all agree on that.
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 Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.