Tuned In

Robo-James' Time Machine: How TV Taught Me to Be Jewish

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My father was Catholic, my mother is Jewish. That means I was always Jewish, technically and culturally. In practice, as a kid I went to Catholic church; when I became a good teenage atheist, I stopped going to church, but I never had any Jewish religious education. I was always aware, through my Mom’s family, that I was Jewish, and I identified with that the same way you would with any family ethnic heritage, but I didn’t practice the faith.

There were only a handful of other Jewish families in the town where I grew up. Also, my family is Sephardic, from Morocco. That means that I was never exposed, through them, to many of the things that Americans think of as “Jewish” but that are, actually, specific to Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Yiddish, the shtetl heritage, blintzes, etc. (Fun fact: Sephardic Jews get to have rice during Passover. Eat that, Ashkenazim! Or actually, don’t eat it!)

Instead, I learned about many things Jewish the way many gentile Americans did: by watching TV, often without even knowing it, as with the Yiddishisms that open the title sequence from Laverne and Shirley, after the jump:

You don’t have to know too much TV history to know that from the get-go TV was a very Jewish medium, especially on the writers’ end, even if it wasn’t often explicitly so on the other side of the camera. The Goldbergs, with a pretty stereotypically ethnic Jewish family, was one of the first TV sitcoms (after starting on radio), but more generally Jewish culture crept into TV through characters of other backgrounds: through Yiddishisms, jokes and the sensibilities of writers like Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner, in the early days of TV.

It’s still only a fairly recent thing for TV characters, especially leads, to be matter-of-factly, explicitly Jewish. Seinfeld, as a sitcom, may well be one of the most Jewish things ever made, simply in its attitude, its milieu and its sensibility. On the show, though, while Jerry Seinfeld was Jewish, it didn’t figure in too often. George Costanza–based on Larry David, who now does Jewish material much more openly on Curb Your Enthusiasm–was Italian, which required the logical leap of believing that Frank Costanza, and by extension Jerry Stiller, was Italian. OK. Whatever works for you. Regardless, the Jewishness was worked through its New Yorkness like the patterns in a marble rye.

The history of Jewish actors gentil-izing their names or adopting non-Jewish personae in the their work was handled on The Simpsons in the person of Herschel Krustovski, a.k.a. Krusty the Clown:

I know: Mel Brooks is Jewish?! Seriously, there are still times that I’m trying to remember the words of the blessing and I flash back to that Krusty episode. Now, I’m still not a practicing member of any religion, and like Mr. Krustovski, I do like myself a good pork product. But I’m still thoroughly culturally Jewish—even more so now, having married into the family of Mrs. Tuned In (also Jewish). And thanks to the TV we watched growing up, so are a lot of non-Jewish Americans, more so than they even know.

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