The cast of the NBC TV series Seinfeld pose together in 1993.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Classic television shows, unlike old soldiers, always die but never quite fade away. And not just in reruns. Television programs that strike a personal chord get lodged in our memories and become part of the nostalgic superstructure in which we frame certain periods of our lives. And if a show is groundbreaking in some way or just plain good enough, it ends up colonizing an area of the collective zeitgeist to the point where it helps define a particular era or social attitude, or both.
Certainly Seinfeld falls into that latter category.
Although the series ended back in 1998, it remains a pop-culture touchstone two decades on. Co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David proudly touted the sitcom about the laughably petty lives of a quarter of single, narcissistic New Yorkers, as a show “about nothing.” But in retrospect Seinfeld comes off as a key mass-media artifact of 1990s America, the years between the end of a Cold War and shock of 9/11 – an era of relative global quiet for the US when the radical self-absorption of its characters during a Me-Me-Me decade could still be laughed off as endearingly comic.
A new book titled Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
is now receiving mostly positive reviews as a near-exhaustive chronicle of this comedic phenomenon, including the show’s several Jewish aspects (Marble Rye, anyone?). I actually thought that one of the few times Seinfeld mined baser metals than comic gold was when it dealt with explicitly Jewish subjects, often descending in those moments into excessively silly, shopworn ethnic stereotypes.
These included the buffoonish rabbi entranced by Elaine’s supposedly irresistible “shiks-appeal”; Jerry’s injury at the hands of a shaky mohel (“circumciser”) while holding a baby during a brit mila (circumcision); and Kramer’s botched attempt to stage a Jewish Singles Night at a Knights of Columbus clubhouse.
Occasionally though, Seinfeld mined its Jewish-related material a little deeper, finding something genuinely novel to say while poking fun at Jerry’s shallow roots. One fine example is when he is caught making- out with a girlfriend at the movies in the middle of Schindler’s List. (“A more offensive spectacle I cannot recall!” crows Jerry’s obnoxious nemesis, Newman.) The episode, while primarily targeting the blinkered (in)sensibility of its lead character, also highlights the collateral perils of trying to convey the profound horror of the Holocaust in such mass media as big-budget Hollywood movies.
Even better was a scenario that revolved around Tim Whatley, a genial dentist friend of Jerry’s played in a few episodes by a young Bryan Cranston, who would go on to greater fame in Breaking Bad. Jerry is puzzled to hear that Whatley has just converted to Judaism, and his unease grows when, while visiting him for a dental appointment, Whatley starts telling Jewish jokes that would sound offensive rolling off a goyische tongue.
Jerry concludes that Whatley has “converted to Judaism just for the jokes.” Asked if this offends him as a Jew, Seinfeld replies: “No, it offends me as a comedian.”
And when he later retaliates with a dentist joke, Jerry finds himself accused of being a “rabid anti-dentite.”
What spurred Seinfeld and his writers to concoct this particular scenario? I very much doubt any literal real-life equivalent of Tim Whatley; people sometimes do convert for strange reasons, but I’ve never met anyone who did it for “the jokes.”
More likely the character was intended as an extreme version of the type of Jewish comic, or just plain Jew, whose primary or sole element of Jewish identity is the sense of ethnic self-entitlement that allows them to mock other members of the tribe in a way that would otherwise be construed as anti-Semitic in polite society. In recent years the real Jerry Seinfeld has complained about the current atmosphere of political correctness stifling comedians like himself; no doubt he appreciated the irony that a simple lack of foreskin can be taken as a license to let loose on Jews in a way denied to others who are not so blessed.
Over the years, I’ve encountered some of my own Tim Whatleys, although with a slight variation. These are Jews whose Jewish identity seems to primarily revolve around their self-appointed roles as critics of Israel or Zionism. Some also seem to feel their Jewish background gives them a pass to use the kind of generalizations or language that would be deemed as offensive or anti-Semitic from a Gentile source.
Public examples of the latter can be found congregating at bottom-feeding websites such as Mondoweiss, including its eponymous founder Phil Weiss, or the British anti-Zionist polemicist Gilad Atzmon.
A more benign category are Jewish-born journalists or pundits who in earlier days seemed rarely concerned with Israel, and then suddenly in mid- or late-career found it worthwhile (or even profitable) to anoint themselves as guardians of the Jewish state’s Jewish or democratic values.
I’m not suggesting all of Israel’s self-appointed Jewish watchdogs abroad are Tim Whatleys, even among its harshest critics. Veteran Israel kvetches such as Tom Friedman or Jeffery Goldberg speak from decades of engagement with the subject; even a Noam Chomsky, whose rhetoric on Zionism can veer into anti-Semitic territory, clearly has a genuinely tortured relationship with the subject of Jewish identity that is part and parcel of the much broader far-left political philosophy he has espoused since his earliest days.
I would also exempt from the Tim Whatley category Israel’s own domestic critics, who have to be taken more seriously just on the basis of a genuine familiarity with the target of their sallies, and the sacrifices involved in living here. Still, I know more than a few Israelis who sometimes make me wonder if the primary reason they remain in the Jewish state is because they get so much satisfaction out of slamming it on its home ground.
So when encountering a critical viewpoint about Israel from a specifically Jewish perspective, either in person or via the media, I apply what I’ve dubbed the “Whatley test”: To what degree is this person’s interest really more about the source than the target – about someone whose real concern is validating their own assumed Jewish identity via a presumed insider’s take on the failings of the Jewish state, and not the actual well-being of the Palestinians, the democratic foundations of Israel, religious pluralism, treatment of African migrants, Sabra ill-manners... etc... etc? And if that attitude strikes you as wrong, well, call me arrogant, call me self-righteous, call me presumptuous – just don’t call me an anti-dentite.Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News. Comments welcome via Facebook/Twitter.