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In one of the early classic Seinfeld episodes entitled "The Yada Yada," Jerry suspects that his dentist Tim Whatley converted to Judaism just so he could make Jewish jokes. The jokes aren't all that offensive, but the concept behind the episode is an age-old dilemma; do we, as members of a "club," have carte blanche to point out our own faults through mean-spirited and self-deprecating jokes?
Over the past five seasons of the hit show Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David has tested this weighty question on a weekly basis. David exemplifies the worst qualities in the Jewish stereotype and displays them unabashedly, as if they were badges of honor. But what made David's show so brilliant was that for the most part, it was funny. That is, until now...
In his most recent season - the fifth and perhaps weakest - David has been teetering on the tightrope that separates humor from self-hatred. "The Seder," an episode that ran last week, was almost respectful of the age-old tradition - except for the fact that the villain of the episode, a snitch, is also the only man at the table wearing a yarmulke. Traditionally, during the Seder, the host hides a piece of matza known as the afikomen for the children to find. David, as the host, conceals the afikomen in an armoire, but on leaving the bathroom, the skullcapped Jew (his agent's brother-in-law) spies David putting the matza in his carefully considered hiding place. Not coincidentally, the son of the yarmulke-wearer later finds the matza and wins the prize (a whopping dollar bill). David becomes suspicious and refuses payment, making wild accusations. "Hilarity" ensues.
The most recent episode, "Skiing," is not only unfunny but also wildly inaccurate. David not only makes fun of his own religion, he also makes up half of its customs, thereby misinforming viewers. His portrayal of Orthodox Jews (who feature prominently in this episode) is reminiscent of the cartoons published by the Germans and French during World War II (the only thing missing were the grossly exaggerated noses). Not only does David ridicule religious observance, he also succeeds in making Jewish people sound like aliens throughout the episode. When the actors were quoting Yiddishisms, they were mostly clearing their throats, rarely saying anything decipherable. If you tried translating the guttural "chuh chuh chuh" you would find that it means "chuh chuh chuh."
The Orthodox girl in "Skiing," named Rachel, keeps her hair covered, but with a little research you would find that single girls do not cover their hair; only married women do. Moreover, her character is dismissive, angry, judgmental, antagonistic and ungrateful. While such people do exist, one can't help but wonder if this is how David sees all Orthodox females.
Similarly, a couple of seasons back, David cast Gina Gershon as an Orthodox dry cleaner who would willingly have sex with David, despite being married, as long as it was done through a hole in the sheet (which is also a myth). Gershon's character, which must have been based on a shtetl whore from the 1920s, acts morally bankrupt and speaks in an awful faux-Yiddish accent that further re-enforces David's apparently low opinion of observant women.
So why take offense at Curb Your Enthusiasm when, after all, it's just a half-hour comedy? A few years ago, I remember meeting someone in Australia who insisted that all New York Jews act like Seinfeld. While the titular comedian was a disarmingly funny man, he was also a whiner, a frequent complainer, unethical, paranoid, selfish and uncaring. Not the sort of person you want representing a population of 11,000,000. Watching the most recent Curb, one might walk away with similar impressions. I was saddened by David's obvious self-hatred and disrespect for his own tradition, but even sadder for the viewers who watch the show (albeit with a grain of salt) and are left with a false impression of Orthodoxy.
Some might argue David's misrepresentation of Judaism is but a warped, misguided love letter to his own tradition, and that his humor doesn't discriminate when it comes to mocking any religion or ethnicity.
This is true to an extent, but if one takes a closer look at the show's cast of characters, Judaism is the most poorly portrayed. The cast, which features Susie Essman, Jeff Garlin, Larry David, and Richard Lewis, is predominately Jewish. All four characters have similar traits, most of them unflattering (with the occasional exception of Garlin, who can be a well-intentioned individual). And interestingly, the one non-Jew, Cheryl Hines, represents the sole voice of reason among the aforementioned neurotics.
A few weeks back, New York magazine had a cover story about the genetic research done with regard to the high intelligence of Jews. The cover headline, "The Jewish Brain" was plastered across the bald head of Larry David. Unfortunately, the cover choice suggested that David represents the paradigmatic Jew. All I could do was mutter that old Jewish expression of disgust: chuh chuh chuh.
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