Note: This article contains mild spoilers for the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
If you are Jewish, then you have most likely realized that the majority of characters on television are either Christian, Catholic, or some other fairly similar religion. For the most part, Jewish characters are a minority. If a character is Jewish, then their religion might only be referenced with a single line. It’s likely that you’ve all heard one character, typically a recurring or minor one, in a Christmas episode say that they celebrate Chanukah. Alternately, maybe they said Hanukkah. There’s a running joke among almost everyone that it has multiple spellings.
As for significantly more major characters, well, almost all of them fall under some stereotype or another, or merely just don’t have any references to Jewish culture at all. Even Isabella Garcia-Shapiro from the Disney cartoon Phineas And Ferb, is explicitly said to be Jewish, but it’s also said that she celebrates Christmas in the show’s first Christmas episode. To be fair, as with all of the main characters, her father is never seen or mentioned, so it can be implied that she celebrates both holidays. There’s also a pretty great song in one episode that shows off some well-researched information and clever puns about a Mexican-Jewish cultural festival.
Seinfeld, contrary to what you might believe, was very ambiguous about it. The fictional version of Jerry was Jewish, but was shown eating food that wasn’t kosher, namely, lobster. Additionally, while many of the characters used Yiddish phrases, that may be due to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David being Jewish and simply writing in phrases that they used or heard. Also, fun fact: Kramer’s last name was originally going to be Kessler, but Brandon Tartikoff, one of the higher-ups at NBC at the time, had it be changed. His reasoning amounted to ‘Kessler’ sounding too Jewish and wanting the show to appeal to a broad variety of audience members. Sure, that makes sense when the star of your show is Jewish. A similar comedy that takes place in the eighties, The Goldbergs, actually is similar, being a semi-autobiographical show created by Adam F. Goldberg. While it doesn’t necessarily have a large amount of elements, it did devote an episode to Chanukah. Alison Brie plays Annie Edison on Community, and while not a major part of the show, her religion does play a key role in some episodes. In general, Community is actually very good about showing a variety of religions.
Additionally, a few scenes in The X-Files imply that Mulder might be Jewish, Friend’s Monica and Ross Geller are implied to be Jewish due to their father’s lineage, but that’s not how it works in real life. Rachel Green is also hypothesized to be Jewish, but, again, nothing concrete. In Sex And The City, Charlotte York-Goldenblatt does convert to Judaism to marry a lawyer, but the ‘Jewish lawyer and/or doctor’ is another stereotype in itself. A friend did notify me that Arrow's Felicity Smoak is Jewish. I did some research and she does have a menorah at her desk and she is shown performing a Jewish burial ceremony at a friend's funeral. Namely, the tradition of putting some dirt on the casket. Adding to this, she does have a menorah and says 'Mazel tov,' which roughly translates to 'Congratulations!' in Yiddish. There was a questionable moment in the fourth season involving a gas chamber, but as I'm not far enough into the show to have seen it, I'm not going to judge it yet.
While primarily only based on supplementary material, the hit Disney cartoon Gravity Falls actually has a wonderful Jewish character. Many viewers believed that Grunkle Stan, Dipper Pines, and Mabel Pines were all Jewish due to their usage of Yiddish phrases and because they are based on the creator’s life experiences, similar to most of the show’s more realistic material. As with many other parts of the show, they are written based on his personal life experiences. Finally, according to a tweet from creator Alex Hirsh, they were not raised with the holidays, but they celebrate all of them ‘at Mabel’s insistence.’
You might remember the PBS cartoon Arthur as being based on the famous book series, but it has a prominent Jewish character in Francine Frensky. On several occasions, her family is shown celebrating Yom Kippur (“Is This Kosher?”) and Chanukah (“Arthur’s Perfect Christmas”). The former even references Yom Kippur for almost the entire episode, showing Francine trying to follow the tradition of fasting.
This is especially important, as it shows that Chanukah isn’t the only Jewish holiday that exists. You would be surprised at the amount of people that only know about Purim and Chanukah. While not specifically part of the show, “A City View,” an episode of the live-action spin-off Postcards From Buster, has Buster traveling to meet with a Jewish family in New York City.
Sadly, now for the awful examples. The infamous Comedy Central animated show South Park has a Jewish character, Kyle Broflovski, but the writers don’t let that act as a deterrent for the use of anti-Semitic jokes and slurs under the guise of comedy. One example of this would be Eric Cartman turning into a Nazi after watching The Passion Of The Christ. While it is true that the purpose of the episode was to satirize Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, the stereotypical Jewish characters in the show were so awful that it only makes the show look like it’s missing the point.
Even with that, Family Guy still has an even worse track record. Mort Goldman is one of the most flagrant, offensive stereotypes. I don’t think it is possible to find a single Jewish character on the show that does not fall into the stereotypes of Jews being greedy, and whiny. I am not going to repeat them here, but it seems as though Seth McFarlane, someone who is Jewish, can get away with the jokes using ‘social commentary’ or the fact that he is Jewish as a reasonable excuse. I am of the personal opinion that when a show has made Nazi jokes, Hitler jokes, Schindler’s List jokes, and multiple Holocaust jokes, there are no redeeming factors or reasonable excuses.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has some of the best representation of Jewish characters and Jewish culture in recent television history. This is unsurprising, as Rachel Bloom, who plays Rebecca Bunch, acts as the creator, star, and one of the writers for the CW program. Rebecca Bunch is shown to be Jewish even in the first episode, and the eighth one partially shows her celebrating Chanukah. It opens up with Eastern-European versions of herself and her mother immigrating to America on a boat, before a delightful scene of Rebecca decorating her house for Chanukah, complete with appropriate music in the background.
I can’t describe how utterly delighted I was when it began to show her putting up decorations similar to the ones that are put up in my house every single year. Representation is wonderful, especially when you see characters behaving in similar ways to you. For added delight, the opening scene is in Yiddish and the decorating montage has a clever joke about the seemingly endless variations on how to spell Chanukah. Various other episodes show her interactions with her mother. The thirteen episode, “Josh And I Are Going To Los Angeles!” even has a Judaism-themed rap battle between Rachel and one of her former coworkers at a legal firm. Among other items, it features references to Yiddish, primarily Jewish sections of New York, and the holy tradition of birthright. I’m half-joking when I say this, but that one song has more references to Judaism than your average tv show.
In doing my research for this piece, I have noticed that some of the most well-developed Jewish characters are from the late nineties to the early 2000s. I hope that this will start a pattern of accurate, well-rounded characters who celebrate all kinds of Judaism in various television shows to come. This is important because not only will it validate viewers, it will also teach people about Judaism and stop the prejudice. Just imagine a little kid watching Rugrats and you see the families celebrating Chanukah and telling the story. You can proudly jump up and say, "Hey, hey, they're talking about my holiday!" Earlier, I mentioned an episode of Postcards From Buster that had a Jewish family in New York. I distinctly remember being on a family vacation and seeing that episode pop up on the television in our hotel room. I ran to go get my parents and joyfully show them the screen.
Representation can lead to spreading knowledge of the Jewish faith, culture, and traditions. In turn, that will bring out a new generation of people who understand that the Jewish people are not a one-note joke about being able to solve math problems or an obsession with money. Similar to how G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel has brought about a wave of appreciation and normalization, seeing more Jewish characters on the small screen can do the same thing. Maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe can start doing the same thing with Agents Of SHIELD. Edwin Jarvis's wife was Jewish, but she isn't a superhero. Perhaps they can introduce the Israeli superheroine known as Sabra, Moon Knight, or the Hulk ally Doctor Samson, whose very name is rooted in Jewish legend.
I want to see more representation on television during the upcoming years of production in order to teach the world that Judaism isn't a joke. It's a legitimate religion and it has deep connotations and meanings. This is why I can’t wait for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to return, not only for the accurate and nuanced depiction of Jewish characters, but also for the show’s amazing levels of humor and emotional depth. You can bet that, as a Jew, a Jewish comedy fan, and a fan of comedy in general, I will absolutely be watching it.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on the CW Network on Fridays at 9 pm.
Zachary Krishef is an evil genius. Do not question his knowledge of Saturday Night Live trivia or Harry Potter books.