The 7 Best Jewish Moments in American Sitcom History
From The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Orange Is the New Black, 'Seinfeldia' author and pop culture journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong identifies the greatest Jewish moments in Americna television.
- 1."Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda"Played to perfection by Valerie Harper, The Mary Tyler Moore Show's sidekick character Rhoda was a bold, funny New Yorker who'd moved to Minneapolis. Only one episode of the show blatantly addressed antisemitism, when Rhoda was excluded from Mary's new friend's country club. Despite the excellent episode title, the effort comes across a little too preachy. Better are the subtle, everyday ways Rhoda's differences come across, as when Rhoda's parents renew their vows in front of a rabbi.
- 2."Rhoda's Wedding"Rhoda got her own sitcom in 1974—a big deal for single, funny, Jewish girls who’d figured the best they could do is be a sidekick. Moving back to New York City, Rhoda soon meets a tall, handsome, not-at-all-Jewish divorcée named Joe, whom she married in an hour-long special that broke ratings records: more than 52 million people tuned in, making it the most-watched TV episode of the 1970s at the time, and the second-most-watched of all time behind I Love Lucy's birth episode in 1953.
- 3."Serenity Now"Network executives at NBC famously expressed their doubts about Seinfeld before putting it on the air: “Too New York, too Jewish.” A few years later, when the show was dominating TV ratings and watercooler conversations, many Jewish leaders debated whether it was Jewish enough. Once in a while, even religion came into play. Jerry and Elaine serve as godparents at a bris; kid kisses Elaine at his bar mitzvah to celebrate “becoming a man,” prompting George to explain that she has “shiksappeal.”
- 4."The Ski Lift"Seinfeld co-creator Larry David explored his Jewishness much more openly on his HBO show in which he plays a version of himself. He acts Orthodox to kiss up to the head of the kidney consortium in hopes of getting his friend bumped up on the waiting list; the Israel-Palestine dispute plays out in a Palestinian restaurant where the chicken is so good it causes some serious soul-searching. (Fun fact: Alec Berg told me that this was a storyline he had left over from his days at Seinfeld.)
- 5."Great Sexpectations"Charlotte York, the very definition of a WASP, falls in love with her Jewish divorce lawyer, Harry Goldenblatt. When he tells her he can’t marry a non-Jew, she is, at first, incensed. Never one to back down from a challenge—particularly a romantic one—she determines to convert. Soon she’s much more serious about Judaism than her future husband. She works all day to prepare a Shabbat feast, only to catch him watching a game on a nearby TV on mute during the meal.
- 6.TransparentIt's almost sidenote that the family at the show's center, the Pfeffermans, are undoubtedly Jewish. Perhaps that’s why they can show their Jewishness like no TV family before them: one of Maura’s children, Sarah, plans a Jewish wedding to her girlfriend, Tammy. Another of Maura’s children, Josh, dates a female rabbi. Throughout family flashbacks in the second season, a connection between transgenderism and Judaism emerges.
- 7."Trust No Bitch"Netflix’s hit about life in a women’s prison, Orange Is the New Black, is at least as much comedy as drama, and that was apparent in the third season’s increasingly serious story arc about prisoners pretending to be Jewish to get the (slightly) better kosher meals. In the end, one dedicated prisoner, Black Cindy, sincerely pursues conversion. "It’s like a verb. It’s like, you do God. Lucky for us, Jewish writers and producers also do comedy—and they’ve made some of the best TV of all time.