Yes, it’s true, many television viewers of the Jewish persuasion tend to partake in the curious pastime of gleefully identifying the actors on any given program who happen to be Jewish; pointing them out, and beaming with pride, as if we had some influence on their success. I don’t know where all of this pride comes from. Personally, I’m more interested in looking at the history of Jewish TV characters, because in doing so, we can see their existence as a deliberate creative decision by a writer, rather than celebrating an actor’s ethnic identity by mere chance of birth or upbringing.
So, for no compelling reason, I recently began going through my mental Rolodex (or, for you younger readers, my mental data base), expecting to recall a pitifully small number of Jewish characters–i.e. lead or supporting regular characters–scattered throughout the TV dramas and comedies of the past 70 years. After all, Jews make up only about 2% of the U.S. population, so why expect any higher proportion of them in our TV shows? It could be argued that, because of the preponderance of Jewish writers, directors, and producers working in television, we’d see far more Jewish characters than we do. That’s never been the case, however, for a myriad of reasons I won’t go into here.
But I’ve managed to remember several characters who may have slipped through the cracks; some wore their ethnic identity on their sleeves, while others pretty much just happened to be Jewish, and never made much mention or fuss about it–just like in real life. So, here’s the list (you’ll notice I’m deliberately leaving out people like Jerry Seinfeld, who played himself on his show. What was he going to do, suddenly portray himself as a Mormon?).
The Goldbergs – This light comedy series, featuring a Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, had been a radio favorite for twenty years before making the move to TV in 1949. Star Gertrude Berg wrote every episode herself, totaling about 10,000 scripts in all.
Room 222 -Principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine), the harried principal of L.A.’s fictional Walt Whitman High School, oversaw the various crises among students and teachers from his somewhat world-weary perspective.
Bridget Loves Bernie – Most critics and viewers hated the stereotypical portrayals of Irish (Bridget’s) and Jewish (Bernie’s) families, despite the strong cast. It was a product of its time, premiering shortly after Norman Lear’s All in the Family changed sitcom history forever.
- Rhoda – Mary Richards’ friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show got her own spinoff in 1974, becoming the first Jewish lead character since Molly Goldberg herself.
Barney Miller – The even-tempered Barney (Hal Linden) and his aging colleague, Detective Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), added a subtle dash of Jewish attitude to the detective squad of New York’s 13th precinct.
The Wonder Years – WASPy Kevin Arnold had a best friend in Paul, who sometimes had to opt out of play time to do his Hebrew school homework, and whose bar mitzvah was the focal point of one episode.
Hill Street Blues – Down & dirty undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), known to subdue fleeing suspects by biting them into submission, often had to interrupt his arrests and paperwork to field phone calls from his complaining and protective mother. On the other end of the spectrum, Lt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) specialized in hostage negotiation.
Cagney & Lacey – Television’s first female detective team worked under their boss, Lt. Samuels (Al Waxman) and alongside Desk Sgt. Coleman (Harvey Atkin). In one curious but amusing scene during the show’s run, Samuels and Coleman are seen having a brief chat solely in Yiddish, without the benefit of translation.
L.A. Law – In a season 2 episode, Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker) overhears the hostess of a party spewing anti-Semitic remarks about him and Jews in general. He interrupts to ask, “Has a Jew ever done anything to you personally to fill you with such hatred? When the woman says no, he walks over to her china cabinet and topples it to the floor, replying, “Now one has.”
Brooklyn Bridge – A multi-generational Brooklyn family in the 1950s sought to balance Old-World and contemporary American lifestyles in this series by Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties).
Taxi – Judd Hirsch basically plays Judd Hirsch in just about everything he does; here in the guise of New York cab driver Alex Rieger.
Northern Exposure – Young New York doctor Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow) was “sentenced” to serve as town doctor in remote Cicely, Alaska, to pay off the state’s student loan for his med school tuition. His fish-out-of-water experience included cultural clashes of various kinds with the locals.
The Nanny – Oy, vey, talk about brash, loud, clichéd New York Jews, i.e. nanny Fran Fine and her frequently visiting–and kibitzing– mother and grandmother. But it was co-created by its star, Fran Drescher, who knew of what she spoke.
Law & Order – Grouchy District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, who refused to stay late on the set when the Sabbath approached on Friday nights) spent his brief scenes with his subordinates grousing about avoiding negative headlines and striking plea deals.
The West Wing – Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) often offered their perspectives on past atrocities and current world events, as only they could.
Will & Grace – Returning to the air after eleven years, neurotic Jewish New Yorker Grace Adler (Debra Messing) was/is prone to wondering if her upbringing was responsible for some of her issues in adulthood.
Warehouse 13 – This engaging and quirky sci-fi series featured Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), as caretaker of historic artifacts with supernatural powers, and who had earlier in life as a spy changed his name from Weisfelt.
The Goldbergs – Coming full-circle in a way, this is a different Goldberg family than that of the early days of network TV, this sitcom wanders back and forth throughout the 1980s in suburban Philadelphia, as seen through the eyes of the youngest family member, Adam (Sean Giambrone), who must deal with a mom who literally, and physically, suffocates him and his siblings with love.
What is the point of this list? I’ve been wondering that myself. But I’m a pop culture historian (it says so on my homepage), and I thought, with the new TV season here, it would be a good time to take a look at this ever-so-thin slice of television history.
Until next week…