As I watch my favorite television shows, I like to play a game and guess which characters are Jewish. Sometimes it is obvious, but most of the time there are characters who aren’t explicitly Jewish. In “Television’s Changing Image of American Jews, ”Joyce Antler defines these covert Jews as “crypto-Jews” or “masked Jews.” Over the past few years, there has been an increase in Jewish characters within many popular television shows, regardless of whether the characters are overtly Jewish or not. This increase began in the 1990s with hit shows like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “The Nanny.” The first two did not have characters who were overtly Jewish. True, the audience knew Seinfeld was a Jew, but Seinfeld’s character stood in contrast next to George Costanza’s character, a neurotic, and arguably, Jewish stereotype. “Friends” also showcased “crypto-Jews” in the form of Rachel Green and siblings, Ross and Monica Geller. It was never explicitly stated within the series that either one of these characters was Jewish. By picking up on clues in different scenes, for example a menorah on a holiday episode, the audience can deduce that these characters are Jews.
Many of the Jewish characters in today’s shows are seen as universal representations, but there are still characters among these “crypto-Jews” who openly identify as Jewish. In “New Girl,” I don’t think there has been one episode where the Jewish playboy, Schmidt, has not mentioned some aspect of his heritage. “The Big Bang Theory” also has not gone an episode without referencing Howard Wolowitz’s Jewishness. In contrast, other shows will go entire seasons before mentioning the Jewish identity of one of their characters, and even then it is used as a plot device. In “Sons of Anarchy,” it’s not revealed that Gemma, the matriarch of SOA, is Jewish until a Neo-Nazi crew targets her for her heritage.
Last fall, “The Goldbergs” premiered, highlighting a Jewish family. Similar to other Jewish television characters, this family is not overtly Jewish. Sure, the characters use Yiddish, but the only Jewish characteristic is the name of the show. It also helps if the audience knows that the show is based on a true story, the life of Adam F. Goldberg.
Within the past two decades alone, the representation of Jews on television has changed from a stereotypical image to one that is more universal. As new seasons premiere this fall, not only am I eager for the return of “The Goldbergs,” but I am also eager for the return of the guessing game.
Deborah Lewis recently graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in Jewish Studies. Starting this fall, she will be pursuing a Master’s in Library and Information Science with an emphasis in Archival Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.