Seinfeld and Company

On Seinfeld and other 1990s TV shows, Jewishness became part of the American pop-culture landscape.

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Seinfeld's brand of humor was "a neurotic Jewish craziness and narcissism that just captured America," comments comedy legend Carl Reiner (Your Show of Shows, Oh, God!).

In one episode, Jerry's friend Kramer (Michael Richards) meets Jerry's Jewish girlfriend, who keeps kosher ("Wow! You're so pious... when you die, you're going to get some special attention"). Later on, Kramer stops her as she is about to succumb to the temptation of eating lobster. "You saved me," she says. "I knew you'd regret it for the rest of your life," he replies. In the end, however, George (Jason Alexander) tricks her into eating the forbidden food. This twist reveals the essence of Seinfeld: comedic interplay between kindness and cruelty.

Seinfeld's writers, however, did not condone heartless behavior. In the final episode, Jerry and his friends land in prison for standing idly by as a man is robbed of his car. The show's closing message: Even in Seinfeld's amoral universe, one cannot escape ethical responsibility. With its openly Jewish leading man and Jewish themes, Seinfeld, the most successful sitcom of the '90s, was a watershed in the portrayal of Jews on TV.

A Family Of Friends

"Um, because if Santa and the Holiday Armadillo are even in the same room for too long, the universe will implode!" -- Santa Claus (Matthew Perry), when Ben (Cole Sprouse) asks why the Holiday Armadillo (David Schwimmer) has to go away, on Friends

In 1994, a new sitcom focused on six single New Yorkers, two of them Jewish. Created by Jewish comedy writer Marta Kauffman and her writing partner David Crane, Friends explored the lives of these 20- and 30-something platonic friends, lovers, roommates, and siblings who form an extended family.

In a classic episode, Ross Geller, a single Jewish father (played by David Schwimmer), tries to teach his young son Ben (Cole Sprouse) about the meaning of Hanukkah. Ben, who's been celebrating Christmas (Ross's ex-wife is Christian), can't imagine not having a visit from Santa. To please him, Ross sets out to buy a Santa suit, but can only find an Armadillo costume.

Dressed as the "Holiday Armadillo," he wishes Ben a "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah." Ben then asks, "Are you for Hanukkah too? Because I'm part Jewish!" Elated by his son's reaction, Ross tells his friends: "I'm finally getting him excited about Hanukkah!" The episode's message: With so much intermarriage, divorce, and assimilation, it isn't easy for a young Jewish single in a state of limbo to raise a child with his Jewish identity intact.

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.