Twenty-four years ago today, the epitome of Jewish sitcoms debuted on TV with the series premiere of “Seinfeld.” That’s right, the show about nothing aired it’s pilot on July 5, 1989.
Now in it’s 15th year of syndication, “Seinfeld” is beloved by old and new fans, Jewish and gentile alike. The brilliance of this sitcom, aside from it’s ability to truly be about nothing and still land among audience’s favorite, is the ease with which it’s Jewish humor was both true to the culture and universally hysterical.
Main character Jerry Seinfeld represented the typical secular Jew; he can’t date a kosher woman who won’t eat lobster, but refuses to tolerate anti-Semitic jokes. Nobody can forget Jerry’s rage when the dentist made Jewish jokes too soon after he converted.
Despite the show’s primary goal to be funny, much of Seinfeld’s undertones shed light on the cultural intricacies that so universally permeate the Jewish culture. With everything from elderly parents living in Florida to fears of witnessing a circumcision, any Jewish viewer could easily relate.
As ADL director Abraham Foxman said when the sitcom originally aired in 1989, “The Jewishness of the `Seinfeld' characters was worn comfortably and naturally on their sleeves." Unlike in previous Jewish American comedies of the time, Foxman explained, “ There were no bizarre or eccentric Jews. Seinfeld is human, universal.”
In many ways the insertion of Judaism into the sitcom seemed to have more to do with the fact that a majority of it’s writers and actors were Jewish than a purposeful effort to make the religion an underlying theme. It was perhaps that organic tone, also indicative of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s style, that made it such a beloved sitcom.
However, there were certainly times when Seinfeld’s Jewishness not only enhanced plot lines, but comprised them entirely. How about the discomfort of watching George and Jerry pretend to be anti-Semitic Aryan leaders in the back of a limo?
Jerry and his friends often said and did what most audience members wished they had the shamelessness to, making the life of the show one that everyone can relate to. And even though Seinfeld was inherently and unquestionably Jewish, his friends and his world was a mix of many other religions, ethnicities, and oddities. There was no separation, no Jew and non-Jew, no us versus them, so as much as Jerry’s religion was extremely relevant, it also didn't matter in the slightest.
It was this combination of obvious Jewishness and total lack of distinction that made the sitcom the first of it’s kind in the entertainment world. 'Seinfeld' shed light on Jewish life without explicitly separating itself from other cultures or religions, a distinction that was scarcely seen in comedy prior to its television debut.