Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why I already miss Bob Einstein

Idea for a new episode of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Marty Funkhouser has died. Larry, Cheryl, Jeff, and Susie are heartbroken at the death of their friend, and they make a shiva call. Larry and Cheryl have brought a box of rugelach for the shiva table. Throughout the shiva call, Larry watches the shiva table, and sees that no one is eating the rugelach.

Angry at having brought the rugelach (after all, the bakery was in Beverly Hills, quite a distance from his usual hood in Santa Monica), Larry steals the rugelach at the end of the shiva call by hiding it in his shirt.

On the way to his car, Larry runs into the rabbi, who tells him that anyone who takes food from a shiva home is in danger of being cursed. The rest of the episode is filled with typical Larry David mishaps. At the end of the episode, he leaves the box of rugelach on the steps of the shiva house and drives away, believing himself to be free of the curse.

At which point, he drives his car into the rabbi’s car, and the theme music comes on.

I know what you’re saying.

“Don’t quit your day job!”

I felt an instant twinge of sadness in learning of the death of actor Bob Einstein at the age of 76. Bob had a plethora of screen and television roles, but the one that I will remember the most, and the reason that I mourn him, is for his role of Marty Funkhouser on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Why?

Television certainly has no shortage of Jewish characters.

But, “Curb” was uniquely Jewish.

Almost every character was Jewish — Larry David; his manager, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) and his wife, Susie (Susie Essman); Larry’s father, played by the late Shelley Berman; and comedian Richard Lewis, playing himself. There were exceptions, as well — especially Larry’s wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines).

Moreover, “Curb” had so many Jewish plot lines that the series practically constitutes an anthology of Jewish short fiction.

Among my favorites:

  • “The Ski Lift,” in which Larry pretends to be Orthodox in order to ingratiate himself with the head of a kidney consortium, in order to procure a new kidney for Richard Lewis.
  • “The Survivor,” in which a survivor of the Shoah gets into an argument with a character from the “Survivor” television series over which is the “real” survivor.
  • “The Baptism,” in which Larry inadvertently stops a Jewish man from converting to Christianity.
  • “Palestinian Chicken,” in which Larry visits a Palestinian restaurant.

And yet, of all the Jewish characters, the one that stands out in my mind was Marty Funkhouser, played by Bob Einstein, of blessed memory.

Here is why.

While “Curb” is filled with Jewish characters (and the actors that play them), most of them are somewhat inactive Jews.

True — in one episode, Larry gets in trouble for scalping High Holy Day tickets in synagogue, which turns out to be a biting satire of the oft-discussed practice.

But, in most cases and in most situations, and for most of the characters, Jewish identity is unremarkable.

Except for Marty Funkhouser.

First, Marty is a mensch — perhaps the only true mensch in the series. He is the proud, supportive father of a transgender man.

Moreover, Marty makes no excuses for his Judaism. He embraces it. When his father died, Marty sat a traditional shiva. He grew as a Jew. He started wearing a kippah. In “Palestinian Chicken,” he deliberately wore the kippah to the Palestinian restaurant —  because he wanted to proudly trumpet his Jewish identity, even in “enemy” territory.

Yes, “Curb” is a comedy. And, yes, Marty could be a little insufferable and a tad self-righteous at times.

But, as a Jewish character, he might have been the most affirmatively Jewish character in recent television history.

Bob Einstein was a great actor, and by all reports, a sweet, kind man.

May his family find the comfort they deserve. And may he make God laugh.

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.