Those were the first words that entered my mind when I heard that Jerry Stiller, the comic actor, had died.
Jerry Stiller and his late wife, Anne Meara, were proud Jews. Anne had converted to Judaism. The Stiller family belonged to Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan’s West Side, where their son Ben celebrated becoming bar mitzvah.
Which brings me to Jerry Stiller’s most iconic role, and what that role can teach us about American Jewish identity.
I refer, of course, to Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld.”
For a show “about nothing,” “Seinfeld” was about as Jewish as it gets. Its location (West 81 Street in NYC), its cast of neurotic characters, its sensibility — all spelled Jewish with a capital J. In fact, I have often wondered if anyone west of, say, Morristown, New Jersey ever really understood it.
So much so — that in 1989, the late producer, Brandon Tartikoff (who was Jewish himself) deemed the show “too New York, too Jewish.”
Let’s go through the list of characters and the actors who played them, and do our own Seinfeld Pew Study on American Jewish Identity.
Jerry is, of course, Jewish. or, Jew-ish. He had the temerity to make out with his kashrut-observant girlfriend Rachel during a showing of “Schindler’s List.” This, of course, was reported to her parents by the unspeakable mailman Newman, who (we hope) is not Jewish.
And Jerry’s parents? Excuse me — Del Boca Vista? The condo board?
Kramer? Neither he, nor the actor who played him, Michael Richards, are Jewish.
Elaine Benis? Nope. In fact, Elaine is described as having “shiksa appeal.”
But, as for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played her?
She is a Dreyfus, which is one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish families in the world, going all the way back to Alsace. She is related to Alfred Dreyfus. Their family tree supposedly goes back to RASHI, the great medieval commentator, and even further back, to King David himself. They are Jewish royalty.
But, alas: Julia L-D does not identity as being Jewish.
The late Jerry Stiller, who played Frank Costanza? As I have said, deeply Jewish.
Estelle Harris, who played Estelle: likewise. In fact, our families were members of the same synagogue on Long Island.
What about the Costanzas? They certainly “seem” “Jewish,” but the Italian name?
Jason Alexander once said that the Costanzas are, in fact, Jews — who are part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.
George Costanza is the classic schlemiel, of whom Sanford Pinsker wrote: “The schlemiel has a hand in his destruction; the more he attempts, the greater seem his chances for comic failure.” As Ruth Wisse has written in “The Schlemiel As Modern Hero,” George Costanza would have had a noble literary lineage — I.B. Singer’s Gimpel; I.J. Singer’s Bonstsche; even and especially George’s doppelganger and creator, Larry David.
As for Estelle Costanza: the stereotypical Jewish mother. Though I am betting that my Italian-American friends would see her and claim her as one of their own.
And Frank Costanza? I see parts of my own late father in him. As would my Italian-American friends see their own fathers.
Here comes my small dissertation on “The Costanzas and the Jewish Problem.”
I will suggest that the Costanzas don’t know who they are — ethnically or religiously.
Witness the creation of Festivus, a holiday “for the rest of us.”
It is the perfect universal holiday.
Or, for those with no religion (whose numbers are on the rise in the United States).
Either way, rest in peace, Jerry.
May you meet your beloved Anne in the World to Come, and may you together make God laugh.
And yes — may God grant you serenity now.