(RNS) — Just the other day, I was following my GPS and it suddenly dawned on me.
I was getting tired of that Australian woman who was giving me directions. Yes, it is a pleasant voice. But, let’s face it: She was way too calming.
It would be so great, I said to myself, if we could have a different kind of voice — like, for example, Estelle Harris as Estelle Costanza from “Seinfeld.”
Imagine what it would have been like.
“Jeff, in a mile, make a left. A LEFT! Get into the left hand lane NOW, fer cryin’ out loud! What are you waiting for?!? What — you’re gonna wait until the very last minute? Good going, Jeffie — a great way to cause a major car accident, tying up traffic for the next five hours! And then where’ll you be? Stuck here! Frank, tell him!!!”
Alas, this idea (brilliant though it was) was not to be. Estelle Harris died this past Saturday (April 2) at the age of 93.
The truth is: I loved her character — acerbic, sarcastic, given to personal effrontery, always on the watch for insults and slights, lacking both patience and personal boundaries, with a voice perpetually set on screech.
I loved her, because I knew her.
Well, sort of. In the 1960s and 1970s, Estelle and Sy Harris, a salesman of window treatments, and my family belonged to the same synagogue — Suburban Temple in Wantagh, New York, of blessed memory — which has repeatedly merged with several local synagogues and is now Temple B’nai Torah.
I didn’t know Estelle Harris, though I think my late parents did.
But, as for Estelle Costanza — yeah, I knew her. Her vocal style resonates with some of my childhood memories, wafting through the delis of Plainview, New York. She was the one complaining about the air conditioning being too cold.
Estelle was deeply Jewish. She was born in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and spent her childhood in Tarentum, Pennsylvania — a coal mining town that was not exactly the capital of the American Diaspora.
Her comic style was also deeply Jewish. “It’s like that Jewish expression ‘crying laughter.’ All through the centuries the Jews had such terrible things happen to them that they had to laugh a little harder.”
Estelle Harris — Jewish.
But, Estelle Costanza?
That begs the question: Of what ethnicity were the Costanzas?
When “Seinfeld” premiered (as “The Seinfeld Chronicles”), Brandon Tartikoff, then-head of NBC, thought the show was “too Jewish.”
Yes, Jerry was Jewish.
No, Kramer was not Jewish.
No, the execrable Newman was not Jewish.
Elaine should have been — and could have been — Jewish. After all, she was played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a daughter of one of Europe’s oldest Jewish families, that traditionally traces its ancestry back to Rashi, and before that, to King David. Among her relatives is none other than Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer who was accused of treason and whose case was the spark that lit the fuse of political Zionism.
Julia’s genes are Jewish, though she was not raised as a Jew. As for her character Elaine Benes, she described herself as a woman with “shiksa appeal.”
Which leaves the Costanzas. The last name is Italian. But, the actors themselves were all Jews.
Jason Alexander (George), the late Jerry Stiller (Frank) and the late Estelle Harris. It was the most Jewish family on network television — but not identified as such. Jason Alexander himself once said, “The Costanzas were Jewish, but in the federal witness protection program.”
So, Marranos, sort of. Festivus, Frank’s invented holiday “for the rest of us,” only further testified to the ethnic weirdness of the characters.
In truth, however, that ambiguity was part of the beauty of the show. As someone who grew up surrounded by Italian families, I knew their style, and I felt comfortable with it. Yes — emotional, loud and intermeshed with each other.
As Estelle herself put it: “Black people, Asians, WASPs, Italians, Jews — they all say, ‘Oh, you’re just like my mom.’”
That was how one of the most irritating characters in the history of network television became, ironically, one of the most beloved.
Sy Harris died last year. “I yell at my husband, but he doesn’t mind,” Estelle had once said. “He’s grateful for the attention.”
I bet he was. I would have been. Right about now, Estelle is having a reunion with Sy. I am sure Stiller will be glad to see her as well — though her voice would awaken even the most deeply sleeping angels.
As for all of them: serenity now.