Was Curb Your Enthusiasm Good Jewish Representation?

Curb Your Enthusiasm just aired its series finale this week, which gives me an opportunity to discuss a question that’s been on my mind for some time: is Larry David’s representation good for the Jews? Let’s start off by stating the positive – the man is hilarious and a comedic genius. I never watched the show regularly. I catch it on airplanes and clips on social media. Larry has a knack for giving language to annoyances everyone feels. He says the petty things out loud that most of us would never have the guts to say, but sometimes wish we could. And he ties his storylines together in clever ways, just like he did on Seinfeld.

From a positive Jewish perspective, he has dealt with Jews converting to Christianity in brilliant and subversive ways, like the time a Jewish man is about to be baptized for his non-Jewish fiancé. Larry interrupts the baptism, because he thinks the man is drowning, and then the Jewish man has an epiphany that he doesn’t want to stop being a Jew. Although, we’d never see Larry make a sincere statement about his heritage – Larry doesn’t do anything that makes him vulnerable (including singing “happy birthday” at birthday parties) – having this Jewish character stand up for his Judaism on the show, even in a comedic setting, has a poignancy to it.

Larry also took on the Israel/Palestine debate, in a clever way, in his famous Palestinian Chicken episode. “You’re always attracted to someone who doesn’t want you,” Larry notes,” “Here you have somebody who not only doesn’t want you — doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist! Wants your destruction! That’s a turn-on.” It’s a ridiculous premise to fall in love with someone who wants to annihilate you and your people, but Larry goes where very few shows are brave enough to go – to represent a radical Islamist mentality that causes Jews to be attacked and murdered.

Larry also takes swipes at Judaism in the show, over and over again. Probably the most glaring and outrageous example is the Ski Lift episode, which features Orthodox Jewish characters. It’s hard not to laugh at Larry because he’s so ridiculous, but it feels like laughing at a naughty child. The worst parts of the show are fake Yiddish and Hebrew, not only from Larry but from the Orthodox character himself. The show obviously could have gotten a consultant. They got some Hebrew terms very correct. The joke seems to be how ridiculous talking Jewish sounds. The Orthodox man confides in Larry that he loves baseball so much that he sometimes “cheats” and watches the Yankees on Shabbos. The notion of Orthodox Jews being hypocritical is a theme we see in many shows.

Interestingly enough, the Orthodox man is the head of the Kidney Consortium. I was hoping that this detail would lead to a positive storyline on Orthodox Jews who don’t just donate their kidneys to strangers outside of their community (see this short documentary we produced on the subject), but they donate at an astoundingly high rate. Despite only being .2% of the US population, Orthodox Jews make up 15% of the altruistic kidney donors.

On Curb, none of this exists. Larry must butter up the head of this organization to get a kidney for a sick friend, not because he’s a good person but because Larry doesn’t want to donate his own kidney. Another problematic part of the storyline is that Larry is sitting over the cousin of his sick friend, who’s in a coma, hoping the cousin will die, so Larry won’t have to donate his kidney. The doctor calls him out, and it’s kind of a blood libel/Jew harvesting organs plot line.

Back to the Orthodox story: Larry takes the Orthodox Jew skiing to get his friend higher on the donor list. For some reason the Orthodox man’s single daughter covers her hair (this is not a thing), is very strict about yichud (it means not being in a locked room with a man who’s not your husband, but she applies it to not being alone with a man on a ski lift when it gets dark – also not really a thing), yet wears pants (i.e. more of a modern Orthodox practice). The daughter is also the typical “too strict” Orthodox Jew, complaining that the kitchen isn’t kosher enough in a judgmental way. Meanwhile, Susie Essman dons a kerchief to play the Orthodox wife, but looks straight out of Fiddler on the Roof, as opposed to an actual modern day religious Jew. (Susie already has a history of mocking hair covering for Jewish women.)

This one off episode about Orthodox Jews isn’t my main gripe with Larry David’s Jewish representation. JITC Hollywood Bureau is compiling a catalogue of Jewish stereotypes depicted in television and movie clips, so we’ll be able to show examples when we train writers, directors and producers. When I needed an example of the “nebbish Jew” for my list, I immediately looked for clips of Curb.

Larry, is the self-deprecating, curmudgeon, never content with life Jew. In a hilarious episode where he discovers that he’s adopted by a family named “Cone,” not “Cohen” i.e. rendering him “gentile,” Larry does all the things that he imagines that gentiles do, like fishing and hunting and fixing the roof and the car and having a drinking contest at a bar. He also depicts gentiles as being very good with forgiveness, as his non-Jewish “birth mom” tells him to forgive a man who ripped him off. Larry leaves his happy gentile life when the pastor at church talks about forgiving friends. This is a bridge too far for Larry.

Forgiveness and happiness are both foundational Jewish values, but likely, that is not the Jewish experience that Larry grew up with. In an episode where his TV mom dies, because she and his dad don’t want to disturb his trip to New York, they fail to let him know that his mom is dying and then dead. Larry only finds out after the shiva when he returns home. While it’s an absurd and hilarious set up, I always assumed that Larry’s lack of being able to be vulnerable and his pessimistic attitude is based on actual traumatic events from his childhood.

A recent episode of Finding Your Roots confirmed what I suspected. Like the TV mom who doesn’t let Larry know that she’s dying, Larry tells the host of the show that his mom was very secretive. He only found out after she died that she was older than his father. In the episode, we watch Larry discover more secrets. Number one – his mother was born in Europe and two – he never knew his mother’s birth name. When the host tells him that his grandparents had a daughter called Regina, Larry is perplexed. He has no Aunt Regina. Did this aunt die? Was she left behind in Europe? When the host breaks the news to Larry that this was his mother’s name, the pain in his face is palpable.

The pain reminds me of another pain I have gotten close to in my years working with the former and questioning Haredi Jews in our Makom branch. Like Larry, and many other Hollywood Jews, there is a certain rejection of Judaism these Makom members feel. And I’m quite certain that it originates from the same place: insecure attachment due to childhood emotional neglect (learn more about this here) and some trauma, with a capital T or some ongoing lowercase t trauma. This formula seems to be enough to make people want to reject where they came from and what they are made of. For Hasidim, it can mean going unorthodox. For more secular Jews, it can mean mocking your heritage. If you have a large platform on TV or movies, that message gets amplified.

I say none of this with judgment or malice. Much of the insecure attachment and trauma Jews experience is due to Jew hatred, which caused intergenerational trauma. The problem with telling cartoonish or vilified stories about Jews in media is that it contributes to more Jew hatred and more self-hatred, when we should tried to be leading with pride instead. I wish Larry well and hope he continues to make more brilliant content. I don’t want to destroy comedy, but I believe there is a way to be funny without making fun. I don’t have a snappy ending to my story, like the ways that Larry ties up his shows with, but I believe the more we consider these issues and discuss the uncomfortable, the closer we can get to Jewish representation that is good and feels good.

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  • Avatar photo Leah Brown says on May 17, 2024

    I think Larry David is a terrible representation of Jews. He makes us all look neurotic, petty, rude and selfish. His chatacter and his friends are terrible ppl, just like the central characters on Seinfeld.


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