Too Jewish?
By Sheryl Flatow
When The Goldbergs went off the air in 1956, the demise of the show meant more than the end of a beloved program that had been welcomed into people’s homes since it was introduced on radio in 1929. The departure of Molly, Jake, and Uncle David from the small screen marked the disappearance of leading Jewish characters from television series, both comedies and dramas, for well over a decade. When major Jewish characters began appearing again in the ’70s, they sometimes perpetuated cringe-inducing stereotypes, were generally ambivalent about their ethnicity, and almost always wound up with a spouse who wasn’t Jewish. This was true, with some important exceptions, for much of the twentieth century.

The absence of Jews on TV was deliberate, a concerted effort by ABC, CBS, and NBC, the only three commercial networks for 30 years. (From 1946-1956, there was a fourth network, DuMont, which never had the resources to compete with the Big Three. Fox entered the fray in 1986.) That the vast audience for The Goldbergs cut across all ethnic groups and cultures was lost on the powers that be. In the book The Jews of Prime Time , author David Zurawik tells about a memo that was widely known within the industry, which said that CBS had research indicating that Americans were not interested in seeing “people from New York, men with mustaches, and Jews.” But, Zurawik says, there is no evidence that such a memo ever existed. 
In fact, the “memo” provided an excuse for the networks to shun Jewish characters. Television, like Hollywood, was run by Jewish executives who generally were eager to assimilate and distance themselves from their heritage. They also believed that much of the country had an aversion to Jewish characters. Thus, they were opposed to shows that could be perceived as “too Jewish.” Perhaps this was understandable, if cowardly, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was busy destroying lives, as the majority of its targets were Jews. But “too Jewish” remained a mantra for decades, up to and including the premiere of Seinfeld in 1989. And it was never non-Jews who expressed this concern. It was a Jewish thing. 
With that mindset, it’s amazing The Goldbergs made it to television at all. NBC rejected it and, initially, so did CBS, even though the TV networks were eager to bring radio stars and shows to this new medium. The Goldbergs had been a megahit on both CBS and NBC radio, and few personalities were as popular as Gertrude Berg. She knew why she was being met with resistance, but she ultimately was able to convince CBS founder William S. Paley, who was adamantly against featuring Jewish characters on his network, to allow her to audition for sponsors. To Paley’s surprise, General Foods enthusiastically bought the show and helped The Goldbergs get a coveted spot in CBS’ Monday night lineup. (To illustrate just how wary Paley was of Jewish characters, Zurawik writes that years later, he turned down the opportunity to invest in Fiddler on the Roof because it was “too Jewish.”) 

Although other ethnicities and cultures were occasionally represented in sitcoms, like the Cuban Desi Arnaz as the Cuban Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy – CBS executives initially fought that, too – and Lebanese-American Danny Thomas as Lebanese-American Danny Williams on The Danny Thomas Show , they were the exceptions. The characters portrayed on TV reflected a very narrow vision of America. Virtually everyone was Caucasian, and by the end of the ’50s, with programs such as Leave it to Beaver , The Donna Reed Show , and Father Knows Best , there was a cookie-cutter quality to the families: wholesome, white bread, suburban, comfortably middle class, midwestern (although the locales were often not identified), and far removed from ethnic types like The Goldbergs .

As every culture can and does attest, representation matters. Seeing one’s own ethnicity or skin color reflected on the big and small screens creates a sense of inclusivity in the American tapestry. But how one is represented matters, too. Jewish characters continued to surface over the decades, but they weren’t always well served. They became more visible in primetime in the mid-1980s, after the Jewish founders gave way to big corporations. And the landscape changed entirely with the advent of cable, which was more willing to explore people from all different backgrounds.

In order to better convey how Jews were – and weren’t – portrayed on primetime TV after The Goldbergs and through the remainder of the twentieth century, we’ve compiled a select list of shows that were significant for a variety of reasons, positive and negative. The list focuses strictly on regularly scheduled comedies and dramas – no variety shows, quiz shows, mini-series, made-for-TV movies, or talk shows – and is limited to network television. In other words, just the shows that everyone had access to. The commentary is purely subjective. The list is by no means complete, and at the end you’ll find some of the shows that didn’t make the cut, mostly for reasons of length.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) and The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965). Although George Burns and Jack Benny were Jewish, and both played fictionalized versions of themselves, neither of their alter egos was ever identified as such. Their ethnicity had no bearing on their shows.
Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963) One of the funniest and most underappreciated shows in TV history, Car 54 was created by Nat Hiken, who was accused of being a Communist in the Red Channels pamphlet. He took out an ad in Variety denouncing Communism, and his career was back on track. Car 54 took place in the Bronx, in the fictional 53 rd Precinct, and focused on the misadventures of two cops, the Irish Francis Muldoon, played by Fred Gwynne, and the non-denominational Gunther Toody, played by Joe E. Ross. Like Ross, most of the regular supporting players were Jewish, although they were never identified as such. But the show did not shy away from ethnicity. The precinct and the neighborhood reflected the makeup of the Bronx – Jewish, Italian, Irish, Hispanic, and black. Ossie Davis and Nipsey Russell had recurring roles as police officers. And Molly Picon made three hilarious appearances as Mrs. Rachel Bronson who, in one episode teaches Toody and Muldoon the Yiddish song “Oyfn Pripetshik,” and sings it with them. 
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) Carl Reiner wrote 13 episodes of a program called Head of the Family, based on his experience as a writer on Your Show of Shows, and in 1960 starred in a pilot for CBS. The network wasn’t interested. But his agent sent the scripts to producer Sheldon Leonard, who was convinced he could sell the series to CBS providing major changes were made – namely, a new cast. With Reiner as star, the network found Head of the Family to be “too Jewish.” The show was entirely recast, and The Dick Van Dyke Show was born. Reiner became the sitcom’s producer, head writer, and star of “The Alan Brady Show” – the show within the show – so despite Van Dyke’s very midwestern appeal, The Dick Van Dyke Show never lost its Jewish sensibility. One of the co-writers of “The Alan Brady Show” was the Jewish Buddy Sorrell, played by the Jewish Morey Amsterdam, who had his long-delayed bar mitzvah in the series’ final season. Another episode is about a song Rob wrote when he was in the army called “Bupkis” – Yiddish for “nothing.” Reiner has said that the show would not have become a classic if he’d remained the star – not because he’s Jewish, but because he was nowhere near as talented as Van Dyke. Reiner was undoubtedly correct. The pilot can be seen on YouTube, and it’s dreadful.  

Star Trek (1966-1969) There’s nothing Jewish, per se, about Star Trek , except for the show’s stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. But if Nimoy had not been Jewish, we would not have the familiar Vulcan “live long and prosper” salute. Nimoy created the gesture for the opening episode of the second season, when Spock returns to his home planet. He felt he needed a Vulcan equivalent of a handshake, and thought back to the V-shaped gesture made by Cohanim (considered the priestly descendants of Aaron) when blessing the congregation.    

The Odd Couple (1970-1975) Oscar Madison and Felix Unger weren’t Jewish. Except they were. Oscar and Felix, as conceived by Neil Simon for the play and subsequent film that inspired the TV series (with which he was not involved), were based on two Jewish guys; the playwright’s brother Danny, and Roy Gerber, a Hollywood agent. Danny was the neat one and Roy was the slob. Simon never described either Felix or Oscar as Jewish, but the rhythms of their speech were clearly New York-Jewish; that’s how Simon wrote. When Jack Klugman (Oscar) and Tony Randall (Felix) portrayed the characters on television, their ethnicity seemed even more apparent.
Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973) Television’s first leading Jewish character since The Goldbergs was Bernie Steinberg (David Birney), a cab driver who falls in love with and marries Irish Catholic Bridget Fitzgerald (Meredith Baxter). This modern-day Abie’s Irish Rose wound up No. 5 in the ratings, but came under sustained attack by the Jewish community and became the highest rated show ever to be canceled after one season. The protests largely centered around the program’s very premise, but handled more deftly a show about intermarriage, even if controversial, might have been an interesting exploration of the challenges of marriage between a Jew and a Catholic especially at that time, when it was becoming more common. For me, what made the show so objectionable was that the Jewish characters were reduced to stereotypes and caricatures. Bridget’s family was wealthy. Her parents dressed elegantly and lived in a tastefully furnished apartment. Her brother was a very tolerant priest. Bernie was lower class. His family lived in an unprepossessing apartment above their deli, were loud, and had bad table manners. His mother was overbearing. For an industry that had shunned leading Jewish characters for so long, the show was tone-deaf. But Jewish intermarriage would quickly become a TV staple.  
Rhoda (1974-1978) Audiences were introduced to Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern in 1970 on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Quick witted, outspoken, self-deprecating, funny, sarcastic, insecure, endearing, and self-conscious about being slightly overweight, the brash, Jewish transplant from New York and the midwestern, just-about perfect Mary Richards established one of the great television friendships. Rhoda’s Jewishness was, for the most part, handled matter-of-factly: her Jewish identity was simply part of who she was. (Her mother, Ida, played by Nancy Walker, was another story: the overbearing, guilt-inflicting stereotype that became even more exaggerated when Rhoda got her own show.) Well before the spinoff, Harper (who was not Jewish but often played Jewish roles) had slimmed down and become as glamorous as Mary. So, when the more self-assured, put-together Rhoda moved back to New York from Minneapolis for her new series, her sister, Brenda, played by Julie Kavner, became the schlumpy sidekick with low self-esteem. After a while it began to rankle; most of the Jewish characters, male and female, who popped up now and then as guests all seemed to fit certain negative stereotypes. Most famously, Rhoda married (and later divorced) a non-Jew, Joe Gerard (David Groh). Considering that Rhoda’s Jewishness was hardly explored on the show, and her interfaith marriage was never examined, there was no reason why Joe couldn’t have been Jewish. But it seems like Rhoda purposely played down the character’s ethnicity. Apparently, CBS had reservations about Rhoda’s Jewishness when she first appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that when the character got her own show, her Jewish identity would be muted. Or, to look at it more insidiously, once she became more alluring, the less she was perceived as Jewish.   

Barney Miller (1975-1982) Hal Linden said in an interview for the Archive of American Television that Danny Arnold, the show’s producer, wanted him to star in Barney Miller in order to give the character, a police captain, “a sense of Talmudic justice.” Linden asked him if that meant Barney was Jewish, and Arnold said yes. But ABC didn’t want Linden. According to Arnold, whenever the executives suggested actors for the role, they named “clean-cut [and] Aryan-looking” guys. But Arnold got his way, and gave the character the last name Miller because it was ethnically neutral. He said that Barney was never publicly identified as Jewish, but apparently there was one Christmas episode in which the character spilled the beans. Still, the fact that the show consciously tried to avoid touching on the character’s religion underscores TV’s aversion to strong, leading Jewish characters at the time, as the precinct was deliberately made up of a cross-section of ethnicities including Officer Levitt – the whiny, Jewish cop.

Taxi (1978-1983) Alex Reiger, the grownup of the garage played by Judd Hirsch, was Jewish. It was mentioned in a handful of episodes, but never a big deal. It wasn’t a cause for angst or reflection (as would be the case on numerous shows going forward). He was a guy who happened to be Jewish in the same way that Tony Danza’s Tony Banta was Italian, and Christopher Lloyd’s Jim Ignatowski was Polish. He was simply another ethnic American.

L.A. Law (1986-1994) Stuart Markowitz, played by Michael Tucker, often wore his Judaism as if it were a burden. His character courted and married the lovely Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry), who was a few inches taller than he and a gentile. They may have seemed like an unlikely couple – the critic for The Washington Post expressed incredulity that Ann would be attracted to Stuart – but Tucker and Eikenberry were, and remain, married in real life. What was off-putting about Stuart is that he frequently came off as uncomfortable in his own skin. Among the other minorities on the show, Victor Sifuentes, played by Jimmy Smits, was a proud Latino, and Jonathan Rollins, played by Blair Underwood, was a proud black man. But Stuart whined and seemed to over-contemplate his Jewishness. It was a portrait of the Jew as the other, the outsider, and it was exacerbated by the anti-Semitism of his mother-in-law. Ultimately, he stands up to her with a rare display of temper. It could be argued that a) this made for good drama and b) it was important to show anti-Semitism and the character fighting back. But given the period that the show was done and the attitude toward leading Jewish characters, it was as if TV’s wariness about Jews in primetime was reflected in the scripts. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Tucker saw it differently: “Markowitz’s message is one of assimilation, which is pretty much my message. But neither does he hide from who he is, and we both become more religious than we thought we were when confronted by the other side.”
thirtysomething (1987-1991) With Ken Olin as Michael Steadman, thirtysomething was the first primetime show in history to feature a conventionally handsome leading man as a conventionally handsome Jewish leading man (and, yes, Olin is Jewish). Michael was also a very assimilated Jew, married to a gentile, but in the show’s first episode, as he is about to walk in for his wedding ceremony, he’s shown putting on a yarmulke. ABC executives were vehemently opposed to that moment. The show included several episodes that seriously examined intermarriage and what it means to be a Jew, although the navel-gazing and self-flagellation could become irritating. Olin believed, as he told the Los Angeles Times, that it made the character deeper. “The self-exploration into his commitment to Judaism is what makes him complex . . . not just the fact that he’s Jewish. He struggles with a lot of other self-doubts too, but it does seem unique and dramatic to see a leading man wearing a yarmulke . . . . Likewise, the difference in religion is just one source of conflict in our marriage but it’s one a lot of people can relate to.”  
The Wonder Years (1988-1993) In this nostalgic, coming-of-age series, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) is best friends with Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), who is Jewish. Paul is a stereotype – he’s smart, nerdy, wears glasses (as do his parents and sister), and is allergic to everything – yet he is never a caricature. He’s a three-dimensional kid who just happens to be Jewish (as both Saviano and Savage are). One of the series’ most moving episodes concerns Paul’s bar mitzvah and Kevin’s jealousy. The show devotes a few minutes to Paul being called to the Torah and reading in Hebrew; a rare instance, to that point, of a Jewish ceremony rendered realistically on primetime TV.  
Seinfeld (1989-1998) The show may have been about nothing, but it was truly something to see a performer with an unambiguously Jewish name starring in a self-titled primetime program. Jerry Seinfeld’s ethnicity was simply one aspect of the character, and it was treated matter-of-factly. The real Jerry Seinfeld has always appeared to be comfortable in his Jewish skin, which enabled him to joke about his ethnicity on the show in ways that were sometimes wildly funny (the episodes at his parents’ retirement community in South Florida) and sometimes mean-spirited or in questionable taste (the bris and the mohel who performs it, the shmendrik rabbi). But mean-spiritedness was a characteristic of the show; the four leading characters were rather dislikeable people, and Seinfeld was an equal opportunity offender in ways that were generally hilarious. The show soared to No. 1 – proving that non-Jews were receptive to Jewish characters – and yet Seinfeld almost didn’t get on the air. Brandon Tartikoff, the Jewish president of NBC, thought the show was “too Jewish” and didn’t want to go forward with it. It was a non-Jewish executive who gave the go-ahead for a few episodes. Jason Alexander once told me in an interview that the “too Jewish” label was the reason his character was given the Italian surname Costanza. It fooled no one. 
Law & Order (1990-2010) For the first decade of the show, the district attorney was played by Steven Hill, an Orthodox Jew whose character self-identified on the show as Jewish. He was inspired by New York’s former DA, Robert Morgenthau. When Hill left the show in 2000, it was said that his character had accepted a position to work with the Holocaust Project. In case you’ve forgotten, Hill’s character was named Adam Schiff.

Northern Exposure (1990-1995) Rob Morrow played Dr. Joel Fleischman, who fulfills the terms of his student loan by practicing medicine in Alaska, where he is assigned to the very small town of Cicely. While the program was good at explaining various aspects of the religion, Fleischman was another in a line of ambivalent Jews who fall for a gentile woman. In the end, however, he grew more self-aware and left her to return to New York, where he belonged.
Brooklyn Bridge (1991-1993) This warm, insightful, funny show was the first about an intact Jewish family since The Goldbergs. Based in part on the childhood of its creator, Gary David Goldberg, the show depicted a lower middle-class family and explored what it meant to be a Jew and an American in 1950s Brooklyn. Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham in Happy Days) was extraordinary as Sophie Berger, the immigrant grandmother who lived with Grandpa Jules (Louis Zorich) downstairs from their daughter, Phyllis, son-in-law, George (Amy Aquino and Peter Friedman), and grandsons Alan and Nathaniel (Danny Gerard and Mathew Siegel). One of the storylines throughout the run of the show was the relationship between 14-year-old Alan and Irish Catholic Katie Monahan (Jenny Lewis), which was met with disapproval from both their families. Goldberg presented the perspective of Katie’s family with equal sensitivity, and one of the series’ most memorable episodes was a dinner for the families, arranged by their kids, at a Chinese restaurant. Brooklyn Bridge had the full support of CBS – despite the network’s boneheaded move of airing the first season on Friday nights, when religious Jews couldn’t watch. The program received great critical acclaim, but its ratings were awful. Even so, the praise for the show and CBS’ belief in it were so great that the network renewed it for another season. It expired after 33 episodes, but remains the most vivid depiction of Jewish family life ever seen in a television series.  

Mad About You (1992-1999) One of numerous series in which the neurotic Jewish guy (Paul Buchman played by Paul Reiser) marries the lovely gentile (Jamie Stemple Buchman, played by Helen Hunt). Amazingly, never once in 162 episodes were the differences in their backgrounds ever discussed. For two people who talked incessantly about everything, it seemed dishonest.
The Nanny (1993-1999) Oy vey! What to say about The Nanny. I admit the show often made me laugh. It also made me cringe, and sometimes made me angry. It was certainly novel to have a beautiful Jewish woman (Fran Drescher) play a lead character (Fran Fine) whose Jewishness was very much a part of her persona. Drescher is funny and likeable. But Fran Fine was also loud – in her speech and her appearance – nasal, allergic to work, uneducated, materialistic, and manipulative where Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), the non-Jewish object of her affection, was concerned. Her mother, Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor), was louder, gaudier, uncouth, almost always inappropriate, and downright tacky. The show reached its nadir when Sylvia brought a bacon sandwich into a synagogue. On the one hand, it’s progress of some kind that not only was Fran in love with Sheffield, but that this handsome, wealthy, erudite Englishman found her equally desirable. On the other hand, the grossly exaggerated Jewish stereotypes were debasing.

Will & Grace (1998-2006/rebooted in 2017) This breakthrough show about the bff relationship between gay lawyer Will Truman (Erick McCormack) and straight interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing) depicts a Jewish woman who is smart, neurotic in a familiar New York way, and relatable. Messing told a Jewish publication a few months ago that it was important to her to make Grace real. “We were finding a source of comedy that is very specific to her. Let’s talk about her being Jewish, going to Camp Ramah, her bat mitzvah.” In many ways, the show signaled that television was changing, becoming more inclusive. “ Will & Grace became known for representing marginalized people, mainly those in the LGBTQ community. That was at the forefront of our discussions: How can we represent in a more progressive way?"

Other shows with Jewish characters in leading roles or major supporting roles include The Facts of Life (1979-1988), in which a Jewish girl and a black girl were best friends; Chicken Soup (1989), Jewish man and gentile woman; Anything But Love (1989-1992), Jewish man and gentile woman; Dharma and Greg (1997-2002), Jewish woman and gentile man; Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), Bruce Weitz as a tough detective; Cheers and Frasier (1982-2003), Lilith Sternin, who married and divorced Frasier (Bebe Neuwirth); Murphy Brown (1988-1998), featuring the neurotic producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud); Picket Fences (1992-1996), Fyvush Finkel as a character that was borderline offensive; The Practice (1997-2004), attorney Eleanor Frutt (Camryn Manheim); The West Wing (1999-2006), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff); and Friends (1994-2004), possibly Ross, possibly Monica, possibly Rachel – it’s complicated.