“Yada Yada” — How Seinfeld Took Jewish Culture Mainstream
Seinfeld is a household name amongst most sitcom watchers — it is a timeless classic that appeals to a wide variety of people, and is a staple in popular culture. It is a comedy based in New York City in the early 90s, and is a self-proclaimed “show about nothing.” Its exploration of average people getting into awkward situations is not only relatable to all, but gave the producers and writers the opportunity to explore a variety of situations and relationships, and the freedom to create and carry out scenarios anyway they chose.
At the time of the show’s production and creation, the Jewish identity was in the middle of reconstruction and moulding. Seinfeld provides television watchers some insight into the conflicts and day-to-day negotiations involved with Jewish cultural identity in North America, specifically New York (Krieger 2003, 387). It shows various representations of Jewish people and how modernity and religion interact in their lives. It also gives insight into Jewish culture, including language, lifestyle, and religious practices. Seinfeld, as a staple of popular culture, is dialogic — it makes viewers aware of Jewish cultural and religious practices, and by bringing these things forward, they can be discussed and shared. Through cultural hegemony, Seinfeld influences representation of this group, and the dialogic nature of popular culture makes the spreading and influencing of ideas not only spread through being consumed by viewers, but spread by viewers through active discussion (J. Harris 2016).
Television is an important medium because of its capacity to it spread popular culture and making it a shared experience. Technology’s advancements have made it such that it is not only a one time event — it can be re-watched, studied, and analyzed (Santana 2008, 115). Television provides information to be discussed and theorized about, much like any work of literature to those who will devote the time to learning about it. Not only that, but television shares ideas that the viewer may not receive from any other source. The ability of media to spread and share information is almost unfathomable, and the information age is so expansive in bringing people together and bringing ideas and concepts to all. The pleasurable nature of cultural production allows messages and concepts to be willingly and happily received by viewers (J. Harris 2016).
In Neal Gabler’s book, An Empire of Their Own, readers look at the Jewish influence in the entertainment industry, and how a small group of Jewish men had a huge amount of influence in shaping the film industry that we know today (Gabler 1989, 2). Many of these people left New York and went to Hollywood to pursue their dreams of sharing and creating media, and ended up founding hugely successful groups such as Universal Pictures, the Fox Film Corporation, and the Warner Brothers (Gabler 1989, 2). Not only did they have control over the production studios, but Jewish writers, talent agencies, lawyers, and doctors were thriving all over the industry as well. (Gabler 1989, 2). However their paths were not straight, and they faced a lot of anti-Semitism and xenophobia from these industries. (Gabler 1989, 6). They had a hard time assimilating into America’s culture and being accepted as contributors to the media industry. Not only were they disliked for their cultural beliefs and upbringings, they were also resented for their control and numbers within the industry. The “Hollywood Jews” went about assimilating and fitting themselves into the cookie-cutter American lifestyle, and they put their Judaism in the metaphorical closet as they adopted a lifestyle and belief in all things American.
Seinfeld presented Judaism and Jewish culture to the screens in a time where Jewish visibility was becoming more prominent. In the early 50s, in the beginning of network television production, where content was being policed in order to create the perfect image for the screens, the “Jewish, Negroes,” and other minority groups were not wanted in television, and representation was very low for ethnic groups (Krieger 2003, 391). Although there were attempts at the introduction of more ethnic families to the screens, such as Irish-American, Italian-American, and Jewish-American, they did not have much success. Jewish producers and comedians used content and created media that masked the Jewish identity, preferring rather to stick with the status quo of media. The Jewish comedians that did flourish while emphasizing their cultural roots used heavy “Yiddishisms” and created exaggerated characters and stories, making their comedy less realistic and moreso fabricated humor, meant only to be laughed at. So when Seinfeld came out in 1989, openly Jewish, but without being a caricature of the culture and religion, it was a welcome yet unusual time for television (Miller 1998, 147). Seinfeld appeared at the beginning of identity being defined through cultural and ethnic differences, and these differences were highlighted but also incorporated into one society, and this created new dialogue as to how Jewish culture fit into the lives of the Gentile audience. The crafting of relatable scenarios and characters positively changed perceptions. Popular culture homogenized society and allowed for the unity and acceptance of groups.
Seinfeld was written and produced by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, both Jewish men living in New York at the time.
The usage of their personal experiences in creating show material not only leads the show to lean towards situations and jokes related to Judaism and Jewish culture, but also ensures its accuracy in delivery, set up, and its relation to the rest of society. A good amount of the executive producers on the show are also from Jewish descent, which not only makes the topic and focus of this show something that would be of personal interest to them, it also helps them create and shape the representation that one would want to see in the media of their group. Although the stereotype of Jewish control over the entertainment industry is in no way happening, there is still Jewish presence and influence in Hollywood, and it is visible in projects as such. A lot of this group was also involved in the production and writing of Curb Your Enthusiasm, another popular sitcom with heavy Jewish cultural influence and starring a Jewish lead.
Seinfeld has a variety of characters constructed to display and emphasize different groups and stereotypes within New York’s society — such as the schlemiel, a trope in Jewish folklore whose life revolves around unluckiness and bad situations (Johnson 1994, 118). In Seinfeld, this “schmuck,” a word coming from Yiddish meaning stupid or foolish, is none other than George Costanza, unlucky best friend of Jerry Seinfeld. This character is not only a stereotypical loser of the friend group, making him easy to laugh at, he also portrays “Jewish” stereotypes such as pessimism and neuroses (Krieger, 399).
He, with his heavy involvement and pressure from his parents, his mother who is the stereotypical overbearing Jewish mother, is meant to be Jerry’s counterpart. Unlike Jerry, who is living the “American Dream” and seems to have a good balance between his identification as a Jewish man and his ability to assimilate and succeed in Gentile culture, George just seems to fail at most things he attempts. But most importantly, he has the mindset that he is already a loser. His lack of faith reflects a lack of faith that was found in mainstream America, not only in religion and higher powers such as luck and fate, but in life itself (Johnson 1994, 122). Viewers could relate to that and they appreciated it, and the schlemiel became as loveable and relatable as he is mock-able. This common pattern of thinking created a dialogue in which people could relate and discuss similar topics, situations, and mindsets.
Jerry, on the other hand, is the schlimazel, one whose comedy is situational, and whose situations arise from every day pains and pleasures (Johnson 1994, 118). Although subject to the ups and downs of life as a person who makes mistakes and misinterpretations, has a life that’s almost always on the upswing, or at least is doing better than his counterpart. He is the middle man, the ideal protagonist who can walk the fine line and can succeed in a society where he has to balance two different cultures. His foil, George, highlights their differences, not only making Jerry’s mistakes look better but also emphasizing his character and the duality he expresses. His image as the “common man” makes him and his problems more relatable to people of any cultural identification, and he spreads an image of a man identifying with one culture while succeeding in another that almost anyone can connect with (Miller 1998, 150). Any average individual can see themselves in Jerry, not only in the way he approaches relatable problems in life, but his interactions, interpretations, and the outcomes of the action he takes — Jerry Seinfeld is everyone’s (funnier than most) Average Joe.
The way in which he handles problems related to his culture allow these ideas and conflicts to appear possible in the eyes of the viewer that may not be able to relate to Jewish cultural issues, but has their own family, cultural, and religious problems and influences in their lives.
The way Elaine carries herself is shown as milder than the stereotypical “Jewish woman with a temper” (Cooper 2013, 112). More often than not, her solution to problems is an uncomfortable face and a whole-hearted complaint later on.
However, this doesn’t stop her from flying into furious rages when provoked or annoyed, turning her from the docile expression of the typical Gentile woman to the aggressive and intimidating Jewish woman, who can’t be bothered to fall into the female stereotypes of gentle and meek (Cooper, 100). Although not all viewers can relate with the overbearing and aggressive Jewish woman, the overbearing woman portrays a stereotype that is known to all, and easy to make fun of and relate to. Popular culture creates situations in which a widespread group of people from a variety of places and backgrounds are exposed to the same material. Through this shared material, they not only discuss their similar and different interpretations of the material, but also inspires the acceptance of these concepts into general society, creating open-mindedness towards the homogenization of society.
In the episode “The Yada Yada”, Jerry is convinced that his dentist converted to Judaism only to be able to make Jewish jokes and use Jewish terms. He’s unhappy because he feels that a religion should not be marginalized and be used only for comedy. It also makes use of the term “yada yada,” transliterated from the Hebrew word יָדַע, meaning to know. In the King James bible, its also a euphemism for sex. When George’s girlfriend uses the phrase “yada yada” in reference to an encounter with her ex-boyfriend, he looks past the context of the phrase as replacing the term “blah blah” and worries if the two of them had sexual relations. This shows how a phrase or term can be very different between cultures. The phrase, although it was already fairly popular, it grew hugely popular after this episode, and is a well-known Seinfeld reference in popular culture. It’s interesting to observe how this phrase, originating from Hebrew, became not only a pop culture reference but a popular phrase within society. The Canadian Jewish News puts this episode in second place as the most Jewish episodes of Seinfeld, not only praising it for depicting religion in comedy, but for the interactions between Judaism and Catholicism. This episode was generally received well and praised by the general population, but wasn’t considered the funniest or most ingenious episode of the show. Vulture rated this episode 92nd because although the show “propel(led) it (the term) to stratospheric pop-culture prominence,” no-one seemed to really care if the dentist converted to Judaism for the jokes or not. From various review boards and websites, it seemed that appreciation of this episode was higher amongst Jewish groups and webpages. In this scenario, pop culture is used as dialogic because it highlights the dichotomy between two different religions, Catholicism and Judaism. It also creates conversation about religion as a topic of comedy, and explores boundaries and opinions from different groups. This episode also creates dialogue about language and its usage. For those who are familiar with the term “yada yada” and its roots, this episode provides an interesting way of looking at how context affects terminology, and for those who may not be familiar with the cultural and linguistic history of it, it sparks curiosity and initiates research and conversation.
In the episode “The Bris,” Jerry and Elaine are asked to be godparents of a child and arrange a bris for him, a bris being a circumcision ceremony. Elaine is in charge of hiring a mohel, a Jew trained in the process of circumcision, and expresses often her unfamiliarity and discomfort with the whole process. Kramer is vehemently opposed to it, and tries to convince friends and family that it’s a bad decision. This episode is considered by the Canadian Jewish News to be the most Jewish episode of Seinfeld, and with the whole episode revolving around a huge aspect of Jewish tradition that is not as common in Gentile culture, it clearly emphasizes the struggle of balancing culture and lifestyle, and how situations like that are handled. CJN praises it for bringing this cultural practice to light for those who haven’t heard of it, and making it a topic of discussion and something to poke fun at for those who have. Again, this ranking and praise is based on its incorporation and use of Jewish content. Vulture rates it 34th out of all the Seinfeld episodes but mostly focuses on Kramer’s magical realism situation with the pig-man. It’s important to look at multiple systems of ranking because it gives a good idea of what different groups consider criteria in order for a show to be successful or popular. The topic of circumcision is one that is debated upon by different cultural groups, and this episode is a great example of popular culture being used as dialogic — it brings this religious ceremony to the table, and shows how it might appear in the average person’s life. This now allows viewers to understand it how they will, and creates a dialogue between different groups and within the same or similar groups. Perhaps for one group or another, after this episode, circumcision is discussed in a different context than that which it would normally be. This episode is a great example of popular culture being used to shift opinions and inspire new sorts of dialogues about a religious topic.
Seinfeld brought Jewish culture to the forefront of entertainment media in a way that had never been done before — with an interesting and varied cast, a variety of situations bringing together various ideas and groups, and through the interaction between Jewish and Gentile cultures and lifestyles. In the way that television shows do, this common experience and the varied interpretations of it created dialogue about new topics, and about old topics in new ways. Popular culture’s ability to spread ideas and change perceptions helped to create a positive and comprehensive dialogue about the lifestyle and practices of the Jewish. It provided a change of perspective, a sense of depth, and all in a way that was relatable and enjoyable to viewers.
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Cooper, Evan. “I’m a Little Scared of Elaine: Representations of Jewish and Gentile Women on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”” Studies in American Humor, New Series 3, no. 27 (2013): 93–115.
Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. New York, NY: Anchor Books (1989).
Harris, Jennifer. RLG233: Lecture 5.2. University of Toronto, (2016).
Johnson, Carla. The Schlemiel and the Schlimazl in Seinfeld.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 22, no. 3 (1994): 116–24.
Krieger, Rosalin. “Does He Actually Say the Word Jewish?” — Jewish Representations in Seinfeld. Journal for Cultural Research 7, no. 4 (2003): 387–404.
Miller, P. D. Good-bye Seinfeld. Theology Today 55, no. 2 (1998): 147–51.
Santana, Richard W., and Gregory Erickson. Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.
Whatley GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/hulu-seinfeld-3o7TKuDbYcuhMAGxX2
Dancing GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/cravetvcanada-seinfeld-jerry-george-costanza-l2JJyDYEX1tXFmCd2
Coffee GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/comedy-coffee-dGhlifOCTtSdW
Yada Yada GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/seinfeld-EgvAJ21dkcwgw
Elaine Face GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/seinfeld-elaine-soup-nazi-xun0gfWF9YlgY
Kramer No Pants GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/seinfeld-comedy-VMNXVbSpMf0iY