On Jan. 25, CBS aired the TV movie “Loving Leah.” This pleasant if forgettable Hallmark Hall of Fame production told the romantic tale of a secular Jewish doctor (what else?) who marries his Chabad-chasidic sister-in-law, Leah, after the death of his brother, the rabbi (but of course!)
Actress Susie Essman, who portrayed Leah’s overbearing bubbe, appeared on the talk show “The View” last week to promote the new movie. However, Essman spent much of her time berating the real-life chasidic women she’d met during filming.
View co-host Joy Behar asked Essman, “So what did you learn about the chasidic religion?”
Essman replied, “They’re not very good dressers… Have you seen what these women look like half the time?”
I was shocked for two reasons.
First, I was personally offended by Susie Essman’s catty comments. My wife happens to be a Chabad-chasidic woman. She is proud of that – and so am I. In fact, my wig-wearing, modestly clad babe of a wife could easily teach Essman a few things about fashion and beauty. (At the risk of sounding as “dishy” as Essman, I seem to recall that the actress’ own good looks – or lack thereof – were the subject of considerable ribbing when she was on the dais of the Comedy Central Bob Saget Roast last year. When Cloris Leachman is joking about how much you look like a man, you’ve got problems.)
Second, I found it ironic to hear Susie Essman stereotyping Jewish women. After all, she’s made a lucrative career portraying a shallow, status-conscious Jewish wife. If that isn’t a cruel stereotype, then what is?
Essman plays the foul-mouthed Susie Greene on the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” As the wife of Larry David’s agent and best friend, Essman is a two-dimensional caricature: a sharp-tongued scold who always looks frumpy in spite of (or, more accurately, because of) her garish designer ensembles.
Meanwhile, Larry’s wife Cheryl is the non-Jewish trophy wife par excellence: beautiful, blonde, chic, and supportive. It’s a familiar trope in Jewish comedy, in which Jewish girls are often portrayed as consolation prizes next to the characters’ gentile trophy wives.
I should know: I wrote all about it in my new book, “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century.”
For instance, in “Annie Hall” (1977), Woody Allen’s character plays up the difference between his first two wives, both Jewish, and his new uber-WASP girlfriend Diane Keaton, who “looks like the wife of an astronaut.”
In “Keeping the Faith” (2000), Ben Stiller plays Rabbi Schram, who is caught in a very unlikely romantic rivalry with his best childhood friend, a Catholic priest, over the affections of an Irish Catholic girl. (P.S.: The rabbi gets the girl. And that’s not a spoiler. It’s not as if there could be any other finale under the circumstances, is there?) Before the curtain falls, however, Schram is introduced to a number of eligible Jewish girls. Unfortunately, these Jewish women are portrayed as desperate and unattractive.
Ben Stiller returned as Reuben Feffer in “Along Came Polly” (2004), playing an uptight, obsessive, nebbish Jew who marries a not-very-attractive Jewish girl. But before you can say mazal tov, his bride cheats while on their honeymoon. Stiller eventually finds new love with the spontaneous, pretty, non-Jewish Polly (Jennifer Aniston).
All these cruel depictions and many others fly in the face of reality, not to mention our spiritual inheritance. The fact is, the very first mention of humor in the Bible concerns a strong, beloved Jewish woman. The matriarch Sarah, you’ll recall, is told that God will finally bless her with her very first child – at the ripe old age of 99.
Sarah laughs, and who can blame her? But God is not amused: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is there something God cannot do?” (Genesis 18: 13â€“14)
When the child is born, Abraham and Sarah name the boy Isaac; the Hebrew “Yitzchak” comes from the root word “tzchok,” meaning “laughter.” Why? Because, as Sarah explains, “God has caused laughter to me.” (Genesis 21: 6)
Given laughter’s distinguished, even holy, pedigree, surely the time has come to stop laughing at Jewish women, as Susie Essman did, and start laughing with them.