Not long ago in the Jewish Exponent offices, the staff had an argument about the word “jawn,” specifically, what it means.
A piece of signature Philly lingo, jawn can stand in for really any noun. “Pass me that jawn.” “What page was that jawn on again?” “The jawn is on the jawn.” (That’s a real sentence.)
In essence, its definition is that it means both everything and nothing.
It can be argued, maybe, that the same definition applies to Seinfeld. It was a show at once about everything and nothing, which could be why it was such a hit.
“It is a place that the show’s creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, constructed themselves,” writes Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in the introduction of her book, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, “even if they didn’t realize it at the time, when they blurred the boundaries between their fictions and reality like no show before Seinfeld did.
“Seinfeldia is a place that now carries on, as vital as ever, without its original architects, thanks to incessant syndicated reruns that continue to gain new generations of fans and a religious fan base bent on ritually resurrecting the show’s touchstone moments via cocktail-party quote recitations.”
Maybe you can learn more when Jerry Seinfeld brings his signature stand-up routine to the Academy of Music on April 7.
He’s been plenty busy in the 20 years since Seinfeld ended. He started the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee in 2012. A 2017 Netflix special, Jerry Before Seinfeld, saw him returning to The Comic Strip, the club that gave him his start in the ’70s.
“It’s presented as an eye-opening trip into the entertainer’s past, or as this superhero-loving stand-up might prefer, an ‘origin story,’” wrote Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz in a review. “But in the tradition of Seinfeld the stand-up and ‘Seinfeld’ the fictional character, it’s a carefully curated one.”
But despite the other projects he’s done since the show’s end, there’s still something about Seinfeld that captures our hearts to this day — even 20 years since it’s ended.
One Facebook user commented that his favorite episode is “The Chinese Restaurant,” from the second season. “It broke serious ground for TV comedy — there’s almost no storyline and it’s set in real time,” he wrote. “It reminds me of Waiting for Godot and it’s almost on the level of art. Larry David threatened to quit in order for it to make it to air.”
Sharon Pinkenson doesn’t have a favorite episode — unlike most people, she said — but loved the show nonetheless.
“There was such a strong attraction to the show for me that felt very Jewish and that kept me coming back no matter how kvetchy it was,” said Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. “I devoured the characters’ idiosyncrasies because they made me feel so much more comfortable in my own skin by comparison. Still, I wanted to have them as my friends.”
In an interview with the Exponent in 2017, author Armstrong noted that she learned a lot about Jewish culture from the show — even if it wasn’t explicit in its Jewishness.
“The show has a really confusing relationship with Jewishness,” she said. “I don’t think most people thought about it that much.”
In the very beginning, when the show was called The Seinfeld Chronicles before being renamed, a network executive actually thought the show was “too New York, too Jewish,” recounted an article from TV Guide.
But, obviously, not everyone agreed — it became a hit.
It was also more subtly Jewish, as Armstrong noted in her interview. Costanza isn’t exactly a typical Jewish last name, but Jason Alexander said he knew George was Jewish when he met his onscreen mother.
Armstrong pointed to plenty of “culturally vague Jewish stuff, like babkas,” as well as a couple episodes that tackled Jewish content directly — one with a bris, the other with a Bar Mitzvah.
However, Armstrong said, “it’s not as if they were putting on their yarmulkes and going to services.”
“I learned about Jewish culture to some extent from Seinfeld,” she said. “It was my first introduction to some of those concepts.”
Seinfeld presented Judaism and Jewish culture to the screens “in a time where Jewish visibility was becoming more prominent,” wrote Abigia Menkir in a Medium post appropriately titled “Yada, Yada.”
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
It was also presented accurately, she noted, as its writers — Seinfeld and Larry David — are Jewish.
“The usage of their personal experiences in creating show material not only leads the show to lean toward situations and jokes related to Judaism and Jewish culture,” she wrote, “but also ensures its accuracy in delivery, set up, and its relation to the rest of society.”
But no matter if it’s the content we find most relatable as Jews or just because it’s entertaining, Armstrong noted its longevity doesn’t seem to wear out.
As she said in the interview, “There’s something weird about [Seinfeld]: You can watch it over and over and over again and never really get tired of it.”
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