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Jerry Seinfeld Can No Longer Be About Nothing

In World
May 04, 2024

Jerry Seinfeld became a mic-cradling, cereal-eating, “did-you-ever-notice”-ing avatar of American Jewish life with a brazenly shrugging persona: a merry indifference to weighty material as a comedian and in his megahit TV show about nothing, as petty and apolitical as he seemed to be.

Now — off-camera, at least — Seinfeld appears to have reached his post-nothing period.

Since the attacks of Oct. 7 in Israel and through their bloody and volatile aftermath in the Gaza Strip, Seinfeld, 70, has emerged as a strikingly public voice against antisemitism and in support of Jews in Israel and the United States, edging warily toward a more forward-facing advocacy role than he ever seemed to seek across his decades of fame.

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He has shared reflections about life on a kibbutz in his teens, and in December traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel, to meet with hostages’ families, soberly recounting afterward the missile attack that greeted him during the trip.

He has participated, to a point, in the kind of celebrity activism with which few associate him — letter-signing campaigns, earnest messages on social media — answering simply recently when asked about the motivation for his visit to Israel: “I’m Jewish.”

And as some U.S. cities and college campuses simmer with conflict over the Middle East crisis and Israel’s military response, Seinfeld has faced a measure of public scorn that he has rarely courted as a breakfast-obsessed comedian, intensified by the more vocal advocacy of his wife, Jessica, a cookbook author.

This past week, as the couple and their children appeared together at the premiere of Jerry Seinfeld’s new movie (“Unfrosted,” about Pop-Tarts), his wife attracted attention for another reason: She promoted on Instagram, and said she had helped bankroll, a counterprotest at UCLA, where clashes with pro-Palestinian demonstrators have turned violent.

Among some activists on that side of the divide, disdain for the Seinfelds had been building for months.

“Genocide supporter!” protesters shouted at Jerry Seinfeld on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in February as he left a “State of World Jewry” address given by Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion editor and writer whose media company, The Free Press, has been championed by Jessica Seinfeld.

In some ways, the couple’s choices since Oct. 7 reflect the tensions tugging at many American families in this polarized moment as they negotiate the limits of how much to say and do about their political beliefs in the open.

A representative for Jerry Seinfeld referred an inquiry to Hindy Poupko, an executive at UJA-Federation of New York who knows Jessica Seinfeld through Jewish philanthropic work. “The vast majority of New York Jews have a strong emotional connection to Israel,” Poupko said. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld visit the families of hostages in Israel, she added, “has been an incredibly powerful source of comfort to our community.”

Yosi Shnaider, a relative of several hostages who met with the Seinfelds in Israel in December and shared his family’s story, recalled Seinfeld as supportive and reserved, listening more than he spoke.

“I am putting myself in his place,” Shnaider said in an interview, adding that Seinfeld might not have known “exactly what to ask.”

“His wife asked me what she can do. I told them I just want them to keep the story alive,” Shnaider said.

Jerry Seinfeld, who is scheduled to deliver a commencement address at Duke University this month, has tended to be private about his personal beliefs, onstage and otherwise. His namesake television show generally banished political introspection. His standup act has favored proudly inessential observations about driving, dating and air travel — workaday zingers to which citizens of all political stripes are equally vulnerable.

Since “Seinfeld,” he has spoken most expansively about the art of comedy itself, framing it as a morally neutral pursuit whose highest aim is to make people laugh. (Seinfeld recently made headlines for suggesting in an interview with The New Yorker that “the extreme left and PC crap” had hampered comedy.)

The shifts in Seinfeld’s public bearing after Oct. 7 have been modest, if still perceptible. He remains far less outspoken on the subject than other celebrities and comedians, such as Amy Schumer. But for a figure long held up, like few others in entertainment, as a generational narrator of the American Jewish experience, even a cautious exploration of his identity has been notable.

In one recent interview — part of a promotional tour for the Pop-Tarts movie — Seinfeld said he felt “very close to the struggle of being Jewish in the world.”

He has also stopped himself short of full-scale sermonizing.

“I don’t preach about it,” he told GQ last month. “I have my personal feelings about it that I discuss privately. It’s not part of what I can do comedically, but my feelings are very strong.”

Seinfeld’s views of Israel seem to echo those of many Jews his age. Growing up on Long Island, he attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah the year he turned 13, a representative confirmed. That was the year of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which prompted a sea change in American Jewish consciousness, establishing support for Israel as a pillar of American Jewish life.

By contrast, American Jews who came of age since the 1980s or 1990s have not known firsthand an Israel that was a regional underdog. And the youngest American Jews, a predominantly progressive cohort, may only remember an Israel led by increasingly right-wing governments under Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been the prime minister nearly without interruption for the past 15 years.

Leonard Saxe, a professor of Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said Seinfeld’s instinctive solidarity toward Israel was typical for their generation.

“We grew up worrying about Israel and its survival,” Saxe said, “and seeing Israel as the refuge for Jews from around the world.”

Some data points, even before Oct. 7, have suggested a deeper interest from Seinfeld in his Jewish identity.

When an Instagram post from Jessica Seinfeld, advising followers on how to talk about antisemitism, went viral in 2022, Jerry Seinfeld reposted the message (“I support my Jewish friends and the Jewish people”) and saluted its “nonaggressive” simplicity and power.

But for some with warm memories of “Seinfeld” — and searing opposition to the Israeli response to Oct. 7 — the comedian’s actions since that day have been disappointing.

Wajahat Ali, a writer and commentator who has been critical of the Israeli government and Hamas, suggested that Seinfeld’s support for Israel carried more weight, given his prior status as a “famously apolitical man who couldn’t muster any concern or care about what was happening in the world.”

“That was part of his aesthetic,” Ali said. But now, he added, Seinfeld had chosen to speak up as a wildly affluent man from “a cocoon of privilege” amid “a brutal war” he does not condemn.

Surely, Seinfeld sees it differently. His public comments have largely avoided geopolitical specifics, dwelling little on the choices of the Netanyahu government or prospective conditions for a cease-fire.

And he can still sound hesitant even in recent discussions about the Jewishness of “Seinfeld” — which an NBC executive once described as “too New York, too Jewish.”

Prompted in an interview last month with The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick (“There was an element of, ‘We can’t be too Jewy,’” Remnick suggested), Seinfeld did not linger on the theme.

“Not too Jewy. We skimmed at the surface occasionally,” Seinfeld said, adding, “Maybe we mentioned a bar mitzvah one time, maybe. I don’t know.”

Another memorable plot arc, in a Season 8 episode that first aired in 1997, was perhaps more instructive: The fictional Jerry’s dentist has converted to Judaism — in large part, Jerry suspects, to get away with telling transparently hacky jokes about Jews.

Troubled, Jerry seeks wisdom at a church confessional.

“This offends you as a Jewish person?” the priest asks him.

“No,” he says. “It offends me as a comedian.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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