How “Seinfeld” Paved the Way for Bernie Sanders

by Rafael Medoff

As recently as the 1940s, antisemitism was so common in the United States that even the president privately told offensive jokes about Jewish immigrants in a faux New York Jewish accent.

Yet in the past few months, a candidate who is the son of Jewish immigrants and has a pronounced New York Jewish accent has won eighteen presidential primaries and caucuses, and more than six million votes. He has received donations from more than four million Americans–the largest number of individual contributors to any political campaign in U.S. history.

Have American public attitudes toward Jews changed so drastically? And if so, how did it happen?

Antisemitism reached record levels in the United States in the 1940s. Polls found that more than half of all Americans considered Jews greedy and dishonest. More than one-third felt Jews had too much power. Nearly one-fourth regarded Jews as “a menace to America.”

Not even President Franklin D. Roosevelt was immune. He once joked privately that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, in view of what he said was the baby’s “slightly Hebraic nose.”

FDR’s eldest grandson, Curtis Roosevelt, has recalled “hearing the President tell mildly anti-Semitic stories in the White House,” in which “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents.” Historians have uncovered a number of additional instances in which Roosevelt made unfriendly remarks about Jews.

That was seventy-five years ago. Antisemitism in the United States has not vanished in the interim, but if measured according to public opinion surveys, it certainly has decreased significantly since the World War Two era. The Anti-Defamation League estimates that only about 10-15% of Americans still subscribe to prejudices about Jews being selfish or having too much influence–in other words, less than one half of the number during the Roosevelt years.

There are many factors that explain this shift in attitudes–and may help explain the improbable rise of Bernie Sanders. One has to do with Jewish characters in pop culture. A number of sympathetic Jewish characters appeared in television shows, films, plays, and novels beginning in the 1970s. The influence of TV situation comedies is especially important in this context, both because of the frequency with which they appeared (every week) and because many of their Jewish characters were, like Senator Sanders, from the older generation. The image of the older Jew as alien and off-putting began to crumble as tens of millions of Americans welcomed an array of appealing, older Jewish sitcom characters into their living rooms week after week.

The first was Rhoda Morgenstern’s mother, Ida, who appeared both in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (which aired from 1970-1977) and in “Rhoda” (1974-1978). She was difficult and meddlesome, to be sure, but ultimately she was lovable as well.

Then there was Jerry’s Uncle Leo, in “Seinfeld” (1989-1998); Fran’s mother, Sylvia, in “The Nanny” (1993-1999); and Grace’s mother, Bobbi, in “Will and Grace” (1998-2006). Sometimes they made us cringe, but they almost always made us laugh.

Recurring older Jewish characters on “Saturday Night Live” should also be mentioned. An entire generation of American television audiences grew up with Jon Lovitz’s “Hanukkah Harry” (introduced in 1989) and, especially, Mike Myers’ wildly popular “Linda Richman,” hostess of the faux radio show “Coffee Talk” (1991-1995).

Senator Sanders does not possess the youthful appearance or slick presentation that one might assume a presidential candidate requires to attract a substantial number of voters, especially from the younger generation. With his rigid ideological positions and preachy speaking style, Sanders has sometimes been described as an overbearing Jewish uncle.

That, however, is just the point. There was a time when an overbearing Jewish uncle was widely perceived as foreign, unpleasant, and worthy of derision. But for the generation that grew up with Linda Richman and Uncle Leo, Sanders’ personality traits are not just tolerable– they are familiar and even endearing.

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee for president. But his unexpected achievements as a candidate illustrate a remarkable transformation in public attitudes that has taken place, in which the cranky old Jewish socialist of yesteryear is now viewed affectionately through the prism provided by “Saturday Night Live” and “Seinfeld.”

April 2016