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Schmidt’s backstory on the show is that he was Nick’s overweight, slightly desperate college friend who majored in marketing and theater studies. Fast-forward to present day, and Schmidt has washboard abs, which he displayed by dressing up for Halloween as a character from “Magic Mike” (a recent movie about male strippers), along with a closet filled with perfectly tailored suits. He loves cleanliness so much that he sometimes sneaks into the others’ bedrooms just to tidy up. Indeed, his concern for himself matches his concern for others.
Schmidt is not Jewish in the Jerry Seinfeld sense, in which it is inferred but never explicitly stated. Nor is he Jewish in the Larry David, Judd Apatow or Adam Sandler sense. For them, Judaism serves as a punch line at best, and at worst a source of self-hatred.
Nope, Schmidt loves being Jewish. He corrects someone for mistaking his Purim costume for a Halloween costume and calls himself the “Jewish Peter Pan.” He speaks tenderly about his zayde’s egg salad and kreplach. And during the recent Christmas episode, he tells his friends how hard it is for Jewish children to keep the truth about Santa to themselves; by the end of the episode, he expresses his need to stick with his people during the holiday season.
“I am so sick of hanging out with Christians. This is my last Christian Christmas,” he tells a car full of friends after they drunkenly convince themselves that the kind, African-American cop that pulled them over was actually Santa.
Another thing that sets apart Schmidt from his schlemiel forerunners is his happy embrace of his feminine side. Besides his love of grooming and emotional vulnerability, he understands that once women-only activities like cooking and chatting are what today can make a man.
Indeed, Schmidt’s feminine side has made him more adaptable in this economy, which, according to Hanna Rosin in her recent book, “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” favors typically feminine traits, like communicating and multitasking. Of the four roommates, Schmidt is the only one who seems to be going somewhere professionally.
Earlier this season he has a competition with his cousin for the exclusive usage of the nickname “Schmidt.” They begin with typical masculine stuff, like strength-testing exercises that give his ex-Marine cousin the advantage. But ultimately they end up in the kitchen, where Schmidt explains: “Your caveman ideas about manhood are so over. Manhood today is about exfoliation, and cheese courses, and emotional honesty and Paxil.”
Maybe his sensitivity and relentless caring have to do with the fact that Schmidt was raised by his mom, and, later, her female partner, while his dad went off and had three kids with another woman.
Previous memorable schlemiels, guys like Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy or Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, have been characterized by their struggle with women, namely their mothers. But Schmidt is a guy who loves his Jewish mother just fine.
Elissa Strauss, a contributing editor to The Sisterhood blog, is a journalist living in Brooklyn.