True, Larry David doesn’t much like whitefish. True, he makes fun of the Orthodox and — yes — he made far too public two dark, shameful secrets of Judaism: that we sell tickets for High Holy Day services and that Gina Gershon is one of us.
But don’t be fooled.
It’d be easy to dismiss Larry David — or at least his on-screen “Larry David,” the dust devil of narcissism spraying grit over anyone who crosses his path on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — as one of those Jews who plays the stereotypes for jokes and is otherwise ignorant of his cultural history. A comedy Jew, leaning heavily on the standbys — insecurity, anxiety and generalized neurotica — for laughs. But for all his sacrilegious posturing, the reality he’s constructed and maintained in the show’s five-season run actually offers up a classical rabbinic model of Judaism. It may be despite himself, but at the end of the day, Larry David turns out to be quite the traditionalist.
For starters, look at the very world in which he set his show. For all intents and purposes, he’s re-created, for all to appreciate, the long-dead world of the shtetl. Although here, the shtetl is Los Angeles. Westside Los Angeles, to be exact. A place where, as David draws it, everyone knows everyone. Where all are related (if by business instead of blood). Where the one person you’re hoping to avoid will no doubt be seated at the table right next to you at L.A. Farm.
The details have changed, but the rules are the same: Just like in the Old Country, there’s no privacy here. Offend one lesbian, and every last one of them will have heard the news by lunch. It’s a closed system — a corduroy and shirt-jacket world as small and full of coincidence as Anatevka, just with the mule recast as a Prius.
And what do people do in the new shtetl? The same thing they did in the old: They bicker over minutiae.
The essential substance of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is Larry’s ingeniously asinine fights over everything and nothing. Wherever he goes, there is a semantic squabble to get into, generally hair-splitting over some local custom. Except instead of debating, say, the return of lost property in an un-walled city, it’s whether or not a prop nail from “The Passion of the Christ” can be used to affix a mezuza to a door. We all know you’re supposed to give a wedding present within a year, but what happens if one is a few weeks beyond a calendar year? While not ideal, should it not be acceptable? Yotze ha’mitzvah b’dieved? What if the gift is really expensive?
Sound familiar? This is nothing short of rabbinic discourse, the Talmud as taught in Brentwood Gardens.
To dispute at volume about trivial details is as classically Jewish as studying in a dim cheder with a snuff-sniffing rabbi, wondering when the next pogrom might hit. You can almost see him gesticulating with his thumb as he scraps it out with his unfortunate guest stars: If a man needs to use the bathroom and only the handicapped stall is unoccupied, may he not use it if he is in dire need? If a man is given a check for damages to a broken taillight, can he spend it on breast implants for his daughter? It isn’t a matter of who is right, it’s a matter of taking time to have the argument. And thus the central preoccupation of the Old World Jew lives on. Taken a little less seriously, of course, but sparing none of the passion.
And then there is the underlying physics that governs the universe of “Curb,” the comforting way everything can be relied on to tie together by the end. Nearly every episode offers a lesson in the complete reliability of divine justice. As sure as the rabbis were that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished (in the next world, if not in this one), we viewers can sink into the couch, secure in the knowledge that whoever so offends the most in a particular episode will, by the end, get what’s coming to them. Possibly only seconds before the credits roll.
This particular feature is more than rabbinic, it’s downright Levitical. That self-righteous neighbor who was happy to tell Larry what Wagner songs he could whistle, yet wouldn’t own up to what his daughter did to Larry’s house? Don’t worry, he gets his (“Cue the orchestra!”). All those Seder-goers who didn’t want that nice sex offender to break matzo with them? They’ll be glad he was there soon enough (“Anyone know CPR?”).
Yes, there is God in the picture here — in God’s most comically useful aspect: the provider of irony.
Even Larry himself is not immune: He accuses an elderly woman of cheating at bingo without proof… he’s run over by a kamikaze wheelchair. He fakes being a more religious Jew… he loses a kidney.
It’s enough to make him wish he didn’t have to carry this burden of God’s special attention.
In fact, David hit that idea head on in this year’s hour-length (and arguably too long) finale. The fifth season tracked Larry’s search for the truth of his biological parentage, ultimately leading to the discovery that he was adopted. And get this: His birth parents aren’t Jewish.
The news comes like a winning Powerball ticket. Especially for Larry, a man so long oppressed by the heightened circumstances of his religion.
As the old Yiddish expression goes, “Schver tzu zein an Yid” (“It’s hard to be a Jew”) — and so the very moment Larry learns about the adoption, life instantly comes easier. His voice suddenly carries a tune. Horses obey his commands. Even a sweater vest looks good on him.
To David, it’s not just that it’s hard to be a Jew; it’s that it’s great to be a gentile. He is finally freed from the burden of his cultural disposition, “cured” of that terrible case of Semitics that’s been plaguing him his whole life. His life-long commitment to narcissism is overwhelmed by a spirit of giving.
Of course, the walls come crumbling down on that springtime fantasy when he finds out he’s not adopted, after all. It is in that realization — and in the instant reassertion of his miserable personality that follows —that David is telling us the truth he’d rather not know himself: that you can’t not be what you are, no matter how much what you are sort of sucks.
So it’s back to his life of self-absorption and divine retribution and needing to prove his point at the expense of propriety. It’s back to the shtetl. Much as he might say he wants to, it looks like Larry David can’t curb his Judaism any more than he could let go of a kidney without a fight. It may be a patrimony he’d rather not inherit, but it’s unavoidably his. Whitefish and all.
Michael Green is a screenwriter living in Santa Monica, Calif.