Justin Bieber and the Most Jewish Drag Race
Unless you lost power during the recent snowstorm, there was no escaping the recent story of Justin Bieber’s arrest, which flooded the airwaves with a barrage of breaking updates and speculation about the troubled (and possible retired) pop star. An MSNBC anchor even preempted an interview with a California congresswoman about NSA domestic spying to deliver important breaking news about the drag race, the possible alcohol use, and other minutia surrounding Bieber’s arrest.
In order to escape Biebergate, I decided do a little digging into the drag race that had the most lasting impact on me as a child: In a first season episode of “Happy Days” that aired almost exactly forty years ago to the day, The Fonz agrees to race Ralph Malph’s souped up car against the hated Skizzy in what Ralph calls “the greatest drag race of the century!” To my surprise, I found that this race, in the episode, “Guess Who’s Coming to Visit?” easily qualifies as the most Jewish drag race of all time.
First of all, the episode was authored by two Jewish screenwriters - Mark Rothman and Lowell Ganz. The two met at Queens College, and set out for LA together after securing a writing job on the “Odd Couple.” After being fired and briefly living in their car, the friends and writing partners were rehired by producer Garry Marshall, which led to their work on “Happy Days,” where Ganz would eventually assume the role of head writer (and also co-creator of two of its spinoffs, “Laverne and Shirley” and “Joanie Loves Chachi”).
The episode was directed by veteran Jewish actor and director Jerry Paris, who would go on to direct over 200 episodes of Happy Days over the next ten years. Paris’ daughter was quoted in a 2010 Jewish Journal article as affirming that Jerry and his family were all “very proud of our Jewish heritage.”
And, of course, nearly all the participants in the “Happy Days” “drag race” scene were portrayed by Jewish actors. The owner of the car, Ralph Malph, was played by Jewish actor Donny Most, who was born in Brooklyn and graduated from the celebrated Erasmus Hall High School about ten years after Barbara Streisand. Of course, the legendary Arthur Herbert “The Fonz” Fonzarelli (who was way cooler than Bieber back in the day) was portrayed by none other than Henry Winkler, whose German refugee parents helped found a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s 66th street. Even rival drag racer Skizzy was played by a Jewish actor (Alan Abelew)!
But perhaps the most Jewish thing about the “Happy Days” drag race was that…it never happened. Right before the race was set to begin, Richie Cunningham’s father (played by Jewish actor Tom Bosley) runs breathlessly to the starting line to stop it. Then the police show up, and everyone gets a stern lecture from the rather rabbinic police chief back at the station on the dangers of drag racing. Richie winds up “grounded for life” (or at least two weeks), and the lesson is learned. If that’s not an ending to make a Jewish mother proud, I’m not sure what is.
So there you have it - the most Jewish drag race of all time, forty years before Bieber. Then again, Justin does say the shema before concerts (as taught to him by his Jewish manager Scott “Scooter” Braun), and his race did take place in Miami Beach. So, who knows? Maybe he was just in a hurry to get to Jerry’s Famous Deli. Ayyyyyyy…..