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If Lois Griffin is Jewish, who isn't?

Earlier this week, Family Guy aired an episode called "Family Goy" in which Lois (the mother) discovers her Jewish roots.  As a self-proclaimed pop culture critic I feel like I should say something about this but honestly, what's to say?  It's getting a lot of attention, as you might expect when a show known for offensive humor takes on the Jews. But the reality is that this is nothing new.  If anything, it confirms the fact that Jewiness has gone mainstream.

For the sake of transparency, I do admit that I have not had time to watch the episode myself. (Although if I had really wanted to, I'm sure I could have found the time.)  Still, I feel I have a pretty good grasp of it thanks to reviews in the Forward, JTA, Jewish Journal, and Idol Chatter. (You can watch the episode online here.)

It is as you would expect.  Jew jokes playing on tired, old stereotypes.  The same thing we've seen on the Simpsons, South Park, and a number of other shows.  As the Jewish Journal reports, Lois, raised Protestant, finds out "her mother is a Holocaust survivor who gave up her Judaism to help her husband get into country clubs (“It was the right thing to do, dear,” Mrs. Pewterschmidt says)."  This is followed by this witty exchange: “So Grandma Hebrewberg is actually Jewish?!” Lois asks. “Yes, when she moved to America, her family changed their name. It was originally Hebrewbergmoneygrabber."  

Don't get me wrong.  I love offensive humor.  You're talking to a girl who loves South Park and thought Heeb's "burnt Jew cookies" joke was funny.  It's not that I find this kind of humor offensive, in poor taste, or even unfunny.  What I love about offensive humor is its ability to challenge assumptions we take for granted -- it forces us to take a closer look at our culture and ask ourselves why the joke makes us so uncomfortable.  "Family Goy" fails to do this.  All it does is make the same, tired old Jew jokes we have heard a million times before.  This may have been the least shocking Family Guy episode ever aired.

But I cannot lay all the blame for my lack of interest on Family Guy itself.  These days I find myself less and less interested in watching Jewish representations on TV.  Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how excited I was that "Glee" character Rachel Berry was Jewish.  Since then, I have gotten frustrated with her, and all the other Jewish TV characters, and all the Jewish references I see on TV.  It seems I can't watch a show these days without some ambiguously Jewish character or crack in Yiddish.  Jews make up less than 2% of the American population, but you would never know it from watching TV. 

EstherK hits the nail on the head with her post "Who is a Jew?  This week everyone..." on Urban Kvetch: "Rarely does an episode of House go without a Jewish reference, even when Jewish Doctor Cuddy isn't in the storyline. Cartoons - notably the Simpsons and South Park - have explored Jewish identity. And now, The Family Guy ... But what's strange is that recently, in pop culture, there seems to be Jewiness everywhere."

And it isn't just Jewish characters or Jew jokes on TV anymore.  It seems that American culture, in general, has been Jewified.  The traits of the stereotypical Jewish mother have become the norm for American parents.  Yiddish phrases are thrown around by people who don't realize they're speaking Yiddish, or don't even know what Yiddish is.  Hebrew words like "mazel tov" and "l'chaim" are showing up in pop songs like the Black Eyed Peas hit "I Gotta Feelin." Thanks to the song's popularity, those words have expanded the vocabulary of a whole generation of non-Jews, who will now understand Judd Apatow movies on a deeper level. 

Jewish jokes, especially in Yiddish, used to be a wink and a nod from Jewish writer to Jewish viewer that went right over the heads of middle America.  But now they reach everyone, because pop culture has gone Jewish.  Jewishness has become mainstream in a bizarre form of reverse-assimilation in which the majority has assimilated to a minority.  As a result, have we lost something?  Have we sold out and given those things that made up our unique identity to the masses? 

These kinds of concerns always come up in discussions about assimilation.  Now, we seem to have the additional threat of losing our identity though reverse-assimilation. When even the Lois Griffin's of the world can be Jewish, what is left for real Jewish women?

photo: Idol Chatter

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5 Comments

"When even the Lois Griffin's of the world can be Jewish, what is left for real Jewish women? "

Why can't "the Lois Griffin's of the world" be Jewish? I assume you mean suburban middle-class moms, and I'm pretty sure there are many of those who are Jewish.

I think the word you're looking for is appropriation, not reverse-assimilation. It's not like the whole country is *actually* becoming Jewish, it's the shiny, "cool" aspects of the culture that get picked out and commodified.

Anonymous: Hmm I see your point. Of course suburban middle-class moms can be Jewish, and I did not intend for that sentence to imply otherwise. What I meant to ask was, if every single character we see on TV (even the well-known Protestant ones like Lois) are in some way Jewish, does that signify that mainstream American culture has become Jewish? And if all of America is speaking Yiddish and winking at Jewish "inside jokes," is there anything special left for those who actually are Jewish?

Dlevy - Yes, you're right. It was not super responsible to write this before watching the episode, and the line you point out did make a pretty big assumption. I have seen the episode now, and unfortunately I still feel the same way.

Your observation that Peter was more affected by the revelation than Lois is interesting. I wonder if that says something about gender, or simply is an extension of the idiocy of Peter's character. But as far as the stereotypical jokes (about money, Jewish men as short, hairy, and bad at sports, etc...) I find them boring and old hat. And I worry that this is all that Jewish culture will ever be in the mainstream media.

It's a little irresponsible to decide that the humor of the Family Guy episode isn't funny without having seen it. You say: What I love about offensive humor is its ability to challenge assumptions we take for granted -- it forces us to take a closer look at our culture and ask ourselves why the joke makes us so uncomfortable. "Family Goy" fails to do this. How do you know without having seen the episode? The truth is, the episode absolutely challenged assumptions. It pokes at the idea that the cosmetic trappings of culture are equivalent to meaning. Part of the humor (and the critique) of the episode is that Lois herself is nonplussed by this revelation about her heritage. It's her Irish-Catholic husband who shows up with a kipa, tallis, and gold Star-of-David necklace ready to dive in. Lois recognizes that there's an inauthenticity about suddenly trying to embrace Judaism at this point in her life simply because of a connection her ancestors had. There's a tacit acknowledgment that for beliefs to be meaningful, they must actually be... you know, believed.I'm not saying the episode was great art, or even the sharpest thing Family Guy has had to say about Jews and Jewish life. But if you're going to criticize it, at least know what you're talking about. The entire episode is streaming online for free at Hulu.com: http://www.hulu.com/watch/9989...

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "If Lois Griffin is Jewish, who isn't?." 8 October 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/family-goy>.

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