The legendary Jewish comedian Jerry Stiller, who died Monday at 92, was never quite sure whether Frank Costanza – the tightly wound character he was internationally famous for playing on television – was Jewish or not.
“It was never really clear if the Costanzas were Jewish or Italian or what they were,” Stiller told the New York Post in 2018. He and his co-stars on the nine-season hit sitcom “Seinfeld,” Jason Alexander and Estelle Harris – all Jewish actors – “were given the name Costanza, which sounds Italian, but there were episodes where I cooked Jewish food and ate knishes and kasha varnishkes in bed. When people asked me about this, I would simply say it was because we were a Jewish family in the Witness Protection Program.”
Those comments by Stiller were read out, appropriately, at a gala for the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, celebrating its exhibit “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World,” which declared “Seinfeld” as one of the 15 greatest achievements in Jewish comedy.
Unlike Frank Costanza, Stiller was unambiguously Jewish, and his career reflected the classic American-Jewish show business success story from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Hollywood. His mother immigrated from Poland; his paternal grandparents were immigrants from Galicia.
In 2001, he reminisced about his childhood in a tenement on the Lower East Side while promoting a Hanukkah special he recorded as part of a public radio series called “One People, Many Stories,” for the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.
Stiller told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that his parents argued constantly. He said that Frank Costanza’s unhappy kvetching – and fruitless quest for “Serenity Now!” – was based on his own father, who was bitter about being poor and about his unhappy marriage.
The comedian once joked that his father “was a Litvak, my mother a Galitz – one Sunni, the other Shi’ite.”
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One winter day, Stiller recalled, his uncle helped him escape the domestic stress by taking him to a synagogue during Hanukkah.
“I remember we entered this Orthodox shul, and all the beautiful candles on the menorah were lit up, and there was such a feeling of happiness,” he said. “It was a modest old synagogue, nothing fancy, just people, and they were joyously singing. And that was my first memory of Hanukkah.”
In that special radio series, Stiller read stories from famous Jewish writers, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom he recalled meeting years earlier.
“My mother came from a Polish town called Frampol, a place that Singer often describes in his work, so by reading it I’ve felt apprised of my own background,” he recalled. “One night about 25 years ago, Anne [Meara, Stiller’s late wife] and I were honoring Singer at a Jewish Repertory Theater event, and he was talking very lovingly of Frampol. So I went up to him and I said, ‘Mr. Singer, I have to tell you my mother came from Frampol, and so did all my uncles and cousins; eventually, they all moved into a tenement at 61 Columbia Street.’ Whereupon he turned to me and remarked, without skipping a beat, ‘Well, Frampol was a very small town.’”
Alter ego teasing
Gerald Isaac Stiller graduated from Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side, which produced other Jewish showbiz legends including Tony Curtis, Estelle Getty and Zero Mostel.
After serving in the army during World War II, he studied speech and drama at Syracuse University before pursuing a career on the stage.
In his early years in comedy – before Frank Costanza and his other successful cranky, paternal sitcom turn as Arthur Spooner on “King of Queens” – Stiller was best known for his double act with his then-girlfriend and future wife Anne Meara.
The couple met while coming up in the local world of comedy, launching their career as “Stiller and Meara” in Greenwich Village cafes. They developed an act where they teased each other about their opposites-attract relationship – she was a tall Catholic redhead and he a short Jew – through alter egos: “Heshy Horowitz” and “Mary Elizabeth Doyle.”
At one point, they included a skit where they called each other names like “Matza Head,” “Shillelagh Shiksa,” “Bensonhurst Blintz,” “Meshugenah Mother McCree,” and “Cockamamie Knish.”
In 2007, appearing at a dinner for New York’s Center for Jewish History, Stiller recalled encountering an anti-Semitic heckler. “Anne and I were in a small club doing one of our Heshy and Mary Elizabeth Doyle skits. A guy next to me taunted me, ‘Jew! Jew! Jew!’ I ignored him. Anne later scolded me, ‘Why didn’t you say where? Where?”
“Stiller and Meara” made it to the pinnacle of show business success at the time – “The Ed Sullivan Show” – and the pair remained popular throughout the 1960s and ’70s, also becoming well known for their bantering advertisements for Blue Nun wine.
Stiller’s career faded for a while, before it came roaring back with “Seinfeld” in 1993, where his character, Frank, introduced Americans to the comic holiday framed as the best way for an intermarried family to cope with Christmas: Festivus.
After Meara died in 2015, the Jewish Women’s Archive noted that their relationship had been a groundbreaking one. Most Christian women in the ’50s who married Jewish men converted before marriage and took their husband’s names. Meara, still Catholic when the couple married in 1954, converted to Judaism before the birth of her children – Amy, and the actor/director Ben Stiller – so her kids “would know who they were,” she explained.
Ben Stiller once commented that it was his mother who “knew more about Judaism than our entire family combined.”