Opinion

Curb Your Judaism: Why Larry David Is a Better Jew Than Most Israelis

‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ star Larry David, who’s more interested in the history of the pastrami sandwich than the Temple, is a better Jew than most of us Israelis

Is Larry David a better Jew than most Israelis?
HBO

Larry David is a better Jew than I am. It’s not a competition, I know, but still, his Jewishness is not in doubt. Larry himself doesn’t doubt it; he’s proud of it. He flaunts it wherever and whenever he can. That egotistical, malignantly narcissistic man clings to his Jewishness. In fact, it’s the only thing he’s preoccupied with that’s not related tohis personal problems, his neuroses, his embarrassments, his conflicted soul and his unfulfilled desires.

In the nine seasons of the HBO series “Curb your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s Jewishness is present in nearly every episode. He had a rabbi over for dinner; posed as an Orthodox Jew; and scored tickets for a synagogue sermon from a scalper. He insisted on placing a mezuzah at the entrance to his new home and proudly told the Palestinian woman owner of a chicken restaurant: “I am a Jew, a big Jew. Big.”Then they had sex, during which the woman screamed, “Fuck me, you fucking Jew!” “Filthy Jew,” he corrected her. After all, one has to use anti-Semitic slurs precisely.

When was the last time I attended synagogue or had a rabbi over for dinner? I don’t even have a mezuzah on my doorway. My Jewishness is transparent. I don’t talk about it – I certainly don’t boast about it. It’s irrelevant to me. Larry David is an honorable Jew, partly due to the way he looks, with that nose and the iconic baldness. I look the Mediterranean type, dark with full black hair and brown eyes.

The dictionary would define Larry David as a “Jew-boy.” His Hollywood parodies Israelis like me, with the heavy accent and tough-guy mentality. They wouldn’t let me into Larry’s Jewish club. His Jewishness distinguishes him from the gentiles in Los Angeles and New York, certainly from the ones in Texas. It marks him as a member in a prestigious club, one with its own rites and mannerisms.

This isn’t the club that Israeli politicians Bezalel Smotrich, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ayelet Shaked and Oren Hazan, or anti-assimilationist activist Benzi Gopstein, belong to. This is the club of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld. Here, at last, are dear Jews who evoke immense pride.

If I thought for even a moment that I could identify with them or belong to their group, I’d climb to the top of the Azrieli tower in Tel Aviv, megaphone in hand, and shout, “I’m a Jew, a Jew, a Jew!” Instead, I bury my head in my pillow and whisper “I’m a Jew,” without anyone hearing.

I’m a Jewish-Israeli Jew. I do not belong to Larry David’s community, even though I’d like to think we’re close. At best, we may be distant relatives. Maybe. His Jewishness is moving away from me in giant steps. Larry David is precisely the kind of Jew the Netanyahu government is trying to repress and alienate, distancing him from both it and Israel by embracing religious extremism that is reflected, among other things, by a restrictive conversion law and efforts to thwart egalitarian prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.

For the right wing in Israel, Jews like Larry David are “Diaspora Jews.” If he were Israeli, they’d make mincemeat out of him. Luckily for him, he’s American. He doesn’t have to contend with groundless demands that turn religion into a messianic ideological tool. He’s not preoccupied with parochial issues like what Jewish culture is and what it needs or can be. He’s not compelled to infuse his comedy with “Jewish significance,” or to be a pawn in a campaign for cultural redemption. He doesn’t talk about 2,000 years of exile and doesn’t deal with the Hebrew language or Haim Nahman Bialik, S. Y. Agnon or Natan Alterman.

All he’s interested in is a pastrami sandwich.

In truth, that sandwich is much more relevant to modern life than the Temple is. It’s definitely more dominant in American culture than Agnon or Alterman. Larry knows what his pastrami sandwich symbolizes. What a rich Jewish tradition stands behind it. In Israel, Jews read the Bible as if it were the Yellow Pages. They don’t eat pastrami sandwiches because they haven’t been given the kosher stamp of approval by the Chief Rabbinate.

Larry’s Judaism is the liberal kind, a Judaism-embracing cosmopolitan culture. It includes an “Americana” of synagogues and hybrid cars, a diet form of Judaism. “Judaism Lite” – really lite. He mocks people who wear kippot and blow the shofar, ones who pray using guttural sounds, using the type of Hebrew commonly spoken by Jews of Middle Eastern origin. He gets mad at his friend Marty Funkhouser, who insists on reciting a blessing before sipping his wine at the Shabbat meal. That seems ridiculous to him.

Larry David is a Jewish atheist. In a video interview with The New York Times in 2007, he said: “People ... go around as if [God] is a fact. It’s so insane. If I really believed that stuff I’d keep it to myself, unless somebody would think I was out of my mind.” Larry presents his Jewishness as a defiance of God, giving him the finger.

Nevertheless, Larry is free to choose his Jewishness. In my case, it’s imposed on me. Larry’s Jewishness is like a light blanket on a hot summer’s night. He doesn’t have to cover himself, but it feels pretty good.

My Israeli Jewishness is more like a smothering blanket. I’m forced to be a Jew and represent Jewishness with its past catastrophes; to be a Jew when I go to sleep and when I rise. This is a Jewishness that’s been defiled by Israeliness. It consists of suffering and shame. There is no honor in ultra-nationalism and violence that is employed in the name of the Torah and the name of the God of pastrami.

Larry enjoys being a Jew and enjoys being identified as a Jew. He enjoys the symptoms. He carries the heavy burden of Jewishness lightly, but also with pain – if you can call it that. Let’s say it’s self-conscious sadomasochism. He wears his neuroses openly, like victory medals.

Larry is a secular Jew, and one shouldn’t have to apologize for that. He’s not told a Jew can’t be secular or that a Jew is “doomed” to believe in God. Who cares about this internal Israeli debate over there in America? He’s not bound by paranoia and issues of self-preservation. He’s not weighed down at any given time to determine if his cart is empty or full. He is sure of himself and his legacy.

His Jewishness is folklorist and anecdotal, but it has spiritual power. It’s already achieved something in life. Larry lives in a shtetl of delicatessens. His friends are Jewish. His grandchildren may no longer be Jewish. So okay, they won’t be.

Larry David doesn’t worry about history. He worries about himself. He doesn’t accept reality as it is. He questions conventions; he undermines truths that are considered self-evident by others. He doesn’t bow his head before authority. He’s a Jew who argues and disputes, as if he were a pious student in a religious seminary. In Israel, Jews have stopped arguing. Lies and exaggerations have become the Torah from Sinai. Israeli Jews accept everything they’re told. They chew and swallow it like camels in the desert.

I’d say Larry David should become Israel’s prime minister – but he doesn’t deserve that. Let him stay in Los Angeles, the good Jew that he is, and we’ll live here, like bad Jews.