Larry David has never been more Jewish than in this season’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
By Andrew Silow-Carroll
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” has always been a Jewish show, but this season it’s downright Jewish.
On the HBO sitcom, now in its 11th season, Larry David has never shied away from surfacing and poking fun at Judaism and Jewishness. He envisioned the dilemmas of surviving the Holocaust, immersed himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (via a local chicken restaurant), and found himself stranded on a ski lift with an Orthodox Jew on Shabbat.
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This season, it’s not just about the occasional joke with a matzoh ball or the Yiddish lesson he gave Jon Hamm in the season premiere. David delves into questions of Jewish pride and belief, and if he’s not exactly Abraham Joshua Heschel, he could offer a Jewish educator a semester of lively classroom debate.
In the last episode, for example, a Jew for Jesus joins the cast of the series Larry’s character is developing for Hulu. Although neither Larry nor his Jewish friends are religious, they seem genuinely upset by the actor’s apostasy, and Larry gives him a rather sober warning that he shouldn’t proselytize on set.
A week earlier, a member of his golf club (played by Rob Morrow) asks Larry to pray for his sick father. Larry refuses, saying prayer is unnecessary. He also wonders why God would need, or listen to, the prayer of a random atheist like himself instead of the distressed son who wants his father to live.
For anyone who has been to Hebrew school, this is a familiar challenge, usually broadcast by the sage in the back row who the teacher suspects may be the most engaged student in the class. And it’s not just atheists who ask the question “Why pray?” The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a devout Orthodox Jew, believed that “the worship of God must be totally devoid of instrumental considerations.”
In addition to the Jewish funeral, the episode has a bonus theological theme: “Middah k’neged middah, “or as the character from Morrow puts it,” what goes comes around. Morrow warns Larry that his actions will have consequences, which gives Larry a break. If anything, the whole “curb” business is an exercise in Jewish karma. Larry is constantly being punished in big and small ways for his actions, inactions, interference and slights As the old theatrical phrase goes, if Larry opens a donut shop to kick a rival out of business in act one, his own shop will burn to the ground in act three.
A previous episode was even more Jewish: Larry attends High Holiday services only because he lost a golf bet against the Rabbi, and he literally runs into a Klansman walking out of a cafe. The latter sets off a series of twists and turns, as he and the KKK guy exchange a series of favors and obligations that will have dire consequences for both. Larry’s salute comes at the end, when he rings a shofar from his balcony, literally sounding the alarm bells over anti-Semitism and awakening his neighbors from the threat of white supremacy.
The episode suggests the failure of good intentions. Larry spills coffee on the Klansman’s robe and offers to have it dry cleaned. The good liberal Jew that he is, Larry seems sincere in his belief that empathy is a better response to hate than confrontation, and that if he turns the other cheek it could bring the temperature down in post America. -Trump. Of course, it doesn’t work that way, and the last word goes to her friend Susie Green, who performs a pointed act of Jewish sabotage that has the Klansman beaten up by her racist colleagues. Give David credit for incorporating into an absurd half hour of television a debate about revenge and resistance that engaged supporters of Jews as different as Jesus and Jabotinsky.
Make no mistake: Larry David’s character is sacrilegious and heretical, and “Curb” is no friend of the religious mindset. But to dismiss it as “self-hate” is to miss the unmistakably Jewish conversation at the heart of the show. David’s character is a deeply principled person: most of the nonsense he gets into is the result of his application of unspoken social rules that others seem to flout, whether it’s taking too much. samples at the ice cream counter or dominate the (evil) conversation at the table. Larry is rude and inconsiderate, but he’s rarely wrong. He is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik might have called a “halachic man” – an actualizer of the “ideals of justice and righteousness”, even when the rest of the world resents them.
If you think I’m overdoing it, remember that there is real discussion in the Talmud about the right and wrong way to put on a pair of shoes.
And just like in the Talmud, there are no easy answers in David’s moral universe: If a friend lends you his favorite, one-of-a-kind shirt and you spoil it, what are your obligations to him? ? (See: Bava Metzia 96b) If a thief breaks into your house and then drowns in your swimming pool, which was not protected by the required fence, to whom and how much damages? (See: Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22: 1-2)
In last week’s episode, Larry even brought up – consciously or not – a classic debate in the Talmud: whether you and a friend are stranded in the desert and your canteen has only enough water to keep you going. one of you survives, should you share it or save your own life?
Yes, Larry was talking about sharing a phone charger, but if the Sages had cell phones, what do you think they would talk about?
Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor of The New York Jewish Week and editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.