Never has the comfort show been as important as during the pandemic. Especially in winter, when the cold puts an embargo on outdoor hangouts, what’s there to do but hunker down with our classic standby TV series?
For me, “Parks and Recreation” is a top-tier comfort show. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a group of quirky civil servants working for the parks department in small-town Indiana. It’s funny, well-written and full of heart. In these times where our social interactions are limited, the show’s depictions of friends showing up for each other is extra moving.
The show has its problems: Especially in early seasons, the running joke about town murals depicting hideous acts against Indigenous people is tough to watch. Protagonist Leslie Knope has an unfortunate attitude towards sex workers as we see in scenes with porn star Brandi Maxxxx. And then there’s the questionable, oblique way Jewishness arises throughout the series.
There are no explicitly Jewish characters in “Parks and Recreation.” Instead we have pseudo-Jews: secondary characters whose Jewish affiliation is tangential, skirted around or implied. We have perfume mogul Dennis Feinstein, who isn’t actually Jewish. We’ve got the Sapersteins, played by a trio of incredible Jewish performers: Ben Schwartz, Jenny Slate and absolute legend Henry Winkler. Lastly, we’ve got Councilman Jeremy Jamm, portrayed by Jewish actor and comedian Jon Glaser.
A few things unite these characters: their proximity to wealth, their role as antagonists and, perhaps because of the first two things, the weirdly evasive and discomfiting way in which they are Jewish-coded.
Let’s start with Dennis Feinstein (played by the hilarious Jason Mantzoukas), the perfumer who is so rich that “the man owns a rolexus.” Feinstein is a recurring villain. His misdeeds range from wanting to fire an employee just for kicks to possibly hunting man for sport. His storylines tend to center around his wealth and lack of generosity. In episode 6 of season 3, Tom wants to pitch a perfume to Feinstein. The conversation in which Tom tries to explain how huge a deal Feinstein is to Ben Wyatt, goes like this:
Tom: That man is a legend. Think about all the scents he’s created. Attack, Yearning, Thickening, Itch, Coma, Sideboob.
Ben: Dennis Feinstein, though? I don’t know. He should probably change his name to something a little more exotic if he wants to make it big in perfume.
Tom: His real name is Dante Fiero, but he changed it to Dennis Feinstein ‘cause that’s way more exotic in Pawnee.
I’ll say it: It’s a good joke. It’s also illustrative of how reliably Jewishness can be tied to the perception of a monied, merciless tycoon ready to stomp on our protagonist’s dreams. The “not really Jewish” of it all reads like a clumsy side-step, washing one’s hands of an antisemitic association. Feinstein’s not Jewish, but the show’s cool with using the suggestion anyway.
Then we have the Sapersteins. There’s Tom Haverford’s hapless business-partner-in-crime Jean-Ralphio Saperstein (Schwartz), a goofy party animal willing to hatch any scheme to avoid working. His twin sister, Mona-Lisa Saperstein (Slate), is spoiled, unpredictable, and fuelled by pure Freudian id. The Saperstein twins live lives of leisure, coasting on get rich quick schemes and Daddy’s money. They function as obstacles and antagonists for Tom. Closing out the trifecta is Dr. Saperstein (Winkler), an OB-GYN and ruthless businessman who forces Tom’s small business, Rent-A-Swag, to shutter.
They’re… pretty Jewish-coded. Sometimes in cute ways, like when Dr. Saperstein loves his schmear so much that he gets some on the sonogram screen:
Leslie: Ben, we’re having twins.
Dr. Saperstein: No you’re not. Because look who’s hiding over here.
Leslie: Triplets? Triplets?!
Dr. Saperstein: And here’s a fourth! I’m so sorry. It’s a little fleck of cream cheese on the screen.
And sometimes in less charming ways, like how one of Mona-Lisa’s catch phrases is to sing-song “money pleeeeeeassse” while thrusting out her hand.
I’d love to have clear-cut feelings here, but there’s a complicating factor: All three Sapersteins are stand-out characters. They’re despicable, but lovable. Schwartz, Slate, and Winkler consistently steal the show. While troubling in some ways, the Sapersteins are also kind of iconic, and they give Jewish comedians an opportunity to shine.
Once again, however, there’s some obfuscation regarding the Sapersteins’ Jewishness. On the surname alone one might assume the Sapersteins are Jewish, but Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa are really, really Roman-Catholic names. Then there’s a line in the season 6 premiere regarding Mona-Lisa lying to her father about attending divinity school. Sure, there are multi-denominational theological schools, but “divinity” largely connotes Christian. The Sapersteins could be an interfaith family, but we never meet the twins’ mother — and, given the unflattering Jewish stereotypes attributed to these characters, these sprinkled-in tidbits come off as evasive maneuvers, built-in plausible deniability.
Lastly, there’s Jeremy Jamm, the corrupt, self-serving orthodontist/councilman who serves as an adversary for Leslie. Jamm’s characterizations flirt less overtly with Jewishness; he pings on my radar mainly because of how “Parks and Recreation” likes to play Schrodinger’s Jew. Primed by this, moments like the one where Jamm cries out “AH! My beautiful CURLS!” in season 6, episode 5 when he gets a pitcher of margaritas dumped on his head, or the repeated analogies to his gastrointestinal issues ring more suspicious. (Obviously, Jews don’t own curls and stomach problems, but it’s not not a thing. Not to brag, but Ashkenazi Jews develop Crohn’s at notably above average rates).
As I rewatch, I’m left with the same question I’m always left with: Why are all of the Jewish-coded characters bad guys? And if there were nothing suspect about these associations, wouldn’t they be made more directly? Why wouldn’t the characters be explicitly Jewish?
Do I think that “Parks and Recreation” is antisemitic? No. The show had several episodes written by Jewish writers including Megan Amram, Chelsea Peretti, and the late Harris Wittels. I would venture to say that some of the Jewish allusions were probably written for and by Jews, and I love that we’re able to joke about and amongst ourselves.
That said, a lot of antisemitism is rooted in the belief that Jews are a greedy, money-hoarding, conniving people. Confirmation bias is ubiquitous, and there’s a real possibility that there are viewers who watch these characters and, on a conscious or unconscious level, have these notions confirmed. Given this, it would have been cool to have some explicitly Jewish characters that offset some of these more harmful stereotypes. It’d bring just that little extra bit of comfort to one of my favorite comfort shows.
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “Late Take” in the subject line.