One of the best things about my current life is that my TV antenna picks up a station called Cozi. As if made for me, named after the very state of being I attempt to inhabit at all times, Cozi plays a variety of beloved old shows and sitcoms like The Munsters, The Nanny, Will & Grace, and Frasier. Frasier happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time, and so it is always a pleasure to switch on Cozi and find myself in Seattle with the Cranes.
That was especially true the other night when I happened upon one of my favorite episodes of the Emmy award-winning series, delightfully titled “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz,” which originally aired in 1998.
Now Frasier is not an inherently Jewish show, but it does have two somewhat prominent Jewish characters, in theory if not in actual air-time: Frasier’s ex-wife, Lilith, and their son, Freddy. Because they live back in Boston, we don’t get a ton of Lilith and Freddy action, but they are responsible for a few Jewish gems found throughout the series. Take the one where Freddy becomes a bar mitzvah and Frasier, thinking he is delivering his speech in Hebrew, regales his son with a loving tribute in Klingon. Or there’s that time Lilith pretends she lost a special earring given to her by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in order to get more time with the headmaster of a school. (There was also an episode about Freddy’s bris on Cheers, the show from which Frasier spun off.)
But nothing beats “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz,” an entire episode dedicated to the gag of the whole Crane family pretending to be Jewish on Christmas Eve.
It all starts when Frasier and Roz hit up a department store to do some holiday shopping. Frasier has purchased a menorah for Freddy, which Roz calls a “candle holder thing” (not wrong). Frasier offers a disparaging remark about how Freddy’s lack of athletic abilities is thanks to the fact that he is “half Jewish” (not great). Roz goes off to browse alone while Frasier finds a sweater he’d like to get for her, asking a salesperson to fetch it in a different size. Roz comes back sooner than he thought, thus leaving him in a pickle when the salesperson returns and calls out, “Here’s your sweater.” Luckily, a kind stranger has overheard the whole thing and swoops in, pretending the sweater is for her.
Roz dashes off again and Frasier thanks the woman for bailing him out. They introduce themselves, and she immediately recognizes him as Dr. Crane from the radio. She asks if he can help her with “one small thing” her daughter Faye needs: a date with a nice unattached doctor.
That’s right: We’ve got ourselves a Jewish mother.
Frasier agrees to meet Faye in a blind date at Café Nervosa, a coffeeshop that does not exist, and I know that because my fiancé and I looked for it when we went to Seattle last year. We learn that Faye was a lawyer who quit to become a pastry chef, and she and Frasier seem to really hit it off. Frasier says he’s glad her mother is as pushy as she is, even though Faye is “nothing like her.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” Faye replies, solidifying the fact that we are firmly in bickering Jewish mother-daughter territory. Go on, make yourself at home.
Flash forward to Christmas Eve, and Faye and her mother are stopping by Frasier’s apartment on their way to the airport — they’re flying to Florida, naturally. Faye shows up first; her mother Helen is still downstairs trying to set up the doorman with her cousin Janet. This gives Faye the chance to spy the giant wreath hanging over Frasier’s fireplace.
- The panic in her eyes.
Faye: Oh my gosh, you have a wreath?
Frasier: Yes, so?
Faye: Aren’t you Jewish?
Frasier: No, no, why do you ask?
Faye: The day we met, my mother saw you shopping for a menorah.
Frasier: Yes, for my son, my ex-wife is Jewish.
Faye: Ooooh God.
Frasier: Is there a problem?
Faye: For me, no, but my mother is another story. And here I was wondering what we’d talk about on the seven-hour flight to Miami.
What we have here is a tragic tale of interfaith-phobia! Frasier offers to take the wreath down for the sake of avoiding an issue when her mother shows up. “I can’t believe I’m actually asking you to pretend to be Jewish on Christmas Eve,” Faye declares, which is objectively a very funny sentence. “It’s alright, really,” Frasier replies, “it probably won’t even come up.”
Helen shows up, and so does the first obstacle: Frasier’s dad’s dog Eddie runs into the living room in an elf costume; luckily, Frasier manages to shoo him away before Helen sees. Cue the greatest title card of all time:
- Oy to the world.
Remember when Frasier said his religion would probably never come up? Not ten seconds into the visit, Helen asks him about growing up in Seattle and immediately makes it Jewish:
Helen: I guess you were bar mitzvahed here.
Frasier: Oh yes, yes, of course. What a proud day that was. I can still remember reading from the Torah, before the rabbi and the cantor and the mohel.
Helen: The mohel?!
Faye: The one who did your circumcision?
Frasier: Yes, yes, I just wanted to show him there were no hard feelings.
Soon Frasier’s brother Niles shows up, and Frasier brings him into the kitchen to fill him in on the shtick that he now needs to play along with. Frasier pours some glasses of wine, but Niles wonders if the Moskowitzes might be expecting “Jewish wine.” Frasier doesn’t have any on hand, but Niles insists it’s easy enough to make. He then proceeds to pour a few lumps of sugar into a glass of wine and mix it in. Frasier tries it, says it’s dreadful, to which Niles replies, “perfect.” Yes, this is a joke about the bad (to some) taste of sweet kosher wines like Manischewitz. From a pair of notorious wine snobs, I would expect nothing less.
They bring the wine out to their guests, and Helen suggests Niles gives a toast, which gives him the wonderful opportunity to say, “L’chaim! Mazel tov! Next year in Jerusalem!”
“Take it down a notch, Tevye,” Frasier says under his breath, because can it truly be a Jewish episode if there isn’t a reference to Fiddler On the Roof?
So I’d say we’re coasting along on the fake Jew wave pretty well here, until Frasier and Niles’ dad Marty Crane shows up. What you need to know about Marty is that he’s grumpy Frasier won’t let him be in charge of Christmas decorations this year like usual. Marty favors the kitschier, flashier variety, whereas Frasier is committed to keeping things classy and subdued.
Grumpy Marty introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Martin Crane, I’m Frasier’s dad… although you’d never guess it by the way I’m treated like a second-class citizen around here. But as long as Frasier’s happy, why should my feelings matter?” Of course, Marty doesn’t know yet that he’s supposed to pretend to be Jewish around the Moskowitzes, but he’s already acting the part perfectly by playing the well-worn sarcastic parental guilt trip.
Niles flawlessly drops a few Yiddishisms on his way into the kitchen to fill Marty in on the drama. When Marty bemoans that he doesn’t know “how to be Jewish,” Niles give him a crash course in Jewish communication:
Niles: Just answer questions with a question.
Marty: Like what?
Niles: What, I have to explain everything?
Marty: Well, can’t you give me an example?
Niles: What, I should give you an example?
Marty: You gonna help me or not?
Niles: You’re saying I’m not being helpful?
Marty: Oh forget it.
Mazel tov, Marty, you now know what it’s like to have a conversation with a rabbi.
More and more close calls ensue: Helen wants to taste whatever delicious-smelling thing is cooking in the kitchen (it’s ham); they pretend it’s a brisket that hasn’t cooked through. Just as they’re about to leave for the airport, a Christmas tree delivery shows up at Frasier’s door. Frasier suggests they take a quick tour of the apartment, starting in the bedroom; Marty directs the Christmas tree into the bathroom right by the front door.
Meanwhile, Niles has offered to help fill a role in the Christmas pageant that Daphne’s running in the building; while Frasier is still touring the Moskowitzes around, he comes into the apartment quite literally dressed as Jesus. This is very funny because Jews, famously, do not believe in Jesus! As Frasier ushers them back into the living room, he catches sight of his brother and exclaims the only possible word one can exclaim in this moment: “Jesus!”
- Jesus Christ Pierce
Faye takes her mother out to see the view from the balcony while Niles attempts to escape, but only gets as far as the bathroom, where he joins the Christmas tree. Finally, it’s time for the Moskowitzes to get to the airport. The Cranes are just about to get off scot-free when Helen makes one last pit-stop: you guessed it, the bathroom with Jesus and the tree.
The Jewish jig is up. Helen is furious — not because Frasier isn’t Jewish, but because her daughter felt the need to lie to her about it. “You think I care? You can date anyone you want,” Helen says. “Since when?” Faye implores. What we get next can only be described as the ultimate Jewish mother-daughter showdown. Shots are fired, including the Jewish mother classic, “Excuse me for being a terrible mother, all I do is care,” until we get to the climax: in a moment of uncontrollable heat, Faye screams out, “Sometimes I do hate you!”
This stops them in their tracks, and soon they’re crying and apologizing to each other. Helen cops to smothering Faye; Faye insists she wants Helen in her life, just not running it. Then they’re hugging, and now it’s all over. The Moskowitz women set off for Florida like nothing out of the ordinary happened at all, because that’s just what Jewish women do.
What follows is a very endearing scene in which Frasier and Marty, inspired by Helen and Faye’s wham-bam-thank-you-fight, have it out over their Christmas decor spat. It gets ugly, and the Crane men are not so used to this very Jewish level of upfront confrontation. “We never should have tried this, we’re not Jewish!” Frasier laments. Cue the credits.
So, how does this episode stand up to our 2020 representation standards? Well, it certainly leans into the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother who wants to control her children’s lives. But it also brings up the very real, relatable issue of different generational values when it comes to dating someone Jewish or not. For what it’s worth, the episode was written by Jay Kogen, who is Jewish — as are both Amy Brenneman and Carole Shelley, who play Faye and Helen.
Jay Kogen actually won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for this particular episode in 1999 (as did David Hyde Pierce for Supporting Actor), so not only is this my personal favorite episode, but a hit with the critics as well. But I’m not surprised: You add two psychiatrists, one grumpy father, Christmas Eve, Jesus Christ, and a Jewish mother and daughter, and you’ve got yourself comedy gold right there.
Author’s note: I know the header image of this article is not from the right episode of Frasier, and yes, it’s killing me too, but we’ve got to work with what’s available in our image database, so don’t come for me, okay?