The Erased Jewishness of Ted Mosby

For all the faults of "How I Met Your Mother," one of its biggest is making a punchline out of the main character's Jewish identity.

In order to prepare for the premiere of “How I Met Your Father,” last month I decided to re-watch “How I Met Your Mother” from start to finish (yes, even those incredibly painful last five minutes of the series finale). Like many of our favorite early-2000s sitcoms, I expected to cringe my way through parts of the series I knew would not age well.

However, something unexpected took my attention during my binge-watching sessions: the erased Jewishness of Ted Mosby.

It started when the group clinked glasses and Ted says “L’chaim” in season three. Suddenly my Jewish-FBI senses kicked in. But in season two, there’s a whole episode dedicated to Ted’s Christian family members on Staten Island. And almost every season there’s an episode about Christmas, where Ted is stressed out about who he is going to spend it with. Is Ted part of an interfaith family? If not, where was this out-of-character Jewish reference coming from?

A quick Google search revealed the actor Josh Radnor, who plays Ted through the nine seasons of the series, is Jewish. So is his co-star Jason Segal, however Segal’s character Marshall never makes the same kind of Jewish references that Ted does throughout the series.

But then, there it was, all the way in season six, episode eight: Ted says he’s “half-Jewish.” But…well… let’s look at the script:

Ted: I’d call you a bored little trophy wife who likes to play activist when the shops on 5th Avenue are closed.

Zoey: You’re going down.

Ted: Down where? To the yacht club? Oh! I would love to. Wait — I’m half-Jewish, will that be a problem?

And just like that, the word “Jewish” is never mentioned again. Sure, Ted continues saying a Yiddish word here or there. He rolls his eyes at Barney’s “bro mitzvah” (season eight), sarcastically claiming it was “not at all bro-ffensive.” Later on, in Barney’s Indiana Jones dream sequence (season nine), Ted looks at his costume and says, “Really? I’m the one working with the Nazis?” with a nudge-nudge kind of emphasis on why he had to play the role.

However, in all of these moments, Ted’s Jewishness is being used as a punchline. And not even a funny one. It’s the embodiment of saying, “It’s OK, because he’s Jewish.” He doesn’t respond to Barney’s bro mitzvah with memories of how great his own bar mitzvah was — despite the fact that it could totally be in character to correct Barney’s “He-bro.” And his comment during the Indiana Jones dream sequence is answered by Barney asking him to “just be cool with it,” cutting off the conversation entirely. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that the writers of an incredibly successful sitcom couldn’t think of anything more creative during a dream sequence than keeping Ted dressed up as the guy working with Nazis.

“How I Met Your Mother” became well-known for bleeding the actors’ characteristics into the characters; it’s part of what made the show so relatable and why people found themselves wishing they were a part of the HIMYM gang. But there’s a palpable difference between, for example, how the writers embraced writing about Robin being a Canadian versus Ted being half-Jewish. Even the “half” feels like a mid-series afterthought. I’m not saying that because Josh Radnor is Jewish, Ted Mosby should have been Jewish. But I am saying that Jewish actors have more to offer than padding for jokes about Judaism made by non-Jewish characters. I’m also saying it is painfully obvious that Jewish writers were not put in charge of writing Ted Mosby.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare Robin’s Canadian cultural references to Ted’s Jewish cultural references. But at the very least, why couldn’t Ted be as proudly Jewish as other characters were Christian? Jason Segal’s Marshall is a fully embodied Christian character, as his family’s values are constantly brought up and lovingly portrayed. Amongst the several Christmas episodes which played with the different degrees of how people celebrate the holiday season, there’s no mention of Hanukkah — and forget about Passover or Rosh Hashanah. There’s not even a little challah bread on the counter.

As a Jew, I love seeing Jewish characters on screen. I love when they’re played by Jewish people. And while conversations surrounding non-Jewish actors playing Jewish people have come to the forefront in light of some recent Hollywood casting choices, I think it’s also important to remember how essential the voice of Jewish writers are when crafting Jewish characters, even the completely fictional ones. For direct comparison, look no further than “How I Met Your Mother” predecessor “Friends,” which was created by two Jewish people. Despite the fact you can’t go one episode these days without cringing at an out-of-date joke, the Holiday Armadillo episode still makes me cackle. The writing embraces the Jewish experience of the characters and lets it inform the comedic plot points, as opposed to making their Jewishness itself the comedy. That is the bare minimum we should expect from long-running successful television shows.

Writers shouldn’t be able to use fighting over the last kugel at a deli as a plot point and then think that’s enough to green light an episode titled “The Bro Mitzvah.” You can’t write in our oy veys, our meshugas and our l’chaims for laughs without being confident enough to write at least one moment where Ted is reminiscing about his actual Jewish identity. And you definitely can’t finally introduce a character as half-Jewish six seasons into the series as a punchline for antisemites at the yacht club. Jewish characters deserve better, and more importantly, Jewish actors deserve better.

I am still hopeful for “How I Met Your Father.” I mean, it has Lizzie McGuire and Samantha Jones! I sincerely hope that the new creators have absorbed the critiques of the original series without losing the charm that made “How I Met Your Mother” such a success. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t know if I will ever forgive series creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays for depriving their audience of a nuanced Jewish character on a highly successful sitcom, and what I’m sure could have been a hilarious episode about Ted reconnecting with his ex-girlfriend from Jewish sleepaway camp.

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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  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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