Throughout my early teenage years, every Friday and Saturday night, I could reliably be found basking in the glow of Nick at Nite. Gulping down bags of chips and Diet Coke, my sister and I were equally ravenous to consume shows from the ’90s and 2000s that felt simultaneously vintage and refreshingly new to us. Liberated by the feeling of being able to experience adult humor, we reveled in sitcoms like “Friends,” “George Lopez,” “That ’70s Show” and, of course, “The Nanny.”
Like many Jewish kids before me, I had never seen a show that was so explicitly Jewish. “The Nanny” quickly became the only show I really wanted to watch and it certainly left its mark. Thanks to Fran Fine (Fran Drescher), I learned that it was possible to be an intelligent, fashionable and beautiful woman who was also loudly Jewish.
She also taught me to never, ever, ever cross a picket line.
In season two, episode 11 of “The Nanny,” aptly named “The Strike,” the Sheffields and Fran attend the opening of Mr. Sheffield’s new Broadway play. After the show, the gang attends an afterparty at a hotel where, as Fran and Mr. Sheffield soon realize, the busboys are on strike. While no one else seems to have an issue with crossing the picket line, Fran balks. “Mr. Sheffield, I can’t go in there,” she says from the other side of the line, “My mother has three rules. Never make contact with a public toilet… never, ever, ever cross a picket line… What was the third one? Oh, yeah, never wear musk oil to the zoo.”
Eventually, Mr. Sheffield tries to force Fran across the line which results in a newspaper writing a story about the debacle. Still, Fran holds strong to her values. “Well, I’m sorry, but the Fines don’t cross picket lines. It’s against our religion,” she tells Mr. Sheffield the next morning.
At the time, I didn’t really know what a picket line was, let alone what it meant to cross one, or what Judaism had to do with it. But, I remember watching that episode for the first time and being inspired by “The Nanny” to learn more. After the episode ended, I went online and found multiple sources confirming what Fran had said: Jewish law requires employers to treat their workers fairly. This sentiment is also reiterated in Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Tarphon, “Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labor.”
Moreover, I discovered that there’s a long history of Jews (and particularly Jewish women) spearheading workers’ movements in the United States. Though this resource wasn’t available to my teenage self, Jason Flatt perfectly summarized this history in his 2021 Hey Alma article “The Jewish Case for Unions.” “The Uprising of 20,000 in 1909 saw thousands of mostly young, Yiddish-speaking Jewish women who worked in shirtwaist factories take to the streets in New York City,” he wrote, later also citing The Workers Circle and Jewish Labor Bund as being instrumental in organizing Jewish immigrants for labor justice during the early 20th century.
I viscerally remember sitting in front of my laptop, Nick at Nite still blaring on the TV, and realizing that 1) workers are exploited and 2) as a Jew, my tikkun olam needed to include supporting them. Without any irony, Fran Drescher radicalized me.
Turns out, this sentiment and “The Strike” are just as relevant today as they were then.
Yesterday, the Screen Actors Guild went on strike after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to offer them a fair contract. (They will be joining the Writers Guild of America, who have been on strike for nearly 11 weeks for the same reason, on the picket lines.) Fran Drescher, President of SAG-AFTRA, made the announcement with the fiery passion of her Jewish labor union ancestors behind her.
“I cannot believe it, quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things. How they plead poverty that they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs,” Fran said with fervor. She went on, “Eventually the people break down the gates of Versailles and it’s over. And we’re at that moment right now.”
“The jig is up!” SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher kicks off the actors’ strike with a blockbuster speech. pic.twitter.com/dz23ZvggwV
— Mike Sington (@MikeSington) July 14, 2023
As an adult, I don’t agree with all of Fran Drescher’s politics — particularly her stance on vaccines. But watching this speech, I couldn’t help but to feel deep pride that a Jewish woman is passionately leading what will be a pivotal strike. (A main concern of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA is that AMPTP’s want to outsource human jobs to AI.) Clearly, others online felt the same.
“Fran’s thick Jewish accent raised in righteous anger is simply the most comforting thing to me in the world,” writer and comedian Marcia Belsky wrote on Twitter. “I got a little choked up listening to Fran’s speech, honestly. Don’t fuck with the Jewish woman from New York,” Dr. Emily Hamilton-Honey, a Professor of English and Gender Studies at SUNY Canton, tweeted. “fran drescher is bernie sanders for girls,” another Twitter user joked. And, of course, people started sharing screenshots and clips from “The Strike” episode of “The Nanny.”
For my part, I tend to agree with Dr. Hamilton-Honey. Watching Fran’s speech, I have to imagine that the next generation, including plenty of Jewish kids, are going to want to learn about and engage with workers’ solidarity. Maybe even one day the Flashy Girl from Flushing will inspire them to get their union card. I know I was.