Award-winning sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” created by and starring the brilliant Quinta Brunson, has been revolutionizing the conversation about American education reform. The show features a league of dedicated teachers in a predominantly Black school in Philadelphia. The show has been hailed for its representation of Black women and mothers, its portrayal of Black excellence in academia and for bringing attention to the injustices affecting overlooked educators. It’s also just a very funny, enjoyable show.
However, when its first holiday episode aired last December, it left some audiences confused. Specifically, its Jewish viewers.
In “Holiday Hookah,” Jacob’s (Chris Perfetti) storyline is completely Christmas-centered: He crashes the Christmas dinner of fellow teachers Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), and they ultimately teach him the “meaning of Christmas.” (Initially, Jacob is very anti-Christmas and he rambles on about the commercialization of the holiday.) The episode also alludes to Jacob’s negative childhood experiences with the holiday, and he says “Merry Christmas” at one point. Hanukkah is, quite notably, never mentioned.
It was a great episode, per usual, but it was also a total Mandela Effect. “Abbott Elementary” had never mentioned Jacob’s ethnic or religious identity before, but some viewers had it in their heads that the character was Jewish. One Twitter user mused, “apparently i made up the fact that jacob abbott elementary is jewish.” Others on Tumblr were equally shocked:
So, why did audiences think that Jacob Hill is an NJB (nice Jewish boy)? Let’s discuss.
First, the show is set in Philadelphia, which has its own Jewish community like many American cities. In fact, the Jewish population in Philly has grown in recent years, making up about 10% of the city’s population. This includes Jews of Color, who made up about 10% of the Jewish population in Philly as of 2020. Thus, it would not be uncommon for such a school in Philadelphia to have a few Jewish students or even a Jewish teacher.
Jacob also falls into the “brainy brunette” stereotype, which is often typical of the “ambiguously Jewish” character. Jacob makes terrible jokes, tells nerdy anecdotes and is generally corny. The name “Jacob Hill” aids in the character’s ambiguity, with “Jacob” deriving from the Torah and “Hill” not being directly Jewish, but not excluding the possibility of Jewishness either. Personality-wise, Jacob is a little overbearing but incredibly endearing, a little clueless but well-meaning — all traits representative of a nebbish Jewish man.
Plus, Jacob Hill would be far from the first “ambiguously Jewish” character on TV. This common trope has affected characters like George Costanza in “Seinfeld” and Rachel Green from “Friends.”
“Abbott Elementary” was praised for Jacob’s casual coming-out, so it doesn’t seem so ridiculous that he may also be casually Jewish. The Jewish community has been gifted many great queer Jewish television characters in recent years, from David Rose on “Schitt’s Creek” to Abbi and Ilana on “Broad City.” It would not be unusual to see another funny, queer Jew on popular TV. And, Jacob’s notorious tone-deafness could also exemplify the fact that he is part of a minority group, but his whiteness still informs much of his life. So, while Jacob was never explicitly said to be Jewish, he is just Jew-coded enough for some NJB assumptions.
That said, “Abbott Elementary” showrunners have never publicly commented on Jacob Hill’s religious identity. Of course, Jewish representation is not at all the point of the show, so this isn’t surprising. Still, the show included Jewish students in their holiday episode nonetheless. In one of the first scenes, students in Janine Teagues’s class, played by Quinta Brunson, can be seen with Star of David cookies. The teacher takes the time to make all of her students personal holiday cookies because “not everyone celebrates Christmas and I acknowledge that in my classroom.” One Jewish student even shows his cookie to the cameras. Additionally, a Star of David can be seen hung up on the fridge behind Barbara and Melissa in a later scene. Again, “Abbott Elementary” went above and beyond. It doesn’t seem likely that the writers would simply forget to make Jacob Jewish. The choice was probably intentional.
Since the holiday episode came out, “Abbott Elementary” hasn’t commented on Jacob’s religious identity or relationship with the holidays again. It is unclear if Chris Perfetti, who plays Jacob, is Jewish himself. But after “Holiday Hookah,” it seems that Jacob Hill is not in fact an NJB. Sigh.