On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review June 25, 1998 / 1 Tamuz, 5758

The Nanny...

does the inevitable

By Elliot B. Gertel

NEXT TO THE FINAL SEINFELD episode, the most-hyped TV finale was the last 1997-1998 season episode of The Nanny, in which Fran Fine marries her British play producer boss, Maxwell Sheffield. The hour-long spectacle made history as the most publicized mixed marriage ceremony in TV history and as the one treated most reverently and elegantly.

True, the event had been hinted at for quite some time. But, I must admit, that I secretly hoped that good taste would win out and that the program's producers and writers would find a way to avoid it. I admit, too, that I had been naive.

It would seem that there is no longer a consensus on taste in the Jewish community, or, even more important, on what constitutes a kiddush ha-Shem, a public sanctification of G-d's name or the opposite, a chillul Hashem.

The program's creator and star, Fran Drescher, actually invited her childhood cantor to participate in this depiction of a marriage ceremony by a Christian minister and Jewish cantor, and he was obviously most willing to appear on camera and to sing the traditional welcoming song, Baruch Ha'bah.The TV ceremony even came complete with the traditional breaking of the glass, and the guests breaking into and, of course, a rousing hora to Hava Nagila, with bride and groom lifted on chairs. What is sacred to The Nanny? I have asked that question before. At times, we were told that it was not crossing picket lines or gathering for a seder (even with the conviction that Barbra Streisand is the real messiah). There were moments of reverence and principle in those sequences, albeit quite short-lived.

But now it would seem that, especially in this season of The Nanny, but also before, the true "theology" of the show is revealing itself: The holy tongue is not Hebrew or Yiddish, but the "Yiddishisms" that can spice up the English language. The sacred literature is not the Torah but old reliable Jewish jokes about the differences between Jews and gentiles. The sanctifying rituals are not the Judaism's mitzvas (precepts), not Jewish practices, but inside jokes about the rituals - such as jokes about not keeping kosher, that do not make us holy but funny, at least to each other. These latter "jokes" are often presented on The Nanny as special asides and stage whispers for the "Members of the Tribe."

So it would seem that the goal of The Nanny is to universalize "Jewishness" by treating jokes about Judaism as sacred scripture. Do I exaggerate or "over-intellectualize" by making too much of such simple jokes? Or is it more than symbolic, for example, when writer Diane Wilk has Fran's mother hiding candy in a challah, as if to say that religious goods are meaningful only insofar as they are used as props for jokes about Jews and food? Or when writer Frank Lombardi has Fran mockingly turn down her second date with Maxwell on a Friday night by saying she has to cook for the sabbath, and then coming back with a "Yeah, right," as though the sabbath is only mentionable at a catalyst for jokes about the sabbath. And so it is with the dietary laws, etc., ad nauseum, from episode to episode.

And what is all this but the reduction of Judaism to ethnic flavor? One can argue, I suppose, that The Nanny reflects and spoofs certain American Jewish attitudes that shrug off Judaism and Jewishness in this way. But The Nanny very deliberately makes "religious" statements of its own: that this marriage is beshert,, or, destined (the Yiddish word is used by Fran) because synchronicity by any other name (especially a Yiddish name) is sacred, and that, as Lucas tells us in the wedding episode, The Nanny was brought to the Sheffield's door (with her nasal voice and zany ways and all) by the ghost of Maxwell's deceased wife, who has ostensibly graduated to angel, but not yet to the Touched By An Angel cast.

The Nanny is therefore more of a statement of assimilation than its staff realize. It has, as I have pointed out before, been steadily developing its own "theology." And, more frightening still, it is attempting to redefine Jewish piety and loyalty.

The Nanny has steadily mocked the older generation so that the Baby Boomers appear more virtuous and reverent. To Fran's mother, Sylvia, mink and food are sacred. Fran's dad (who has never been shown) favors the bathroom. A many time divorced aunt, played by Lanie Kazan, was already married by a priest to an older man portrayed by no less than Donald O'Connor. And Fran's bubbe (grandmother), Yetta, has been dating a black man (Ray Charles is the celebrity brought in for this role). During the current season, in at least a few episodes, it was suggested that Fran's mother was pregnant on her wedding night and that she encouraged Fran to be as sexually active as possible on her prom night.

Yet synchronicity and a concern for the children have conspired to keep Fran untouched by Maxwell till their wedding night. Fran rises to the dignity of the occasion of her wedding, even though her mother can't. Many of the men wear yarmulkes at the ceremony. There is a fine chupah. A stately New York landmark is transformed into the most elegant of wedding halls. In a preparatory episode by Frank Lombardi, Fran offers a rather heartfelt prayer to G-d that she will be put into Maxwell's lap in a limo so that he might propose.

Obviously, the production staff has spruced up the series during the entire season to give it more of a reverential aspect. The children are more respectfully utilized than they have been since the first season, and primarily for the evocation of nostalgia and warmth rather than for comic relief. The relationship between the butler and Maxwell's female assistant is less one of abuse and slapstick and more one of pathos.

Even the youngish Rabbi Margulis, absent at the wedding, was brought into the engagement episode by writer Rick Shaw to wish Sylvia a pastoral "Mazal Tov" (and to accuse her of leaving Raisinettes in the organ bay).

The wedding episode on The Nanny was, in sum, quite a deliberate attempt to bring elegance and reverence to a mixed marriage ceremony. The cantor, who participated, was certainly within his rights to do so according to the practice of a growing group within the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

But for the first time, TV has exploited the chasms in American Jewry for its "humor" and, shall we say, New Age agendas. Will the movements in American Judaism ever come to a consensus at least to discourage depiction of such a ceremony in the context of TV sitcoms?

As for The Nanny, the next season will be a turbulent one for all concerned about how intermarriage is depicted on TV. One expects that the series will not let us forget that Fran is a Jewish woman in a mixed marriage. To paraphrase the "play on words" of writer Rick Shaw in a charades game on the engagement episode, every "I do" will have its "I Jew." Or, as Frank Lombardi had Max say of Fran in an episode guest starring Joan Van Ark: "Would you excuse me a minute? There's a Wandering Jew on the terrace that needs transplanting."

Indeed, the theme of the series in its post-wedding episodes may well have been provided by writer Jayne Hamil in an episode in which a dognapper who holds Fran and best friend Val for ransom turns out to be named --- Levine.

"I'll tell you, Val," Fran whispers, "when Jews go bad ..." Yes Fran is, of course, rescued by Maxwell, and tells him that there is a custom in Israel that "if a man saves a woman's life she must stay by his side forever in a professionally decorated mock Tudor house on a large corner lot in Great Neck."

Somehow we knew from that episode long before the wedding that Max was destined to be Fran's savior and redeemer even from her rather limited (New York Jewish?) notions of what being saved (or having the good life?) really means.

Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel is JWR's resident media maven. He is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion.

©1998, Elliot B. Gertel