The Arty Semite

Nick Kroll, 'The League,' and the (New) New Jew

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images

When Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy discusses the arcane symbolism of his girlfriend eating a banana, or talks about time spent alone in the bathroom with women’s underwear hanging on the door, or any number of other things that can’t even be implied in the html of a family website, he is revealing his innermost “perversions” to his analyst, the things he’s repressed and sublimated and kept far away from public view; Nick Kroll’s Rodney Ruxin says the same things to his group of friends on “The League” every week and they celebrate him for it, and enjoy provoking him to see what invectives he’ll throw their way.

“The League” is an FX show about a group of 30-something high school friends in the Chicago area who continue to bond over fantasy football. The characters are ethnically diverse in the way of most North Shore Chicago suburbs (Poles and Protestants) and Ruxin, as the Jewish member, marks the ironic result of six decades of suburbanization by American Jews. He’s been raised in suburban American settings, and is accepted as a normal white American by his friends, but he’s simultaneously been brought up on a Jewish American culture that emphasized outsiderdom from general American society (30 years of Roth and Woody Allen) and has been permanently affected by the meta-criticism of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

It’s not just that Jewish humor has gotten bawdier over the years (though it has), but that what it means to be the lone, solitary Jew in a sitcom or film has changed. Seth Rogen and his cohort say horribly inappropriate things to each other in “Knocked Up” but they are almost all Jews, with only the token beard-growing gentile friend to hear them. With Ruxin we’ve entered a new era: The Jewish character no longer has to be nerdy, awkward, and nebbishy (Rob Morrow on “Northern Exposure”) or the overly-moral mensch for all seasons (Evan Handler’s Harry on “Sex and the City”); the Jewish character can now be the loud and abrasive jerk without anyone wondering too loudly “Is this good for the Jews?”

In a fantastic piece of insider Jewish humor, Ruxin religiously wears pastel-colored shirts and ties from Brooks Brothers in order to fit in with the surrounding society. When he doesn’t wear a costume for Halloween he’s asked if he’s going as a “Jew dressed up as a WASP,” lampooning our superficial understanding of preppy culture. But the real joke is that Jewish firms, from J. Press to Ralph Lauren, helped market and sell classic American style in the first place, even if no one remembers that madras jackets, like the bagel, were brought to this country by Jews.

Ruxin’s Jewish identity is an important part of his character, but it’s an unmarked one — another American ethnicity for the show to make jokes about. We recently learned that Ruxin worried about marrying a non-Jew on his wedding day, but the religious nature of his anxieties, while important, wasn’t the core of the joke; it was a Jewish flavoring for the sitcom convention of cold feet. In that regard it was much like Kroll’s “Bar Mitzvah Disco,” which figured the Bar Mitzvah as just another instance of awkward American adolescence, or “Wet Hot American Summer,” which did the same with Jewish summer camps. As the Bar Mitzvah circuit became a shared experience for Jews and their neighbors, mass media could exploit these Jewish rituals without having to teach the general audience what a Bar Mitzvah was.

Still, the fact that Ruxin’s marriage anxieties took Jewish form is surprising and fascinating. The show takes place with Ruxin long married and extremely proud of his hot Hispanic wife. That he paused to wonder about whether he was doing the right thing marrying a non-Jew shows the remnants of Jewish difference in American society and humor. Just enough of a sense of separateness remains to continue making jokes about it, even in the suburbs.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Television, Sex and the City, Rodney Ruxin, Rob Morrow, Ralph Lauren, Philip Roth, Northern Exposure, Nick Kroll, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, J. Press, FX, Evan Handler, Eitan Kensky, Brooks Brothers, Alexander Portnoy, The League

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.