Who’s Jewish on “Friends”

So, nu? Which “Friend” do you think is Jewish? My unscientific, all-ages sampling of the huge audience for “Friends” uniformly responded this way: “Well, Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) is definitely Jewish, so that would make his sister Monica (Courtney Cox) Jewish.” Then what about Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica’s best friend from a Long Island childhood and Ross’s long-sought objet d’amour? Uniform confusion was the response. This isn’t just a stab at Jewish geography or tribal conspiracy theory. If both Ross and Rachel are Jewish (and, more importantly, perceived as Jewish), for as long as their TV relationship lasts they will, therefore, be the first young, sizzling Jewish couple on television. An impressive first, let alone on such a popular sitcom, where the demographics include the impressionable 12-15 set.

Like so many other Jewish sitcom writers, creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, buddies from their Brandeis days, backpedal from having their characters perceived as too Jewish. Crane was recently quoted in the Boston newspaper The Phoenix as rationalizing the confused perceptions, “In our minds, the back story is that Ross is half-Jewish because Elliott Gould (as Ross’s father) is, and Christina Pickles (as Ross’s mother) sure isn’t. So he and Monica are half-Jewish. And I suppose Rachel is Jewish, though that’s not an aspect we’ve done much with. Now her mom’s Maria Thomas. We’ll see who we end up casting as her dad, and that will give us a better clue.” Ron Leibman was cast as her dad. Dr. Leonard Green, seeming to clarify that Rachel too is “half-Jewish,” though, like the Geller siblings, she yearns to celebrate a traditional family Christmas. The ambiguous entrails of the show can be further picked apart for contrary indications: wasn’t that a mezuzah at Ross’s parents’ front door? Virtually half of all TV watchers in the country are glued to NBC watching “Friends” every Thursday night. Could it be something other than Monica and Rachel’s possibly non-Jewish mothers that keeps viewers from perceiving them as Jewish women? Are these women too thin, too sexy, and too struggling in their nondescript professions to be considered Jewish? Quick, how many actresses playing Jewish women can you name who’ve posed nude on the cover of Rolling Stone as Aniston did?

At a time when more and more women writers/producers—particularly Jewish women—are getting a chance to show how successful they can be, we are barely creeping closer to breaching the last taboo on television—an appealing Jewish couple who are more than just “Friends.”

5 comments on “Who’s Jewish on “Friends”

  1. makutsi on

    Rachel’s mother is not played by Maria Thomas, she is played by Marlo Thomas which is a nickname for Margaret Julia Thomas.

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