Growing up in south London, and then in the largely Catholic town of Manhasset on Long Island, I didn’t encounter many families who looked, sounded, or behaved like mine. In England, my experiences were limited to either my mother’s family, who were all Orthodox Jews, strictly observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher, and to the families of my classmates, who were invariably all gentiles. In Manhasset, I didn’t even have the Orthodox to relate to. So one of my main comforts in both places came from the Pickles family, who—with its big-haired, neurotic, doting mother and its old-world, Yiddish-mumbling grandparents—instantly made me feel at home. It also helped that I could spend time with the Pickles family whenever I wanted; after all, they were on TV.
The Pickles family was the centerpiece of Rugrats, an incredibly popular cartoon series that ran throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s on Nickelodeon. Spanning nine seasons and three movies, the series followed the adventures of Tommy Pickles, his slightly older cousin Angelica, and Tommy’s fellow baby friends as they wreaked mischief and discovered the wide world around them. Outside of the babies’ antics, the cartoon also focused on the life of the extended Pickles family, a modern American interfaith family.
Rugrats was unique in its time for bringing to American audiences, and American children in particular, a portrayal of American Jewish life. Although the family was largely Christian (or as Christian as celebrating Christmas makes a family), Didi Pickles, Tommy’s mother, was the classic Jewish matriarch. Didi’s parents, Boris and Minka, were perfect stand-ins for my grandparents, blending the shtetl wisdom and Yiddishkeit of my maternal grandparents with obsessive nurturing of my paternal grandparents. The three characters together ensured that Rugrats had a consistently Jewish tone throughout its run.
The Jewishness of Rugrats extended beyond just Jewish mothers and Yiddish accents, though. In 1994, the cartoon aired a Passover special, in which American audiences were introduced to the seder and learned the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The special was unique enough to warrant media attention—The New York Times reviewed the episode, remarking, “If not a first, it certainly is a rarity: a cartoon series devoting an episode to a Jewish holy day.” The series followed up two years later with the first-ever animated televised Hanukkah special, teaching viewers about the miracle of the Temple menorah and the Maccabean uprising.
It may seem small, but those holiday specials and the general Jewishness of Rugrats were groundbreaking for television at the time. Despite the leading role Jews have played in the entertainment industry, proudly Jewish characters have historically been a rare presence on the small screen. In children’s television in particular, Rugrats was one of the few shows I remembering seeing that acknowledged the existence of Jews. The only other notable example was Hey Arnold!—also a Nickelodeon series—that featured an episode about a member of Arnold’s friend group, Harold, having his bar mitzvah. Even in Hey Arnold!, though, Harold’s Judaism was never mentioned in an episode either before or after the bar-mitzvah episode. Rugrats was alone in offering American Jewish children like myself a consistent portrayal of members of my faith.
If I had sought out relatable characters in adult programming in the 1990s, I would have faced a challenge there as well. Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish culture at Rutgers, has argued that television has created a cast of “crypto-Jews”—“characters who, ‘while nominally identified as having some other ethnicity or religion, are nonetheless regarded [by some viewers and even some creators] as Jews in disguise.’”
This masking of Jews was prominent in some of the most popular shows of the ‘90s. One could argue that Seinfeld, with its deep roots in Jewish humor and its occasional references to facets of Jewish life, was proudly Jewish. But even in that series, George Costanza—the avatar for Larry David, who himself is an avatar for the American Jewish man—was passed off as being vaguely Italian, at least in part due to criticism the original pilot faced for being “too New York, too Jewish.” Friends, another show set in New York City, included infrequent references to Monica, Rachel, and Ross being Jewish in some way, with the most blatant example being an episode in which Ross attempts to teach his son about Hanukkah. Beyond fleeting call-outs, though, the ethnoreligious identity of the titular friends was firmly secular and/or Christian. Fran Drescher succeeded in unapologetically portraying a New York Jew in The Nanny, but that was only after receiving pressure from CBS to make the show less Jewish, according to an interview with Drescher in Stars of David. Rugrats, then, made choices that even the most popular comedies at the time were nervous to make.
That Rugrats did choose to proclaim its Jewishness, and to offer children such as myself an affirmative model of American Jewish life, was an essential step in making me feel included in American society. Most American television for children didn’t acknowledge my existence at all, and when it did, it marginalized me within the larger schema of Christian America. Rugrats showed me I was equal and ordinary in society. And whereas other series masked their Jews or only acknowledged them in reference to Christian or secular traditions, Rugrats told me that my faith and traditions were equally as exciting and important as those of mainstream America.
Of course, poor representation in American media isn’t an issue that has been unique to Jewish Americans. Whereas Jews have finally become more or less visible on TV, the same still cannot be said for Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans, among other groups. While gains certainly have been made in bringing racial and ethnic diversity to the small screen—Jane the Virgin, Black-ish, and Fresh Off the Boat have all gone a long way toward normalizing ethnic experiences in America—people of color continue to face the marginalization and masking of identity that affected Jews until recently.
Rugrats also had a profound impact on the television that I sought out as I got older. I realized, as I aged out of children’s television, that I kept seeking shows that also offered affirmative models of American Jewish life. That’s why I fell in love with Fox’s The O.C., a teen soap opera that I normally would have despised if not for the outward nebbishness of Seth Cohen. (Interestingly, like Rugrats, The O.C. also focused on an interfaith family.) I also felt myself irresistibly drawn to New Girl, in which the character of Schmidt frequently drops Yiddish phrases and has joked about the particularities of hooking up with Orthodox girls. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that two of my favorite comedies—Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—both star strong, loud, Jewish women, their even louder mothers, and, in the case of the latter show, a JAP (Jewish American Princess) rap battle that requires Yiddish translation. Each of these shows, like Rugrats, proudly announces its Jewish identity and claims that Jewish identity as an integral part of American culture and society. As Rugrats did for me as a child, these shows let me know that to be a Jew in America is to belong.