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.