When writing about Jewish people, sometimes you’ve gotta whip out the Jewish maiden name for clout.
Say it with me. Ruh-Tie-Zer.
Good, you’re ready for the rest of the article.
For the uninitiated, PopLurker is in fact owned and operated by a Jewish woman. But not just a Jewish lady; I have a second secret. A half Israeli Jewish lady with dual citizenship. It’s true, while born in the United States, I am a legal citizen of both the US and Israel. My family and I lived in the holy land in the mid-90s for a couple of years and it completely changed my perspective on a lot of things to this day.
And while I’ve written about Jewish cartoon characters we didn’t know we wanted, I never had the chance to give some love to Jewish entertainers whose careers inspire me. So today on PopLurker, I’m going to bust out my Jew Card and represent by giving shout outs to my Top 10 Most Influential Jewish Entertainers of all time!
10) Haim Saban
Haim Saban, while not necessarily an entertainer in the traditional sense, is a mogul whose career is one I’ve admired for over twenty years. I first heard his name back during the DIC cartoon explosion. The man rules the media with an iron fist and has his own theater. But it wasn’t until he made the astounding business decision to bring Japanese Super Sentai footage and cut/splice/redub it as Power Rangers that this man leveled up on my radar.
Let me explain.
I saw my first episode of Power Rangers while living in Israel in 1994 or 1995. I immediately clung to it and fell in love. But here’s some perspective that some other American fans might not have. Early MMPR sensibilities were completely Israeli. At the time, Israel was a very young nation, and its media was this mashup of everywhere. There was British slapstick, dry humor, physical comedy, and Israeli children’s entertainers who stared at the camera and were just loud. Power Rangers, in retrospect, reflected a lot of Israeli humor at the time. To this day, I can see a kids movie or show and usually guess pretty quickly whether or not the staff was Jewish and Israeli. I’m usually correct, and that stems from the mainstream flavor of Jewish humor that Saban brought to the forefront with the media he produced.
Sorry my dudes, I have to say it. Bulk and Skull?
9) Fran Drescher
While she may have had one of the most grating voices of the 90s, Fran Drescher showed people that Jewish women on television could be sexy while maintaining their connection to their culture. Remember kids, while Judaism is a religion, it’s also a detectable bloodline the same as any other ethnicity. The Nanny wasn’t the best show on TV, sure (though I’ve watched it through a million times, come at me).
However, as a Jewish kid seeking representation, it was fun to hear the Yiddish words and say ‘Oh, we say those words at home’, or hear the occasional Hebrew phrase or mention of a kibbutz, smile and say ‘I know what they’re talking about!’ Perhaps it was right place, right time, but Fran Drescher’s show came on during a period of isolation for me, and to this day, I appreciate her representing all of us in the 90s.
8) Gal Gadot
Do I even have to explain this one? We’ve got a Jewish superhero! We’ve got an Israeli superhero! And she’s freakin’ Wonder Woman! That’s amazing!
And remember, in Israel, Military Service is mandatory. Ms. Gadot served two years as a combat instructor before she made the leap to take her modeling and acting career more seriously. More recently in 2018, Gal Gadot was named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people of all time.
7) Shuki Levy
Shuki-freakin’-Levy. The cartoon theme song Master of the Universe. I mean really– this man’s music defined your childhood.
Boy shows. Girl shows. DIC shows. Nick Jr. shows. This man has infiltrated your brain whether or not you know it. And truthfully, his sound is so distinct! Have you ever been watching Rainbow Brite, seeing a tense moment, and think ‘Huh….that background music and sound effects sound oddly like He-Man and Heathcliff.’ Hell yes they do…because Shuki Levy, dammit!
6) Gene Simmons
Long live the king!
I think it’s a trend among my admiration of Jewish career people is their ability to not only have their entertainment niche, but to brand themselves and mark their places as business people. Gene Simmons is exactly that. Starting out as the bassist of KISS (one of my favorite bands) he has become an all-encompassing being at this point. And while he might get criticism because he’s always out to make a buck, it’s truthfully one of the things I admire most about Gene Simmons.
Not only did he inspire me personally to pick up the bass, but because of him, I realized I have a really long tongue. I’ll share a story. When I was eighteen, my best friend and I got really into KISS. She clung to Paul Stanley (another excellent Jewish person) and I gravitated to the larger than life personality that is Gene. She and I were driving, and one of us suggested that since I was into Gene, I should try to stick out my tongue. Well, out that sucker fell from my mouth and it was a monster. Imagine if I had no idea I had a long tongue?! Where would we be then!
Gene Simmons, while cocky and ridiculous, is a warm and compassionate man who loves his fans and the people around him.
Plus he taught me the motto ‘Dump one boyfriend, get five new ones.’
5) Judy Blume
Judy Blume, while not only an amazing writer, was the first author I can think of who casually wrote about the Jewish experience. Often in her stories, characters and their neighbors were simply Jewish. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself was about a Jewish family post World War II. Stephanie from Just as Long as We’re Together was Jewish, just because, the same as Sheila Tubman from the Fudge books. In Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret we had a ‘biracial’ girl who was half Jewish and half Catholic, trying to figure out where she belonged. And I’m pretty sure that Karen Newman in It’s Not the End of The World might have been Jewish too, along with the protagonists in Wifey and Smart Women.
While her writing is stellar, one of my favorite things about her stories was that the books weren’t about being Jewish. The characters just were Jewish. The stories didn’t pander and they normalized the Jewish experience simply by exposure. The modern day equivalent can be compared to stories about queer or transgender characters. Not every gay story needs to be about coming out. And not every transgender story needs to end with a tragedy. Judy Blume allowed a segregated and persecuted group exist like…well…people. And it was nice. Exposure leads to tolerance. It’s that simple.
4) R.L. Stine
All hail the dark lord and master of the word himself, Mr. R.L. Stine! While Mr. Stine doesn’t address Judaism in any of his books, his career can’t be ignored by any kid who grew up in the 90s. Truthfully, in many ways, R.L. Stine’s writing helped inspire my own. I like the short, quick, jabbing sensory details that, for all intents and purposes, might be considered ‘masculine’. While many kids of my era connected with the Goosebumps books (which I very much enjoyed, don’t get me wrong), it was the Fear Street books that really made my parts tingle.
They. Were. Sleazy!
Look at the way R.L. Stine describes teenage girls. The body language. The way he makes them talk. Sultry sixteen year olds with full lips, creamy skin, long wavy hair and just delicious bodies. Something about his writing just appeals to me on this primal level, and without R.L. Stine’s writing and vision, I truthfully wouldn’t be the same person.
3) Ina Garten
Ina Garten taught me to cook. Hands down, no question. I learned to cook from a sweet and sassy Jewish woman on television.
And my life changed forever.
Ina Garten, better known as The Barefoot Contessa on Food Network started out as the owner of a specialty foods store in the Hamptons. From there, she made the decision to write cookbooks. The books were published and were all smash hits. She eventually went on to host the food network show Barefoot Contessa, named after that original food store.
Sure, she might get crap from people about her smugness for ‘good vanilla’, ‘good ketchup’ and ‘good cinnamon’. She might encourage that you make everything from scratch and only use the highest quality white cheddar from the hidden woods of Vermont. But so what? Have standards and don’t compromise! Don’t accept garbage and be good to yourself. And why have one cocktail when you can have three?!
Ina Garten taught me that.
2) Joan Rivers
Not a day goes by where I don’t miss Joan Rivers. After her untimely death in 2014, there was a hole in pop culture comedy that’s just be missing. One of my favorite things about Joan was her ability to continue to reinvent herself. In the 60s, she was an amazing stand up comedian, just boarding on dirty, and always ahead of her time. After that, she established herself as a red carpet staple, always interviewing celebrities on their way to shows and appearances.
But let me tell you what happened when she started hosting Fashion Police on E!. I fell in love. God damn it, I rushed home every Friday after work just to make sure I got to spend my evening with Joan Rivers. Her career was back on the up. She had a successful YouTube show called In Bed With Joan Rivers. And finally, when she made her appearance on Louis CK’s show, I felt like the queen of comedy found her place. I loved her bawdy outlook and her fearless approach to discussing people. There will never be another Joan Rivers.
1) Mel Brooks
The King of the Jews is here to stay! While other Jewish staples appeared in his films, like Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks is the Granddaddy of them all (even if Blazing Saddles didn’t age well, we’re gonna roll with it, we’re gonna roll with it).
One of my favorite things about Mel Brooks is his effortless embedding of casual Judaism into his comedy and films. I’d have to say that Space Balls is probably the best example of this. We have Princess Vespa, the Druish Princess (who funny, doesn’t look Druish!). We have robot Dot Matrix, played by our previously mentioned love, Joan Rivers. We have the power of the Schwartz. And we have pop culture’s favorite Jewish villain, Rick Moranis. His humor comes from the Jewish experience, one that, quite frankly, has dark roots.
This quote from Mel Brooks himself sums it up nicely:
Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved, lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every 10 Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one…. You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re 16. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.
Which is why it’s so important that for every ten articles about Voltron and Transformers, we let our humanity peek through the cracks.
Even if just for a moment.