Getting Yiddish With It: Curb Your Enthusiasm Embraces Jewish Themes and Talmudic Tropes in Cutting-Edge Humor

The first time comic Elon Gold met Larry David was at a 2017 panel discussion between Alan Dershowitz — famed civil liberties attorney-cum-Trump-era Martha’s Vineyard social pariah — and conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager. Following the event, Gold approached the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” creator and star, who attended at the behest of then-friend Dershowitz (with whom David has since had a widely publicized falling out).

“I said, ‘What’d you think of the debate?’” Gold recalls. “And Larry said, ‘I was annoyed the whole time. I was bothered the whole time.’ And I’m like, ‘What happened?’ And he goes, ‘I saw someone that I knew, and I tapped the person in front of me to tap the person in front of him, and he refused.’”

Gold responded, “He didn’t forward the tap.”

Cut to season 11 of HBO’s two-time Emmy-winning sitcom, and that “forwarding the tap” bit appears in a scene between David and Tracey Ullman, who guest stars as wonky city councilwoman and Larry’s spirit animal, Irma Kostroski. Serendipitously, Gold, whom David hadn’t remembered by name — but remembered the “forward the tap” exchange, filing it away for future use — also debuts as the Hulu executive who greenlights “Young Larry,” the fictitious series pitched as part of this season’s arc.

“That’s another part of [Larry’s] genius. He writes everything down,” says Gold. “For him, it’s a puzzle. He puts together all of the bits that he has accumulated for a decade and figures out where they go and for what scene. I was just in his office last week and I said, ‘Do you remember the for- ward-the-tap origin?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I remember exactly what it is.’ And I go, ‘But did you know it was me?’ He goes, ‘No.’”

That Gold, a Jewish comedian well-known on the stand-up circuit who’s appeared on series such as “American Dad!” and “Crashing,” snagged a recurring role on “Curb” the same season an exchange between Gold and David years prior wedged its way into an episode could, of course, be coincidence. But it could also be “basheret,” a Yiddish word that means destiny, or fate. Basheret is also a word guest star Jon Hamm says in this season’s premiere of “Curb,” along with a smattering of other Yiddish expressions — tzuris (woes), shanda (shame), mechaye (pleasure) — peppered throughout a show that, while always incorporating Jewish tropes, has pulled out all the proverbial stops this Emmy-nominated season.

To be sure, “Curb” has always been a comedy highwire act, upending political correctness at almost every turn; the “Palestinian Chicken” episode in Season 8 rises to the level of 1960s’ Mel Brooks in terms of its subversive brilliance. And David has never acquiesced to the industry’s expectations of what comedy is “supposed” to be. To wit, when broadcast journalist Michael Kay asked David in 2021 if he harbored concern over potentially alienating Trump supporters given the series’ 10th season MAGA hat subplot, David replied, “Alienate yourself. Go, go and alienate! You have my blessing. No, I could give a fuck.”

But given the soaring rates of Jew-hatred in America — according to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2021 — that “Curb” is so unabashedly and unapologetically Jewish (and Jew-ish), turning antisemitism (and racial and cultural stereotypes across the board) on its head with a loud, reverberating thud with zero deference to what critics or viewers or basically any- body might think, has been one of the most exhilarating examples of 2022 small-screen fare.

“I was sprinkling words like tachlis, which has never been said on television before and is Hebrew for ‘real talk,’” says Gold of his scenes, all of which are improvised. On “Curb,” there is no script.

“Larry and Jeff [Schaffer], the director and showrunner, just said, ‘Go to town and have fun,’” continues Gold. “I’ll never forget the first time I ever did a scene. Larry totally put me at ease by saying, ‘listen, until both of us are happy with this scene, we’ll keep doing it. And that just completely relaxed me. They just came over and said, ‘Get as Jewy as you can. Have fun with it. Anything you have from the Jewish arsenal, bring it out.’”

That applies to turns of phrase in Jewish vernacular to which David himself was not privy.

“In the scene where I said Ted Danson ‘is a real mechaya,’ in real life [David] did not know it,” says Gold. “And that’s when Larry turned to me and said, ‘You just nailed this perfectly,’ which was such a compliment from him. Because it’s all improv so it’s like back and forth, back and forth. I liken it to playing tennis with [John] McEnroe. You hit the ball, he hits it back much harder. Now, you up your game. Now you hit it back harder.”

Susie Essman, who has played Susie Greene for the entirety of “Curb’s” run, takes pride in being the de facto “Yiddish consultant” of the series.

“Yiddish is a language of comedy,” she says. “My grandmother spoke Yiddish and she was the funniest person I knew. And I have a few friends who speak fluent Yiddish, so when I want to check on words, I go to them. Jon Hamm speaking Yiddish to me was one of the most precious things I’ve ever seen. A goyishe god speaking Yiddish was just fantastic.”

But “Curb” is not a series designed for or watched exclusively by Jews.

“Larry is sort of resentful when other Jews think the show is just for them, because it’s truly for everybody,” notes Gold. “It’s the show with the greatest observa- tions on human behavior — period — that’s ever been done.”

“Larry writes about what he wants to write about and creates the scenarios that he wants to create,” adds Essman. “He doesn’t think, ‘Oh, this is going to be offensive’ or ‘That’s going to be offensive.’ I don’t like to speak for him, but I know it’s not something that crosses his mind. And the reason I think it works is that his character is the truth teller. His character is clearly making fun of himself. It’s almost as though he’s putting his finger in the eye of it. The reason people respond to Larry’s charac- ter is that he’s saying what every- body’s thinking but is afraid to say — and that’s basically the role of comedians. Your job is to say what everybody else is thinking but is afraid to say, and then say it in such a way that’s a little twisted. The job of a comic is to be a social commentator.”

Season 11 deals with sundry societal issues, from COVID-19 quarantine supply hoarders to white nationalism to, per Essman, “the little annoyances of everyday.”

In episode four, Larry’s housemate Leon (J.B. Smoove) reveals the self-consciousness felt while eating watermelon in front of “white people.” In a gesture of solidarity, Larry proclaims he’s buying gefilte fish and he’s going to eat it “with a schmear of cream cheese on a bagel.”
In that same episode, Larry accidentally spills coffee on the “ecru” KKK robe of a Klansman en route to a spate of hate rallies. After reciting lyrics from “Fiddler on the Roof’s” “Tradition” in the presence of said Klansman and engaging in impromptu Talmudic discourse with a Jewish dry cleaner — “We don’t discriminate!” — Larry pays to clean the robe. When the robe goes missing, Larry persuades Susie to sew the Klansman a new one. Reluctantly, she complies. The result: a crisp, white robe with a giant Star of David.

“I thought it was brilliant,” she says.

But like anything else in comedy, somebody somewhere will inevitably find something in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” insulting at some point.

“There’s the episode we shot at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles and Larry steps in dog shit, and he steals the shoes off the piles of the shoes in the Holocaust remembrance [exhibit] and it’s so funny, so edgy and, you know, I think some people took offense,” Essman says. “But I always think about Mel Brooks, and he got a lot of flak in the very beginning when he first made ‘The Producers’ for making fun of the Holocaust. And what he said about it, and something with which I completely agree, is that the only power he had was ridicule. The only power he had over these people who were evil and did these heinous things was to ridicule them, because he was a comedian. And he was able to do that, brilliantly. And I think Larry has a similar take on it. Sometimes, comedy is the only power you have.”

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