Remembering Jerry Stiller, an Unambiguously Jewish Comedy Great

The legendary Jewish comedian Jerry Stiller, who died Monday at 92, was never quite sure whether Frank Costanza – the tightly wound character he was internationally famous for playing on television – was Jewish or not.

“It was never really clear if the Costanzas were Jewish or Italian or what they were,” Stiller told the New York Post in 2018. He and his co-stars on the nine-season hit sitcom “Seinfeld,” Jason Alexander and Estelle Harris – all Jewish actors – “were given the name Costanza, which sounds Italian, but there were episodes where I cooked Jewish food and ate knishes and kasha varnishkes in bed. When people asked me about this, I would simply say it was because we were a Jewish family in the Witness Protection Program.”

Those comments by Stiller were read out, appropriately, at a gala for the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, celebrating its exhibit “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World,” which declared “Seinfeld” as one of the 15 greatest achievements in Jewish comedy.

Unlike Frank Costanza, Stiller was unambiguously Jewish, and his career reflected the classic American-Jewish show business success story from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Hollywood. His mother immigrated from Poland; his paternal grandparents were immigrants from Galicia.

In 2001, he reminisced about his childhood in a tenement on the Lower East Side while promoting a Hanukkah special he recorded as part of a public radio series called “One People, Many Stories,” for the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.

Stiller told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that his parents argued constantly. He said that Frank Costanza’s unhappy kvetching – and fruitless quest for “Serenity Now!” – was based on his own father, who was bitter about being poor and about his unhappy marriage.

– Serenity Now!