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Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever: When is a Jewish stereotype useful?

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In the first part of this two-part series on new culture and old Jewish stereotypes, I wrote about Jewish money, solidarity, and privilege in Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie. For this post, I’m going to move across the pond to discuss the new American Netflix series Never How I Ever.  

This series, like Queeniehas a diverse group of girlfriends at its core and a problematic Jewish figure framed in financial terms. Created by Mindy Kaling, who wanted to write a show about her own experiences as an Indian American teenager trying to fit in to the cool crowd in high school, the series features a wonderfully awkward protagonist, Devi, who is desperate to lose her virginity to serious hottie Paxton Hall-Yoshida. She’s also trying to overcome the other obstacles life has brought her: the death of her dad, the sudden loss of feeling in her legs that temporarily puts her in a wheelchair, the arrival of her beautiful cousin from India, and the fraught relationship she has with her mother. Last of all, there’s Ben Gross, her nemesis. 

Ben is Jewish. Ben is also rich and obnoxious about his money—and a little pathetic about it. He has no friends, only Shira, a girlfriend who doesn’t seem very fond of him. In one sad moment, Shira tells Ben she can’t come to the Clippers game because she must get her eyebrows done that night. Ben wanders the school looking for someone to join him. Who would say no to a free ticket to an LA Clippers game—courtside seats? He sees two of Paxton’s friends, Trent and Marcus.

‘Either of you want to sit courtside at the Clippers game tonight?’ he asks. ‘I have an extra ticket.’ He flashes the ticket, his eyes hopeful. The boys are baffled by the invitation—and unimpressed.

Trent clarifies: ‘To go with you or just, like, to go alone?’

‘To go with me. And my dad,’ Ben says.

‘But wouldn’t that be weird?’ responds Trent, ‘Cuz, like, we’re not really friends with you.’

‘Come on,’ urges Ben, ‘I’ve known you guys since kindergarten.’

They still decline, and as Ben walks away, Trent lays in with a final blow: ‘Oh, but if you don’t go? — we’ll just take two of the tickets and go with your dad.’ Poor Ben. Money can’t buy you love. 

The Forward sensationally declared that ‘Never Have I Ever Has a Serious Jewish Problem.’ According to Mira Fox, Ben is ‘drawn entirely in broad strokes of Jewish stereotypes. He’s a wildly rich nerdy suck-up, with an absent, workaholic Hollywood lawyer for a dad and negligent Jewish-Buddhist type for a mom… He’s dating a painfully stereotypical Jewish American Princess named Shira, who he doesn’t even like, in order to raise his own social clout; Shira, he tells Devi, is dating him for his money.’  

‘A Serious Jewish Problem’ is a pretty hefty charge, and I might have rolled my eyes a few times reading the article, even if Fox’s claims are not all wrong. I, too, found the reliance on the stereotype of the rich Jew lazy.  

But as in Carty-Williams’s novel, the stereotype seems not without purpose, something Fox fails to note. In the final episode of the season, the caricature of the Jew gives way to the caricaturisation of the Jew. 

Setting a tray on a table before Devi’s friends, Ben comments, ‘I really only thought I’d be buying two Frappucinos …since I only asked two of you here.’

Rather than apologise, Eleanor scowls. ‘Don’t be cheap,’ she replies. ‘If you need to talk to us that urgently, you can also afford to hydrate our lovers.’ There is comedy here—one of the coffee recipients is a robot, and the conversation shifts briefly to the robot’s failure to see itself as a robot, but soon Eleanor returns to insulting her host. ‘So, what’s this about?’ she asks. ‘Your blazer makes me think you’re about to rope us into a pyramid scheme.’ 

I see this prolonged, blatant string of stereotypes linking money to Jewishness as significant: it is here, in the mouth of Ben’s peer, that the real crassness of these stereotypes is laid bare. Suddenly we see how not ok it is to construct the Jew this way, as not ok as it is for kids to call Devi and Eleanor (Asian American) and Fabiola (black-white biracial) the ‘UN’ as their classmates do (‘You shouldn’t call us the UN,’ says Devi. ‘It’s racist, it’s offensive, and…’ ‘What? Oh, like the United Nations?’ responds Ben in the first episode, ‘No. We call you the UN because you’re Unfuckable Nerds.’ Burn….). 

Anyway, unlike Carty-Williams’s Cassandra, Ben turns out to be a good guy. Like, a really good guy. By the end of the season, as much as we enjoy looking at Paxton’s washboard abs, we’re rooting for the nerdy Jew to be Devi’s bashert. 

Sometimes the moneyed Jew has a function in fiction—the figure might remind people to be aware of their privilege as they establish bonds of solidarity with different minority groups, or it might highlight the abuse heaped on a minority because of age-old stereotypes—and these are both lessons I can appreciate. But let’s move beyond this figure too, yes?

Series Navigation<< What types of British Jewish culture have you been consuming during the pandemic? Part 1Kinder Korner: Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham, UK–the Minecraft edition! >>
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Dr Karen E H Skinazi is a literary and cultural critic who works as a Senior Lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.
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