The Big Bang Theory, the perennially popular CBS sitcom centered around the social and romantic woes of three exceedingly intelligent physicists and one engineer, is consistently among the most popular shows in primetime on network television, even in its sixth season. The engineer of the bunch, and the only member of the male quartet of characters without a Ph.D., is Howard Wolowitz. Wolowitz is a physically small, even timid, man who is awkward around women, often exaggerating his masculinity and prowess, and who still lives with his overbearing mother. He is also Jewish, although if you didn’t glean that from this description, you obviously don’t watch a lot of television.
The range of Jewish references and experiences on the show marks Howard as being more informed by Judaism than one might expect, even if his behavior on the show doesn’t reflect that. Put differently, in spite of the increased presence of Jewish references and the knowledge of Judaism the series assumes on the part of its viewer as compared with previous television series, The Big Bang Theory doesn’t depict Judaism as serving as a resource for action, identity, or meaning-making for Howard. This indicates the lack of a functional purpose for Judaism in the series, made all the more odd by an emphasis on substance in the form of jokes about and knowledge of Judaism.
A natural starting point in an examination of Howard’s Jewish identity is to ask if there is evidence that Howard engages in traditional Jewish religious observances, practices, or holidays. We know that Howard observes Shabbat, albeit in an idiosyncratic fashion. Howard tells his friends that on the Sabbath, “My mother and I have a tradition of lighting the candles and watching Wheel of Fortune.” Howard has also had a bar mitzvah, as we discover when Leonard decides to sell all his comic book and sci-fi collectibles. Howard calls his mother to ask how much his “bar mitzvah bonds” are worth, then offers Leonard “twenty-six hundred dollars and two trees in Israel.” Finally, the series does show Howard praying in Hebrew. Howard goes to the International Space Station in a shuttle at the end of Season 5; upon re-entry, he screams a bracha. One of the other astronauts asks him what he’s saying, and Howard responds, “The Jewish prayer for eating bread. We don’t have one for falling out of space.”
It’s clear that most of the information about his observance is mentioned only in passing and has occurred in the past, and that Howard hasn’t internalized any of their messages, rituals, or observances. That is, Judaism doesn’t seem to provide Howard with any resources to help him as he faces the world as an adult.
One of the most obvious aspects of the portrayal of Judaism in The Big Bang Theory is its treatment of Howard’s mother, Mrs. Wolowitz. As is well known, literature, television, and film have long portrayed Jewish mothers as affectionately overbearing, lovingly controlling, and compassionately critical toward their sons especially. This “Jewish mother” stereotype seems to be in evidence right from the beginning for Mrs. Wolowitz. In the seventh episode of the series, Howard has fallen hard for a girl named Christy and has invited her to live with him. The only problem is that he still lives with his mother. When we first hear Mrs. Wolowitz’s voice—that grating, nasal, New Jersey-esque, always screaming voice—she’s arguing with Christy and she not only calls Howard a “putz,” but also tells Christy to “go back to Babylon, you whore!”
The issue of intermarriage has long been front and center for Howard. His first date with his future wife, Bernadette, goes horribly until they start bonding over how overprotective their respective mothers are. Once the ice is broken, Howard says, “Listen, you have to come to Shabbos dinner at my house sometime.” When Bernadette asks why, he replies, “A Catholic girl like you, wearing a big cross like that might just give my mother the big brain aneurysm I’ve been hoping for.” Smiling, Bernadette says, “Okay, but only if you come to Sunday dinner at my house wearing a yarmulke.” “It’s a date,” replies Howard, and then they toast each other. This interest in non-Jewish women has long characterized Howard’s feeble attempts to attract women. At the same time, though, Howard is aware that his dating women outside his Jewish faith is an issue for his mother.
Taken together, one could argue that all the components we’ve examined—religious holidays, practices, and observances; Howard’s Jewish mother; and interfaith relationships—indicate a much deeper and richer portrayal of Jewish identity in the series when compared with other series that depict Jewish characters. If viewers expect that this means Howard’s Judaism will take on functional meaning for him, though, they’re wrong. What The Big Bang Theory does, then, is to provide much more information, or substance, to the viewer regarding Howard’s Jewish background, while never showing that substance serving any performative purpose. The show doesn’t show Howard’s Judaism in a functional sense, as we’re never shown what Howard’s Judaism does—religion never serves as a motivating factor in any of his moral actions or ethical decisions. While other shows have shown religion (and Judaism in particular) as a motivating factor in decisions or actions, The Big Bang Theory avoids that tendency, and instead portrays Howard’s Judaism as a conglomerate of non-determinative punch lines, albeit a much larger and more comprehensive conglomerate than found in other shows that contain Jewish characters.
Perhaps it’s best to conclude by letting Howard have the final word on religion. When Bernadette confronts Howard for his repeated excuses to avoid helping prepare to move and asks him why he can’t do it that day, he responds, “You know, I’m Jewish, and technically we’re not supposed to drive or carry anything on the Sabbath, so this one’s on God.” Bernadette snarkily notes, “That might be a little more convincing if you didn’t have a mouthful of bacon cheeseburger.” In a response that indicates once again the minimal influence Judaism has on his decisions and behavior, Howard says, “Well, religion’s kinda loosey-goosey. Basically as long as you got your schmeckel clipped and you don’t wear a cross, you’re good.”
Dr. Dan W. Clanton, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Doane College in Crete, NE, and is the author of several works exploring the reciprocal relationship between religion and popular culture.