Remembering the Unshakable Jewishness of “The Nanny”

Fran Drescher as Fran Fine in The Nanny (Photo credit: CBS)

Recently, I came across a photo of myself as a teenager in the late ’90s. I’m sitting on a brocade sofa covered with a clear vinyl couch protector at a family friend’s house in East Elmhurst, Queens. I’m wearing a black t-shirt with the word “Sagittarius” emblazoned across it in red glitter, a black choker bedazzled with rhinestones, and a pair of cat-eye glasses. My hair is flat, but otherwise I could be the teenage version of the fictional Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) of The Nanny, a New York–raised Reform Jew with a penchant for glittery clothing and funky accessories, who could regularly be found sitting atop a plastic-slipcovered couch in Queens. The sitcom aired on CBS from 1993 to 1999, and HBO Max began streaming the series in April 2021. I decided to revisit a few episodes to see if it held up after 20 years—and, more specifically, to confirm that the show was as Jewish as I remembered it being.

As a Jewish girl growing up in the ‘90s, I didn’t get to see a lot of representation of Jewish women on television. Jewish television characters have historically been outliers. And though there were some memorable male Jewish TV characters before the ’90s—Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bernie Steinberg (David Birney) on Bridget Loves Bernie, Mr. Harold Hooper (Will Lee) on Sesame Street, Jerry Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld) on Seinfeld, and Krusty the Clown (Dan Castellaneta) on The Simpsons—Jewish women were even rarer. In an unscientific Facebook poll, I asked about the most memorable Jewish female TV characters; this yielded a pretty narrow range of responses. My Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike replied either with characters from the past 10 years—characters such as Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer) and Abbi Abrams (Abbi Jacobson) on Broad City—or with only a handful of Jewish female characters from before 2000.

These pre-2000 characters included Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) on The Goldbergs (1949-1956), Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda,, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing) on Will and Grace. But the character most often cited by people who responded to my query was Fran Fine. And indeed, on my binge-rewatch of The Nanny, I found that she’s even more Jewish than I remembered. The Nanny follows Fran, a working-class Jewish woman from Queens, as she serendipitously lands a gig nannying the three children of Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), a British widower and Broadway producer. The Sheffields are rich, WASP-y, and, as both Fran and I put it, fancy-shmancy. As in many sitcoms, The Nanny’s comedy is derived from the clash of cultures, and Fran’s Jewishness and gefilte-fish-out-of-water (oy, forgive me) role in the Sheffield household is at its center. Drescher and her then-husband, Peter Marc Jacobson, created, wrote, and produced the show; and their shared background as Jewish high-school sweethearts in Queens gave the show a verisimilitude that can only be born from lived experience.

And though “verisimilitude” might not be the first word you’d assign to a show whose lead actor mugs for the camera only slightly less than Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, The Nanny feels grounded in reality, especially when it comes to the Jewishness of Fran and the rest of the Fines. One joke in particular remains seared into my childhood memory: Fran is on a date and her date asks if she wants “red or white” wine, to which she nasally responds “Blueberry?” and he produces a bottle of Manischewitz. It might be the most boldly Jewish joke I’ve ever seen on a sitcom, especially one from that era. The show didn’t care that someone who had never met a Jewish person before wouldn’t get the joke; it wasn’t for them, and it didn’t have to be. The joke was meant to wink at The Nanny’s Jewish viewers, as if to say,  “We know you got drunk for the first time on Manischewitz during Passover. Fran did too.” Fran wasn’t the only prominent Jewish woman in ’90s television, of course: Will and Grace had Grace Adler; Friends had Monica Geller (Courteney Cox) and Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston);  Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan).

But there was something special and uniquely Jewish about Nanny Fine. Fran tosses around Yiddish words with an ease familiar to my Jewish friends and family, myself included, and she eats bacon but mentions fasting on Yom Kippur. Fran and her family are exceedingly close and bickering is their love language. Fran is Jewish in that New York Reform Jewish way that I recognize from my own life and upbringing. But there had been talk at the network that the Fran character should be Italian instead of Jewish, though it was coming on the heels of Seinfeld. “When I sold the idea of The Nanny, which was based off of the rich and colorful characters that I felt I identified with growing up in Flushing, Queens, the network said ‘Procter and Gamble will buy the show outright, which is a good thing, because then you never have to worry about selling ads and making money for the network,’” Drescher  told The Forward in 2017. “The caveat was that I had to be Italian. For very practical reasons, I said no: ‘I am Jewish, we want to write this with my brand of comedy, which is rich in specificity and relatability, and we wouldn’t be able to write it as Italian because we’re not Italian.’ We would be doing a caricature of what we think Italian is, because we didn’t grow up with it.”

That specificity shines through in The Nanny. It couldn’t encompass the whole range of Jewishness—Judaism isn’t a monolith, after all—but for the specific subset of Jews from New York who are Ashkenazi and Reform, many of its best jokes felt like something your cousin might say at Shabbat dinner. But perhaps the most compelling part of The Nanny’s portrayal of Jewishness is that Fran never toned it down, even in the presence of her gentile coworkers, employers, and friends. And because the character was so comfortably and wholly herself, the rest of the cast became more aware of, and steeped in, her world—joining her family for Passover Seder, accompanying her to synagogue one Saturday morning, and adding a good dose of Yiddish to their vocabulary. At one point, Maxwell tells Fran as she enters his office, “Oh, I do hope you’ve come to kibbitz; I do love it when we kibbitz.” In the Season 4 episode “The Passed-Over Story,” the whole Sheffield household goes to Fran’s parents’ house for Seder.

Fran Fine’s refusal to assimilate is as radical a statement as any ’90s show made.

Niles (Daniel Davis), the Sheffield family butler and Fran’s good friend, becomes invested in cooking traditional Ashkenazi dishes, telling Fran, “I’ve been experimenting with recipes for your mother’s Seder. I’ve made kreplach, kneidlach, tzimmes, and gribenesOy, I’ve been eating like a chazer.” Gracie (Madeline Zima), the youngest Sheffield child, reads the four questions, and they all agree they could use “a little sweet” after stuffing themselves during the meal. In other words, the Sheffields embrace Fran’s unfamiliar-to-them Jewish identity and aren’t uncomfortable with or put off by that unfamiliarity. The episode that might serve as a thesis statement for the show itself is Season 1’s “My Fair Nanny,” in which Fran tries to become more like a member of the Sheffield’s goyish Upper East Side crowd to avoid embarrassing Mr. Sheffield’s shy eldest child, Maggie (Nicholle Tom), at a society tea. She almost pulls it off, smoothing out her accent as well as her hair and donning a beige dress, but her attempts to hobnob with the stuffy rich ladies at the event are belied by her topics of conversation (Fran saying in her Mid-Atlantic inspired posh accent, “I was on the phone with my mother, and she can be such a yenta” is a series highlight).

But what’s more important is that Maggie makes it clear that she doesn’t want Fran to change. It’s here, in the third episode of the show, that The Nanny tells us in no uncertain terms, that this isn’t going to be a My Fair Lady situation at all. At episode’s end, Fran is talking to a woman who says, “My people came over on the Mayflower… We landed on Plymouth Rock. My family can be traced back for 500 years.” To this Fran replies in her true accent: “We landed on Ellis Island. They changed our names, and now we don’t know who the hell we were.” Fran may not know who the hell her ancestors were, but she sure knows who the hell she is now, and her refusal to assimilate is as radical a statement as any ’90s show made.

A photo of the Bitch Media yellow "Filled with Rage" mug, which is an exclusive perk of our membership programLike what you just read? Consider supporting Bitch Media—an independent, reader-supported feminist media outlet—to make more of this feminist analysis possible and accessible to all. Join us as a monthly member or make a one-time fully tax deductible donation today.

by Jessica Hertz
View profile »

Jessica Hertz is a born and raised New Yorker. She has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Columbia University and an MA in Theatre from Hunter College. Her work has been published in Pembroke Magazine, Oyster River Pages, Emrys Journal Online, and Akashic Book’s Fri-SciFi series. You can find her on Twitter at @_blerg.