Is Rugrats anti-Semitic?

Last Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 20), the Washington Post ran a comic strip based on the popular kids’ TV show Rugrats , in which the main character, the half-Jewish toddler Tommy Pickles, is taken to synagogue. He listens in fascinated befuddlement as all the adults around him utter the Hebrew words to the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. He sits on the lap of his grandfather Boris, who is very old and has a long nose.

On Oct. 11, the Washington Post issued an Editor’s Note declaring that its editors should have known better than to run the comic strip and reporting that the newspaper had complained to Nickelodeon, which produces it, as well as to the company that distributes it.

What was wrong with the Rugrats strip? The Editor’s Note said “the depiction of Jewish worshipers and use of the Kaddish were inappropriate.” A Post editor, interviewed in the Jewish newspaper the Forward, said it had had scores of calls and that most of the callers were upset about the inclusion of the Kaddish, although a few were incensed by the length of the nose.

Culturebox thinks the Washington Post was faced with a genuine dilemma but made exactly the wrong call. There is a tradition of anti-Semitic caricature featuring Jews with hideous noses, some of which has been used to justify persecution. (Think of the Nazi publication Der Stuermer.) That might have been cause for an Editor’s Note pointing out that while some people may have taken offense, none was intended. But there’s no excuse for censoring cartoonists (even after the fact) because they’ve used religion as their subject matter. That’s like saying Peanuts can’t focus on Christmas, or that when Brenda Starr prays, she can’t use language from the Lord’s Prayer. Since there was no mockery in the Rugrats depiction of the Kaddish–just one toddler’s curiosity one can only conclude the callers deemed the comic strip, as a medium, insufficiently dignified for serious Jewish subjects. That would be news to Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus–comic-book accounts of the Holocaust.

As it turns out, the Rugrats TV show is much beloved among Jewish parents with young children for its helpful and sympathetic depictions of Hanukkah and Passover Seders. So the complainers were not only trying to abridge freedom of expression, they were wildly off-base. But what’s shocking is that one of the nation’s leading newspapers gave in to them.

Judith Shulevitz