Column: Was it OK for ‘The Bear’ to use this Jewish slur?

A man in a white T-shirt and a woman in white overalls and a blue T-shirt
The first episode of the new season of “The Bear,” starring Jeremy Allen White, left, and Ayo Edebiri, tested the limits of “something we shouldn’t say.”
(Chuck Hodes)

Is it ever OK to use an ethnic, religious or racial slur in the course of making contemporary art?

That depends.

Recently, I settled in for Season 2 of “The Bear,” Christopher Storer’s absolutely riveting show about a fictional chef named Carmy Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White, who is struggling to turn his late brother’s Chicago sandwich shop into the kind of establishment that befits his talents as a James Beard Award-winning chef.

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

I adore this show, and love that its trademark phrase, “Yes, chef,” used in the kitchen to signify respect, has ignited the popular imagination.


In the first episode of the new season, the main characters are huddled in their office, trying to figure out how to get the restaurant to pass a multitude of city inspections when Sydney Adamu, a Culinary Institute of America graduate played by Ayo Edebiri, leans against a picture of Fenway Park taped to the wall and falls through it.

The photo, we soon learn, was put there to conceal a hole made by Carmy’s dead brother, drug-addicted Mikey, as part of a never-realized criminal plan.

“That’s the result of some failed Jewish lightning,” explains Richie Jerimovich, a sandwich maker and aspiring chef played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach. His colleagues howl and groan.

I’ve heard a lot of antisemitic slurs in my time, but that one was new to me. And, I would wager, to many other people — Jewish people too, given that the Times of Israel and a few other Jewish sites unpacked the term for their readers.

I tried to ask Storer about the decision to include it, but he didn’t get back to me.

It’s worth pointing out that despite trafficking in ethnic stereotyping, Richie is working hard to be a better person. After he gets taken to task, he says in frustration that he has already stopped using “gay” and “retarded.”

The character Sydney Adamu is an ambitious Black woman chef. Seeing a woman like her onscreen was revelatory, and changes who is seen as desirable.

July 7, 2023

“Did you catch the reference to ‘Jewish lightning’ in Hulu’s ‘The Bear’?” tweeted the American Jewish Committee. “While condemned in the show, it’s crucial to grasp the problematic nature of this phrase.”


According to the group’s website, “‘Jewish lightning’ ... is a phrase rooted in Jewish stereotypes of stinginess and greed” and “it is an ethnic slur that should be condemned.”

In “The Bear,” as the AJC noted in its tweet, that’s exactly what happens.

Richie explains that Mikey, in extremis, “thought that if this place were to accidentally burn down, that maybe there would be some insurance money.”

The winningly earnest sous chef Sydney replies, “I just want to say that I think the explanation ... does cement it as something we shouldn’t say.”

“You are correct,” adds Carmy’s and Mikey’s sister, Natalie, who is played by Abby Elliott.

But does their instantaneous disapproval make it OK for the show to use it in the first place?

The Anti-Defamation League said there was a 41% increase antisemitic incidents in California. Nearly half of the state’s 518 incidents were in L.A., Riverside, San Bernardino and Kern counties.

March 24, 2023

I asked Rob Eshman, former publisher and editor in chief of L.A.’s Jewish Journal and now senior contributing editor at the Forward.


“I think context is everything,” he said. “And in this context, it’s clear the characters who use it and other slurs haven’t quite got up to speed with the way things are. They still talk like they’re making chopped beef sandwiches while the world around them has moved on to fine dining. The drama and humor of the show is in seeing how they are forced to grow up.”

Within the Jewish community, Eshman told me, he has heard arson referred to as “Persian lightning,” in reference to Persian Jews. As he noted: “Stereotypes take hold between and also among groups.”

You can really go down a rabbit hole reading up on the “lexicalization of ethnic expressions,” as one linguist described these kinds of phrases years ago in a discussion group of the American Dialect Society. I won’t repeat them because, well, because. Suffice it to say that religious groups, national groups and ethnic groups alike have been associated — mostly negatively — with, among other things, leaving without notice, having children less than 12 months apart, reclaiming something that’s been gifted and, in various iterations, being thrifty.

We all get that it’s awful to use stereotypes to insult entire groups of people. We all get that we’re better for figuring out that, yes, there are things we “shouldn’t say.” And yet, I don’t think “The Bear” transgressed in its handling of this particular aspersion.

“To the people who are offended,” Eshman told me, “I’d say, relax. Jews have survived 3,000 years. They’ll survive being a punchline in ‘The Bear.’”

Yes, chef.