I’m one of those people who get excited when a character on a TV show I like ends up being Jewish. I relish in the in-jokes and the random Yiddish words—that is, unless the character is a walking, talking stereotype. The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Joel Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) might have started out as a lazily-written caricature, but, over the past five seasons, has developed into a substantial character who would be only slightly annoying to hang out with.
Of the four geeks that star in The Big Bang Theory, Wolowitz is the only one without a doctorate, leading to teasing from his three best friends and other colleagues at Cal Tech. He also looks the weirdest: He wears bright-colored turtlenecks, sweater-vests, skinny jeans and belts with large, decorative buckles almost every day, and sports a Beatles-esque haircut. Plus, he drives a Vespa.
On top of all of that, Wolowitz considers himself a ladies’ man, and though the show is built around his friend Leonard (Johnny Galecki)—who’s also Jewish, though his faith isn’t mentioned often—who has a crush on and later dates their ditzy blonde neighbor Penny (Kaley Cuoco), Wolowitz is definitely the sex-obsessed one of the group. He once even got his penis stuck in a robotic hand that was meant to make extravehicular repairs, which he, uh, repurposed.
At first, it seemed like showrunner Chuck Lorre was trying to show what would happen if Alexander Portnoy was an engineer in the Cal Tech applied physics department. Mother issues? Check. Neuroses? Check. Weird and often disrespectful treatment of women? Check.
Of course, The Big Bang Theory is a network sitcom—a popular, but critically-reviled one, at that—so Wolowitz’s clumsy attempts to pick up women are tamer than those imagined by Philip Roth, though they have included doing magic tricks, ventriloquism, dressing up as a Goth, and giving compliments in Russian.
At the end of the fifth season, Wolowitz put his attempted player-like ways behind him for good, marrying microbiologist Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), his very own shiksa goddess (albeit a geeky one), after three seasons of dating. (Jewcy readers will of course know that Mayim Bialik has been appearing on the show since the end of Season 3 as Amy Farrah Fowler, a Ph.D. in neurobiology, who was first introduced as a love interest for Sheldon, Jim Parsons.) Wolowitz and Bernadette had bonded over complaining about their mothers, and he loved how angry he imagined his mom would be when she hears he has a Catholic girlfriend.
Then again, Wolowitz’s mother is basically always angry.
Mrs. Wolowitz is a running gag on The Big Bang Theory. Viewers never see her, even during her son’s wedding, but they hear her throaty, Brooklyn-accented voice (“How-waaaaaaahd”) from downstairs, whenever Wolowitz is in his room. That’s right, Wolowitz still lives with his mother, though he’s in his early 30s. Because he lives with her, he is constantly helping her shave various body parts, like her back or mustache, and dealing with her many ailments—there seems to be a new one every episode. Wolowitz himself is no stranger to health neuroses, rounding out the character with yet another Jewish stereotype. He’s asthmatic, allergic to nuts, and has an irregular heartbeat, and was stricken with pink eye and canker sores over the course of the show’s five seasons.
If Big Bang creator Chuck Lorre wasn’t known as a proud Jew, Wolowitz might be considered an anti-Semitic character. Luckily Lorre and Simon Helberg make sure he has a lot of heart, and over time turned him from a one- or two-joke stereotype to a more likeable character, that I could even imagine hanging out with—even if he still dresses like an idiot.
Previously on Network Jews:
Paris Geller, Rory Gilmore’s high-intensity, over-achieving friend and foil on Gilmore Girls
Kyle Broflovski, South Park’s Resident Jew
Ziva David, the ass-kicking Mossad agent on CBS’s naval drama NCIS
Lahav Harkov is the Knesset reporter for The Jerusalem Post, where she also writes a column called The Weekly Schmooze about Jews in pop culture, so she has an excuse for incessantly reading celebrity gossip.