“Relatable” Romances in Ramy: A Television Series for Millennials and Scholars of Jewish-Muslim Relations by Karen E. H. Skinazi – Jewish-Muslim Research Network

“Relatable” Romances in Ramy: A Television Series for Millennials and Scholars of Jewish-Muslim Relations by Karen E. H. Skinazi

Ramy (2019- ), a Hulu series created by comedian Ramy Youssef, has quickly proven itself to be a brilliant, hilarious, raunchy show, and one that’s not afraid to delve into sensitive and provocative arenas. The eponymous comedic hero (much like Seinfeld or, dare I say, Louis C. K.) is Ramy, modeled on the show’s creator. Ramy is a millennial Arab American Muslim trying to find himself: his career, his wife, his faith.

In the first episode, Ramy, shooting the shit with his buddies Mo and Ahmed in a mosque, confesses that he’s dating a white girl. His friends are horrified. Obviously, Ramy should only date—and marry—a Muslim woman (so long as she’s hot, obvs). They tell him he should use his parents’ connections. Parents are better than Tinder! They tell him how terrible white girls are. “White girls suck, bro,” says Ahmed. “You can’t keep dating them.” White girls, Mo and Ahmed explain, have no morals. White girls are always walking around barefoot. White girls skinny-dip. Conclusion: “You need to find someone who knows where you came from and what you believe in… And someone who’s hot.” Even Mo’s wife, who otherwise clearly thinks little of the guys’ obnoxious goings-on about women, chimes in to say: “These guys are idiots. But everything they said is true.”

Pause. How do you picture Chloe, this “white girl” Ramy is dating, or Ramy’s subsequent “white girl” girlfriend, Sarah? With their “fresh cold blond hair spilling out of their kerchiefs and caps… so gorgeous, so healthy, so blond? Are these girls “tulips… in their bouffant taffeta dresses” who go to the junior prom “with boys whose names are right out of the grade-school reader”? Do we assume they are the “people for whom Nat ‘King’ Cole sings every Christmastime, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…,’’ whose noses are “bridgeless wonders,” who look like “coloring books come to life”?[1]

No, ironically, Chloe and Sarah are Jews of northern New Jersey, the very people against whom Philip Roth, in Portnoy’s Complaint, half a century ago, constructed his vision of “white girls.” (At one point, Portnoy muses about the possibility of Jews being considered white and concludes they could only appear so to the Chinese: “to them we are not Jews but white—and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine!”).[2]

So, is a Portnoy-style “white girl” simply too far-off a pairing to envisage for an Arab American Muslim, and thus is Jewishness, as a vaguely ethnic/ethnifying factor, a ploy to make the romantic interest a little more “relatable” to the protagonist?[3] Or is there a degree of irony in the choice made by Youssef, a way to draw the viewers’ attention to the allegiances between Muslims and Jews, the similarities of their diasporic and minority experiences?

The answer to both questions is yes. On the one hand, the religious identities of the characters do not immediately work to create stable, horizontal bonds between them. When Chloe discovers Ramy filling their used condom with water to check for holes, Ramy tries to explain that he is doing so as a result of his religious beliefs: “I’m totally pro-women getting to choose what to do with their bodies, I am, but I’m Muslim, so I’m just …pro… us not having to make that choice.” Chloe doesn’t understand how his faith fits into the story—doesn’t understand his faith, period. “No, like you’re Muslim, I thought, in the way that I’m Jewish,” she retorts, “like it’s a cultural thing.” She adds, realizing her error: “I didn’t know that you’re Muslim-Muslim.” But he is.

And when Sarah decides to sleep with someone else because Ramy, as a Muslim, doesn’t want to do ecstasy (an act she clearly does not see as similarly contrary to any Jewish religious beliefs she might hold), she attempts to forge a connection that is so pathetic as to be funny. “I feel so bad about Palestine,” she says, apropos of nothing. Ramy just looks at her. “Me too,” he says.

Still, Ramy and Sarah relate to each other as people coming from similar backgrounds. For instance, they have affectionate banter about who really lays claim to Middle Eastern curls (think hummus wars but with hair)—as well as the land. Sarah respects Ramy’s commitment to Ramadan, which she sees through a Jewish lens (if not personal religious observance): she says she can’t even fast for Yom Kippur. These connections stand in stark contrast to the schism between Ramy’s sister, Dena, and her American (aka real “white” boy) beau, who orientalizes (exoticizes, sexualizes) Dena, positioning her within the context of the generically foreign women of his international travels; saying ridiculous things about her Middle Eastern curls and olive skin; telling her to speak Arabic to him while they’re in bed together (if “The East is a career” for Benjamin Disraeli, a line Edward Said famously used as the epigraph of Orientalism, it seems the Middle East is a hobby for this privileged white boy, who goes on to cry white boy tears, saying no one buys his art because he’s not Indian or trans).

While Ramy’s relationships with his girlfriends are exemplary in their ability to highlight the complex dynamics between Jews and Muslims, they don’t stand alone in the series. There is also much to analyze with regard to the character of Uncle Naseem, a misogynistic, racist, antisemitic character. Uncle Naseem works in the Diamond District in New York—meaning he is at all times surrounded by Hasidim and almost all his business dealings are with Jews. Through him, we hear the conspiracy theory about Jews orchestrating 9/11: “Name one Jew who died on 9/11…None of them went to work that day. Now they’re all doing Bit-to-coin” [sic]. Yet Uncle Naseem’s rant about Jews comes to mirror the scapegoating of all Muslims and Middle Eastern individuals in America, which we see when the series offers a flashback to young Ramy’s experience of 9/11, his loss of friends and family’s mistreatment. Furthermore, even Uncle Naseem’s ramblings suggest the possibility of allegiance between Muslims and Jews. As much as he hates Jews, he says he gives them one thing: “At least they believe in something.” Moreover, although Ramy and Dena’s father’s response to the charge that Uncle Naseem is antisemitic–“Antisemitic? How’s that even possible, Dena? We are Semitic”– is throwaway, meant for laughs, it points to a deeply rooted (semantic, cultural, historical) tie.[4]

There are other examples of encounters and overlaps. When a minor French character named Jacques appears briefly to give us insight into Ramy’s mother’s life, and into the notion of identity vis-à-vis the Other (here, an ultimate Other, an Other across species and not culture, nation, race, or religion), he is strongly suggestive of a famous French Jew of the same name: Jacques Derrida. In the show, Jacques, speaking to Maysa, philosophizes at length about what happens when a cat watches him make a sandwich—an odd sandwich, like peanut butter and turkey. Does the cat judge him? This humorous made-for-TV version nicely echoes the real Derrida, who, in one of his final writings, asked an only slightly different question about his identity, his being, vis-a-vis his cat: “I often ask myself, just to see, who I am—and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example, the eyes of a cat.”[5]  Are Jews and Muslims to each other as humans and cats?  Are they both humans in a society of cats?

There is no doubt many cultural familiarities for Jewish viewers of Ramy, from warped ideas of young hetero men about which women are ok to fuck and which to marry to the need to pack multiple suitcases of random Western goods for family in the Middle East (Ben-Gay!). But importantly, Ramy also provides a nuanced and thoughtful examination of the relationships between and among Jews and Muslims as ethnic and religious minorities with as much to unite as to divide them—a true rarity on American television.


Karen E. H. Skinazi is a senior lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol in the UK. She is the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2018), which was awarded Honorable Mention for the Canadian Association for American Studies’ Robert K. Martin book prize. She is currently working on a project examining Muslim and Jewish women’s lives, literature, and activism in the US and UK.



[1] Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, Vintage, 1994 [1969], pp. 144-6.

[2] Roth, p. 90.

[3] For scholarship on Jewish-Muslim romance narratives in the Middle East, see Sarah Irving’s work in: “Gender Conflict and Jewish-Muslim Romance,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 2016, pp. 343-362, as well as “Love as a Peace Process? Arab-Jewish Love in the Anglophone Palestinian Novels of Naomi Shihab Nye and Samir El-Youssef,” Commonwealth Essays and Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, 2017, pp. 39-49.

[4] In Orientalism, Said famously wrote that by “an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth.” See Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage, 1979, pp. 27-8. For a revisiting of this shared Semitism, see Gil Hochberg, “From ‘sexy Semite’ to Semitic ghosts: contemporary art between Arab and Jew,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 54, nos. 1-2, 2020, pp. 15-28.

[5] Derrida goes on to develop his concept of “animalséance”: “the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked, in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant. The gaze of a seer, visionary, or extra-lucid blind person. It is as if I were ashamed, therefore, naked in front of this cat, but also ashamed for being ashamed.” See Jacques Derrida, “The Animal that therefore I am (More to Follow),” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no.2, Winter 2002, p.372.

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