“Queer Eye” didn’t understand Nola icon Dan Stein’s Jewishness

Jonathan Van Ness does Dan Stein’s hair, including a beard shave and a uh, knee scrub. Courtesy of Netflix

By Mira Fox

(The Forward) — Dan Stein is a beloved figure in New Orleans. The NOLA subreddit is full of people not only drooling over the sandwiches from his store, Stein’s Market and Deli, but also extolling his kindness and laughing at his curmudgeonliness. That’s why, when the NOLA Redditors realized Netflix’s hit makeover show Queer Eye was coming to their city, they all nominated Stein.

But the Fab Five weren’t so into Deli Dan. As they panned over the deli’s walls, full of posters from past humorous marketing campaigns featuring slogans like “don’t be a schmuck” and pictures of Stein posing in a bikini made of candy necklaces, the makeover team winced. Stein needed to realize how his behavior affected others, they said.

Unlike most episodes of Queer Eye, which are journeys of self-love, “Deli Dan is a Dream Man” was all about turning Stein into someone else: the perfect boyfriend for his girlfriend Cara. The kind of guy who wears suits and charms people at galas. The kind of guy who would never roll his eyes at his customers for ordering too slowly.

But the Fab Five were missing something essential about what makes Dan Stein the widely beloved city icon that he is: He’s Jewish.

Stein is a character recognizable to anyone who has ever lived on the East Coast — he is originally from Philadelphia — or watched Seinfeld. He’s a classic Jewish archetype: prickly exterior, heart of gold.

Remember last election cycle, when everyone accused Bernie Sanders of being angry? To non-Jews, Sanders was yelling; to Jews, he was just talking. Stein is the same; his gruffness is cultural.

And yet even though Queer Eye has an entire person — Karamo Brown — whose job is “culture,” the Fab Five seemed to miss this entirely. Brown never talked to Stein about how his communication is Jewishly informed; in fact, Jewishness was never mentioned at all. They never tried to understand Stein’s whole schtick.

Instead, they told him, over and over, that he was hurting others. And while I can’t argue with some of their points — never seeing your girlfriend because you don’t leave your deli until after 11 p.m. is not the recipe for a good relationship — the fact is that the entire city seems to love him.

The NOLA subreddit abounds in stories of Stein’s good deeds. He notices when someone is having a down day and comps their meal. He digs out Advil for anyone stumbling in with a hangover. He’s helped people open businesses and get jobs. He’s donated massive amounts to charity. Sure, all of it comes with a frown and copious profanity, but that’s part of the charm.

“He helped me get my first job interview as a teacher in New Orleans, gave teachers at my school the teacher discount, remembered my typical order too!” reads one typical comment.

Or another: “He’s a great dude. I work like six hours a week for him and he’s paying for my health insurance. I never asked and out of the blue one day he came up to me and was like ‘Here call this guy and get health insurance.’ I barely consider myself an employee and he’s looked out for me.”

And his supporters were upset by how Stein was treated. It’s not that they don’t think Stein could do some self-work — and in fact, Stein seemed eager to get into this kind of territory, talking about his self-esteem issues — but they were upset that the show seemed to ignore his good heart in favor of framing him as an uncaring boyfriend.

“He was trying so hard to open up about his previous job and lifestyle and bad family relationship and all they were talking about was: ‘Yeah, but what about your girlfriend? How is she feeling?’ The episode wasn’t about her,” wrote one incensed Stein fan on Reddit. “I don’t know how telling him that he’s an awful partner and sometimes an a-hole was supposed to make him feel better.”

“This whole episode felt like they were just shaming him for who he is and finding what to ‘fix’ for Cara,” wrote another commenter. “None of it was about what he wanted or needed.”

Of course, the grumpy Jewish archetype can be harmful sometimes, or cover up trauma. And vulnerability and talking about emotions is healthy. But not everyone expresses their feelings the same way.

“Be more consistently authentic,” advised one of his girlfriend’s daughters at one point in the show, a sentiment the Fab Five nodded along with. But they didn’t seem to consider the fact that Stein is being authentic — authentically Jewish.

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.