The Only (Jewish) Woman in the Room
I was Jewish and a woman and had no idea that neither was welcomed or acknowledged in the world of television writing in the 1960s.
Not that such topics were on my mind when I was forced by sad happenstance to become widowed at the age of 31 and left to support my three young children. I had to get a job. But I had been typical of my era; women married, stayed home and took care of family. None of my friends had to work and they pitied me. I pitied myself.
I might have been relegated to selling makeup at Woolworths. But beneath my anguish, there must have been a survivor. Living so close to Hollywood, I hoped to work at a movie studio, in a place that might be interesting and cheerful.
With no ability to type or take shorthand I talked myself into a secretarial job at Universal studios. I read the scripts of shows being shot at the studio and thought, “I could do this.” My earlier hobby writing short stories gave me the courage to try writing a script.
Little by little I worked my way up from freelance writer to the top of the field as a writer-producer of my own shows.
But in those early 1960s, I began to discover two things. I wasn’t meeting any other women. And as for being Jewish, well…
I was hired to write for a western show, Daniel Boone. I was flattered, but puzzled. I had no idea of how to write a Western, and with all the Westerns out there, how could I come up with something fresh? In my research, I found a character that surely hadn’t been done. A Jewish peddler, called an “egg eater,” because, where in the woods would he find kosher food? So he carried hard-boiled eggs in his pocket. The producers of the show, all men of course, were very kind to me. They wanted to help a widow. So I wrote the script, which I thought worked very well. The night it aired on TV, I gathered my kids around the set, ready to watch mom’s “movie.”
Much to my shock and chagrin, my Jewish peddler was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was an Irish tinker who meets up with Daniel Boone.
As a young writer, this dynamic was hard for me to grasp. Though there were many Jewish producers, there were never Jewish shows. And no one discussed it. Ever.
Years later, when I was relatively established, I got another shot at doing a Jewish story. I wrote a TV movie called A Summer without Boys, which was based on my own experiences as a teenager when my mother took me up to the Catskill Mountains to stay at a Jewish “cuch-a-lain” for the summer. I went into great detail to explain to my non-Jewish producer about the history of hotels in the 1940s where Jews were never allowed in Christian properties, so they invented their own world and built their own hotels.
He listened to this damning, shameful history, approved my story, and this time my script got produced as written. And yet when the movie aired, there was not one Jewish thing on that TV screen. It could have been any kind of bland hotel anywhere with white-bread people. The whole cultural and religious aspect was lost, though it was considered a lovely show about a mother and a daughter.
Finally, I won a small victory in an unexpected place. While working as a story editor on The Mod Squad, a TV show about three teenage undercover cops, I got to write an episode on any subject of my choice. My lead character, a meek Jewish renter living in poor circumstances, takes on a slumlord with the help of a rabbi. This hugely successful show was faithful to every word I wrote, was given rave reviews for the honesty of the subject matter, and garnered multiple nominations and awards. It was my proudest moment as a Jewish writer.
After years of diligent work, I suddenly found myself considered a pioneer, due to being one of the earliest women—of any race, creed, or color—to write and produce her own shows for television.
To read Rita’s remarkable story in full, pick up a copy of her new memoir, The Only Woman in the Room.
How to cite this page
Lakin, Rita. "The Only (Jewish) Woman in the Room." 20 April 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/only-jewish-woman-in-room>.