As a teenager, I watch a fair amount of television, and as a Jew, I am always looking for representations of myself on the small screen. When Jews are represented in television, it’s usually in the form of secondary characters who are either portrayed as totally stereotypically Jewish with few other meaningful characteristics, or as dynamic characters who only bring up Judaism when it serves a purpose (usually to deliver Jew-jokes). In addition, these Jewish characters are very rarely women. Despite these tired and overused formulas, Gertrude Berg and Amy Sherman-Palladino are two women who have brought Jews to television in completely revolutionary ways; as funny, approachable characters who are incredibly dynamic and unapologetically Jewish.
Gertrude Berg was born Tillie Edelstein in East Harlem, NYC in 1899 to Russian and English immigrant parents. In 1918, she married Lewis Berg, and when the sugar factory where he worked burned down, she developed a skit about a Jewish family living in the Bronx, which became a radio show. Soon, the show was picked up by NBC radio. She went on to write thousands of radio episodes, a 1948 Broadway adaptation, and finally, in 1949, a television show, The Goldbergs, that was aired by CBS. The show portrayed the lives of the Goldbergs, a Jewish immigrant family living in the Bronx, and represented the Jewish immigrant experience of that time—balancing culture and assimilation. The episodes were based on real, everyday life experiences, and people of all backgrounds could relate to the characters.
Berg played the marquee matriarch of the Goldberg family—Molly Goldberg. An affable, assimilated, Jewish mother who spoke with a slight Eastern-European accent, Mrs. Goldberg handled every situation with compassion for others. She loved her family and “yoohoo”-ed out the window to the women of neighboring apartments. At the beginning of each episode, Mrs. Goldberg would address the viewers directly, advertising a sponsored product and sharing anecdotes. At the end, she would return to the same window to reflect upon what happened in the episode and remind viewers to go out and buy some Rybutol vitamins, or Sanka coffee, or whatever product was featured that week in the sought-after sponsor position. Mrs. Goldberg spoke to her viewers as she would her friends and family—with loving concern and maternal affection.
While the show tended to stay away from innately political subjects, it occasionally strayed from the everyday themes of family and neighborhood life to address serious topics and current events from a Jewish perspective. For instance, one episode addressed the Holocaust, and another addressed prejudice against Jews when a rock was thrown through the Goldbergs’ window. This showed a serious side to an otherwise joyous and playful show, and highlighted Mrs. Goldberg’s skill in dealing with all types of situations, and her ability to keep her warmth in the face of adversity.
Gertrude Berg’s portrayal of Molly Goldberg won her the first ever Emmy award for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and brought a positive depiction of Judaism to mainstream pop culture.
If you’ve heard the name Amy Sherman-Palladino before, you’ve probably heard it in the context of Gilmore Girls, a comedy-drama written by Sherman-Palladino that follows the dynamic relationship of a mother-daughter pair through seven years of their lives. More recently, however, Sherman-Palladino created the world of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which follows a Jewish, upper-class, New-York housewife named Midge as she falls into the stand-up comedy world after her husband abruptly leaves her, and finds herself along the way.
Just like Mrs. Goldberg, Midge is portrayed as a clever, multi-dimensional character who is both unapologetically Jewish and American at the same time. She is likeable, funny, and unafraid to stand up for her beliefs in the face of tough situations. Her gregarious and astute personality is impossible not to like, and you can’t help but root for her in her journey to independence after a failed marriage. Midge values her personal identity and self-growth, as well her relationships to others, just as Mrs. Goldberg prioritized community and family while sticking to her personal moral compass. Mrs. Goldberg was a funny and approachable presence to her viewers, just as Midge’s open-minded naivety in her newfound independence endears her to her audience.
Jews and non-Jews alike watch and enjoy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for its compelling storyline, humor, beautiful cinematography, colorful costumes, and much-needed Jewish representation. Jewishness is ever-present, but not Midge’s only defining characteristic. This reminds us that Jews are full and complex people who are Jewish all the time, not just when it’s convenient to slide in a Jew-joke.
Amy Sherman-Palladino is carrying on Gertrude Berg’s legacy of representing strong, dynamic Jewish women in the mainstream media. Although Amy Sherman-Palladino and Gertrude Berg are from very different times and backgrounds, they both saw the need for strong and likeable Jewish women in American television, and created the representations the small screen lacked… shattering some glass ceilings along the way.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Berkwits, Ava. "Yoohoo...Mrs. Maisel!." 29 January 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 26, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/yoohoomrs-maisel>.