Television in the United States
American Jewish women have a complex history of association with the medium of television. Since emerging as a mass medium in the early post–World War II years, television has figured prominently in the careers of a number of American Jewish women working both before and behind the camera. Moreover, television has provided a distinctive venue for contemporary American Jewish portraiture, in which women play a strategic role.
Jewish women have appeared on American television over the past half-century in diverse capacities—from children’s puppeteer Shari Lewis (The Shari Lewis Show, 1961–1963) to daytime talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael (1985–2002), from an interview with Nobel Prize–winning scientist Rosalyn Yalow (on Jewish Voices and Visions, 1985) to a documentary on the life of real estate magnate Leona Helmsley (on A&E: Biography, 1995). Regular appearances on television have helped a number of American Jewish women become national celebrities. Among the first is Gertrude Berg, who, as the writer, producer, and star of one of the medium’s earliest comedy series, The Goldbergs (1949 to 1955), figures as the doyenne of Jewish women on American television. The series’ portrait of a lower-middle-class family living in a Bronx apartment house became an archetype of New York Jewry for the first American television watchers.
Berg’s pioneering career in broadcasting has perhaps only recently been matched among American Jewish women by former stand-up comic Roseanne, producer and star of the eponymous situation comedy since 1988. Berg’s ingenuous, amiable public persona, fused with the character of Molly, contrasts strongly with the provocative, often caustic Roseanne (who in the series plays Roseanne Conner, a nominally half-Jewish wife and mother in a small-town, midwestern, working-class family). Nonetheless, the two women—as well as their respective careers and personas—make for an interesting measure both of the dynamics of women as powerful figures in the largely male broadcasting industry and of Jewish women’s presentation of self in American popular culture.
As iconic as Berg’s portrait of Molly, the Goldberg family matriarch, was in early postwar American television, it was only one image of Jewish womanhood offered by the medium at this time. However, during a period when most American Jews stressed the Americanness that they shared with fellow citizens over their distinction as Jews, these other Jewish women (along with their male counterparts) generally appeared unmarked as Jews before the television camera. Mary Livingstone performed with husband Jack Benny in a semiautobiographical situation comedy (The Jack Benny Program, 1950–1965), in which the Jewishness of the protagonists was never mentioned. The same was true of Dinah Shore, who demonstrated both her talent as a popular singer and aplomb as a television host on variety shows The Dinah Shore Show (1951–1957) and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1956–1963). (In the latter program’s theme song, she exhorted the nation to “see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.”) But for the viewer who knew that these and other women were Jews, their on-screen attributes could be understood as emblematic of American Jewish womanhood. The celebrity quiz shows I’ve Got a Secret (1952–1967) and To Tell the Truth (1956–1967), for example, featured among their panelists former Miss America Bess Myerson, opera singer Kitty Carlisle, and actor Phyllis Newman, who offered an image of American Jewish women as witty cosmopolitanites.
Recent decades have seen more Jewish women as characters and as public figures on television, although few have matched the iconic stature of Molly Goldberg. The character of Rhoda Morgenstern (portrayed by Valerie Harper), who appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970 to 1974 and on Rhoda from 1974 to 1978, superseded Molly as American television’s longest-running fictional portrait of an American Jewish woman. Rhoda, who grew up in the Bronx before moving to Minneapolis, where The Mary Tyler Moore Show was set, figured as the earthy, comically displaced foil to WASP protagonist Mary Richards (played by Moore). When Rhoda was transformed into the title character of the eponymous spin-off series, a comic foil—Rhoda’s younger sister, Brenda (played by Julie Kavner)—was introduced. Brenda took up what had been Rhoda’s comic trope of self-deprecation, centered on her physical appearance and lack of romance.
Most American Jewish female performers who have become prominent on television have done so in comedy, whether appearing in continuing roles on situation comedies—Bea Arthur (Maude, 1972–1978; The Golden Girls, 1985–1992), Sandra Bernhart (Roseanne), Mayim Bialik (Blossom, 1991–1995) Fran Drescher (The Nanny, 1993–1999), Barbara Feldon (Get Smart, 1965–1970), Carol Kane (Taxi, 1978–1983), Julie Kavner (Rhoda; The Tracy Ullman Show, 1987–1990; The Simpsons, 1990–), Linda Lavin (Alice, 1976–1985), Rhea Perlman (Taxi, 1978–1983; Cheers, 1982–1993; Pearl, 1996–1997)—or making regular appearances as sketch or stand-up comics on variety, quiz, and talk shows—Totie Fields, Goldie Hawn (a regular cast member of Laugh-In, 1968–1970), Marilyn Michaels, Gilda Radner (a regular cast member of Saturday Night Live, 1975–1980), Joan Rivers, Rita Rudner. The comic performances created by American Jewish women project a wide spectrum of images of womanhood—ranging from the slinky, adventurous Agent 99 portrayed by Feldon on the parody espionage series or Lavin’s Alice Hyatt, a savvy, working-class, single parent, to the self-effacing stand-up humor of the corpulent Fields or the reedy Rivers.
For many American Jewish women performers, television has played an occasional, variable role in their careers. Veteran Yiddish actor Molly Picon, for example, briefly hosted her own variety show on ABC in 1949. In the 1960s, she made guest appearances as a Jewish matron on situation comedies such as Gomer Pyle and Car 54, Where Are You? and appeared in the 1970s as a recurring character, Sarah Briskin, on the soap opera Somerset. In other instances, the medium has provided Jewish female performers with a distinctive venue for self-portraiture. Selma Diamond began her career in television in the 1950s as one of the few women writers for the medium, working on The Milton Berle Show. A writer for Jack Paar when he hosted The Tonight Show in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she made occasional guest appearances on the talk show. Besides serving as the model for comedy writer Sally Rogers—a character on The Dick van Dyke Show (1960–1966) created by Carl Reiner, a fellow veteran of Sid Caesar’s comedy-variety series of the 1950s—Diamond appeared on panel shows and acted in situation comedies (including Night Court) in the 1970s and 1980s. Joan Rivers not only brought her self-reflexive humor to television audiences as a guest on variety, quiz, and talk shows, but hosted her own talk shows (including Fox’s The Late Show, 1986–1988) and produced and played herself (as did her daughter, Melissa Rosenberg) in Tears and Laughter (1994), a television drama about the aftermath of her husband’s suicide. Although Barbra Streisand’s appearances on the medium have been infrequent, her occasional television specials and televised concerts (1965, 1966, 1967, 1995) offer an evolving self-portrait as performer and as public figure.
While many American Jewish women have worked behind the scenes in news, cultural and public affairs broadcasting, relatively few of them gained a national on-camera presence on these programs. Most prominent among them is Barbara Walters, whose career spans several decades as a correspondent, news anchor, and host of a news magazine series (20/20, 1984–2004), women’s talk show (The View, 1997–) and of celebrity interview specials. A highlight of Walters’s career as a television journalist came in 1977, when she interviewed Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on the occasion of Sadat’s first visit to Israel. In recent years, American Jewish women who have reported regularly on network newscasts include Andrea Mitchell, Jessica Savitch, Lynn Sherr, and Nina Totenberg. Among the more prominent Jewish women involved in American cultural programming are Beverly Sills, who has hosted numerous public television broadcasts of operas and concerts, following her career as an opera singer, and Judy Kinberg, a producer of arts programming for public television since the 1970s.
The complexities of identifying a person or a character as a Jew in the modern world have further complicated the range of portraits of Jewish women on American television. Given that the signs of Jewishness in American culture are anything but simple or consistent, and that there is no consensus as to what these markers are, an examination of the presence of Jewish women on American television must also consider figures who are oblique, cryptic, even absent. This is particularly important, given that the majority of American television’s portraits of Jewish women are the work of male writers, directors, and producers.
Indeed, even as American Jewish women come to play a larger role in shaping their self-portraiture on television as performers, writers, and producers, much of the medium’s representation of Jewish women ought to be read as the visions of men (who are often Jewish). For example, one of the most memorable discussions of Jewish women aired on television—a 1970 installment of The David Susskind Show devoted to the topic of Jewish mothers—featured the observations of comedians Mel Brooks, Dan Greenburg, and David Steinberg, along with other men, but no women. One of the most popular portraits of a Jewish woman on American television in the mid-1990s is the character of Linda Richman (who has made the Yiddish term farklemt something of an American household word), created and performed by comedian Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live.
Another complicating factor in the dramatic portraiture of Jewish women on American television is the frequent disparity between the Jewish identity of characters and of the women who perform them. Among the Jewish characters in continuing series played by non-Jewish performers are Rosalie Goldberg (The Goldbergs), played by Arlene McQuade; Rhoda Morgenstern and her mother, Ida (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda), played by Valerie Harper and Nancy Walker; and Phyllis Silver (the mother on Brooklyn Bridge, 1991–1993), played by Amy Aquino. This common phenomenon suggests that Jewishness is not regarded as an innate identity, but a performative one that can be realized (through accent, gesture, etc.) by non-Jews as easily as by Jews.
Conversely, Jewish actors frequently portray characters identified as non-Jews. In some instances—Elaine Benes (Seinfeld, 1990–1998), portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Dorothy Zbornak and Sophia Petrillo (The Golden Girls), played by Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty; Simka Gravas (Taxi), played by Carol Kane—these characters are often understood by some viewers as “crypto-Jews”—that is, characters who, while nominally identified as having some other ethnicity or religion, are nonetheless regarded as Jews in disguise. They are regarded as such not only by virtue of the performer’s identity, but also because of character attributes (such as being aggressive, neurotic, clever, or talkative) understood as signs of female Jewish behavior. This phenomenon suggests a larger sense of ethnic relativism distinctive to American culture.
Of special interest along the spectrum of Jewish women on American television is their strategic absence as characters. A salient example is American television’s frequent presentations of Jewish/non-Jewish intermarriages in more recent years, beginning with the short-lived and controversial Bridget Loves Bernie (1972–1973) followed by a spate of examples since the mid-1980s: thirtysomething, Northern Exposure, Chicken Soup, Anything but Love, Mad About You, A Year in the Life, Murphy Brown, among others. Following a convention established earlier in Broadway plays (notably Abie’s Irish Rose, 1924) and Hollywood films (for example, His People, 1925), these all entail relationships between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman. Only occasionally is the reverse situation presented—for example, Rhoda’s marriage to Joe Gerard on Rhoda; Frasier Crane’s wife Lilith Stern (played by Bebe Neuwirth) on Cheers; the romance between Melissa Steadman (played by Melanie Mayron) and Gary Shepherd on thirtysomething. (Significantly, all of these relationships end in separation or divorce during the course of their series.) The comic and dramatic possibilities of interfaith families have also been explored in the situation comedy All in the Family (1971–1983), when archetypal working-class WASPs Archie and Edith Bunker become guardians of a half-Jewish niece, Stephanie Mills (played by Danielle Brisebois). The dramatic series Sisters (1991–1996) included the character of Frankie Reed Margolis (played by Julianne Phillips), a non-Jew married to a Jew, who converts to Judaism.
Television’s frequent presentation of Jews in intermarriages may reflect a concern by producers that an entirely Jewish family would be of limited interest to an American mass audience. Since The Goldbergs, the only all-Jewish family identified as such at the center of a prime-time series has been the Silvers of Brooklyn Bridge. Aside from providing a ready subject for domestic conflict, television intermarriages sometimes constitute an autobiographical exercise. This was the case for thirtysomething producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, both of whom are Jews with non-Jewish wives. Moreover, dramas of marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew also become emblematic of intermarriage (religious, ethnic, class, regional, etc.) in general. Indeed, by using the family unit as a symbolic setting in which to investigate Jewish integration into American culture, these dramas of intermarriage can serve as case studies of the challenge of cultural integration in general.
While the most common appearances of Jewish women on American television figure in comic performances or in dramas about contemporary family life, the medium has also offered a wider range of portraits of Jewish womanhood in other programming genres. Of particular interest are episodes of ecumenical series from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, produced in conjunction with the Jewish Theological Seminary (Frontiers of Faith, Lamp unto My Feet, The Eternal Light, Directions) or other mainstream Jewish religious institutions. These public service series have occasionally presented dramas based on the lives of women such as Henrietta Szold, Emma Lazarus, and Jessy Judah, one of the first Jewish settlers of the New World; performances by the likes of choreographer Pearl Lang and folksinger Martha Schlamme; and interviews with American Jewish women ranging from opera singer Roberta Peters to Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by the Reform rabbinate.
Occasional prime-time dramatic specials have dealt with the lives of Jewish women, both historical (A Woman Called Golda, a 1985 miniseries starring Ingrid Bergman as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir) and fictitious (Evergreen, a 1985 miniseries based on a popular novel by Belva Plain, which follows Anna, played by Leslie Ann Warren, a Polish Jewish immigrant to the United States, from the 1900s to the 1960s). As is true of American television’s presentations of Jews in general, the medium has devoted more broadcasts to the experiences of Jewish women during the Holocaust than in any other historical period. Among the earliest of these was the appearance of Hannah Block Kohner, a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps, on a 1953 episode of This Is Your Life. More recently, women Holocaust survivors have been the subject of documentaries—such as Kitty: Return to Auschwitz (1981), in which Kitty Felix Hart revisits the camp in a film originally made by Yorkshire Television in 1979; One Survivor Remembers, a portrait of Gerda Weissmann Klein, made by Home Box Office in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1995—and dramatic specials—such as Playing for Time (1980), which created considerable controversy when Vanessa Redgrave, an actor known for her anti-Zionist activism, was cast as Auschwitz survivor Fania Fénelon; Miss Rose White, 1992, based on Barbara Lebow’s play A Shayna Maidel. Gina Sloan, an Italian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and widow of an American GI, appeared as a regular character on the dramatic series Homefront (1991–1993), set in a midwestern small town in the late 1940s.
Anne Frank, the young author of a diary kept while in hiding in German-occupied Amsterdam, has been the subject of numerous documentaries and dramas on American television—more than any other Jewish woman. The earliest of these was a half-hour play by Morton Wishengrad presented in 1952 on Frontiers of Faith, followed by made-for-television versions of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s authorized stage version of The Diary of Anne Frank in 1967 (starring Diane Davila as Anne) and 1980 (with Melissa Gilbert in the title role), and The Attic, a 1988 television movie based on the memoirs of Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who hid the Frank family. The diarist even survives the war in Philip Roth’s novella The Ghost Writer, adapted for television by American Playhouse in 1984, which explores her iconic stature in American Jewish culture.
Since the mid-1970s, a growing number of Jewish women have become documentary filmmakers, many of them presenting their work on public television, which has become the main venue for this genre in America. These women have made documentaries dealing with a wide array of subjects, including those of special interest to Jews and women (for example, Gina Blumenfeld’s In Dark Places: Remembering the Holocaust, 1978; Lynne Littman’s In Her Own Time, a portrait of anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, 1985). A number of Jewish women video artists (including Eleanor Antin, Beryl Korot, Ilene Segalove) have used American television images as a point of departure in their work. The Jewish Museum in New York has been an important venue for their exhibition, and the museum’s National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting houses many examples of American Jewish women on television.
While the broadcasting industry has provided fewer professional opportunities for women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, than it has for men, increasing numbers of American Jewish women work in television, whether behind the scenes as producers, directors, writers, and technicians, or in front of the camera. Television has also presented some of the most widely familiar images of contemporary American Jewish women, yet it remains to be seen how this continually expanding and diversifying medium might serve them as a community.
Berlin, Charles, comp. Guide to Judaica Videotapes in the Harvard College Library (1989); Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present (1988); Brown, Les. Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television. 3d ed. (1992); Fox, Stuart, comp. Jewish Films in the United States: A Comprehensive Survey and Descriptive Filmography (1976); Jewish Museum of New York. National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting: Catalog of Holdings. 2d ed. (1995); MacNeil, Alex. Total Television (1991).
How to cite this page
Shandler, Jeffrey. "Television in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 16, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/television-in-united-states>.