From ‘The Goldbergs’ to ‘The Goldbergs’

“’…This is all our families.’”

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In 1951, just six years after Hitler's defeat, a Jewish writer, producer, and star named Gertrude Berg received the first Emmy Award for best actress. Her character Molly Goldberg won the hearts of American viewers and the Television Academy. Created and played by Berg, originally for radio in 1929, Molly Goldberg embodied the Jewish mother of the immigrant generation. Speaking with a Yiddish accent, often wearing an apron, she was the matriarch heartbeat of her home, a Bronx apartment shared with her husband, Jake, son Sammy, daughter Rosalie, and Uncle David.

The driving force of her family, Molly appeared at her tenement window to welcome viewers into her home and to "yoo hoo" to her neighbors for their coveted gossip and opinions. Warm and funny, Molly had no trouble "mixing " into situations, regardless of whether it was appropriate. But her meddlesome ways and problem-solving methods seem more understated than the in-your-face stereotypes we associate with Jewish mothers today. The Goldbergs was the first program to center around Jews in this country, solidifying Berg as a trailblazer and risk taker. Still, she understood the way to make friends with networks and sponsors was, as she put it in a 1956 interview with Commentary magazine, to "'keep things average.'"

Yet "average" is hardly how this average viewer would describe the Jewish side of Molly Goldberg. There's the Yiddish-inflected dialogue; her extended family members have names like Chaim; and she discusses reconnecting with relatives from Europe not heard from since before the war. In one 1954 episode, the entire final scene takes place inside an Orthodox synagogue on Kol Nidre night. When asked about it in the Commentary interview, Berg replied: '"Where else would the Goldbergs go but to an Orthodox shul ? It doesn't matter what they do the rest of the year…. Anyway, this is what people think Jews do.'"

Today's image of the modern American Jewish family is captured in another family with the same name as Berg's creation. Adam F. Goldberg's ABC hit, The Goldbergs , now in its eighth season, centers on stories from his own 1980s childhood in the Philadelphia suburb, Jenkintown.

Like the Bronx Goldbergs, the heart of the Jenkintown Goldbergs is their Jewish mama, Beverly, best known as "smother" to her three children. Unlike Molly Goldberg, whose yenta persona came with a dose of humility, Beverly Goldberg is never embarrassed by her own aggressive tactics or stifling affection for her offspring. She serves up a dish of over-the-top mothering every episode, putting stereotypes to shame, and lending the show its Jewish flavor.

As for religious practice, the most Jewish moments with Beverly and her clan are annual Chanukah celebrations, which sometimes resemble more of an attempt to outdo Christmas than to connect with Jewish heritage. In "The History of Super Hanukkah" episode, Beverly slathers her home in over-the-top decorations, complete with a Chanukah bush full of "festive tchotchkes ." While Molly Goldberg asks neighbors to forgive her before heading to shul in the Kol Nidre episode, Beverly uses Chanukah to try and one-up her Christian neighbors. The differences between the two women's behavior is as much a reflection of the worlds in which they live, as it is of themselves as Jewish mothers.

In Beverly Goldberg's America it's no shanda to reveal the Jewish longing for a Christmas-like Chanukah on network television. Molly Goldberg raised her children in an America where many still considered Jews "the other." She needed to conduct her business on TV in an "average" way to endear her audience. Today, in spite of rising antisemitism, Jews are fortunate to have become part of America's cultural fabric. This acceptance allows outrageous, cursing mothers like Beverly to be seen as funny, not offensive, and relatable for all, Jewish or not. Indeed, the actor playing Beverly, Wendi McLendon-Covey, is Baptist-raised.

Gertrude Berg and Adam F. Goldberg created their characters for vastly different audiences and from different perspectives themselves. Berg approached Molly as a fellow mother; while Goldberg, the overly coddled son, reimagines his own mom for television. Yet each of them understood how to give their matriarchs and the families they love and lead universal appeal. As Goldberg himself has said, "'…This is all our families.'"

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four, and former CNN producer. Connect with her at mimisager.com.

 



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