The ‘marvelous’ Jewish story of Miriam Maisel

Amazon Prime Video’s latest show puts a family’s Judaism front and center – and it’s hilarious.

RACHEL BROSNAHAN stars in the critically acclaimed series ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’ (photo credit: AMAZON STUDIOS)
RACHEL BROSNAHAN stars in the critically acclaimed series ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’
(photo credit: AMAZON STUDIOS)
Mrs. Miriam Maisel is Jewish. If you couldn’t tell by the first two minutes of the pilot episode (you can), well then Miriam – Midge, if you will – will tell you herself, repeatedly. Mention Christmas? I’m Jewish, she’ll say. A heckler at a club tells her to go home and clean the kitchen? “Oh sir, I’m Jewish, I pay people to do that.”
In fact, the new Amazon Prime Video show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which premiered in its entirety at the end of November, might be the most Jewish TV show to hit the market for a long time. The show, created by Gilmore Girls writer and producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, stars Rachel Brosnahan in the title role as the nice Jewish 1950s housewife turned stand-up comedienne.
Sure, there are and have been for years plenty of TV shows with Jewish characters, from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm and more recently Transparent. But none quite as Jewish at their essence as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a show for Jewish audiences. This is a show for everyone – not just because it’s effortlessly relatable to Jew and gentile alike, but also because it’s just so incredibly, effervescently good.
Amazon Prime Video released the first episode of Mrs. Maisel back in March as part of its pilot season, and it became the first to be picked up, and the first in Amazon’s history to have an initial order of two seasons. The pilot garnered an average customer rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars, with more than 6,000 reviews.
Brosnahan plays both the title role and the shining, radiant star in the show, stealing every scene she’s in and drawing all the attention. That’s not to say that the supporting roles – including her parents, the Weissmans, played by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle, her husband, Michael Zegen, and her manager, Alex Borstein, don’t all deliver solid performances as well.
When the season opens, Maisel has seemingly got it all – the husband, the two kids, the best brisket, and the rabbi is finally coming for Yom Kippur breakfast. That is, until her husband leaves her for his secretary, her parents cancel the breakfast in mortification and Maisel drowns her sorrows in alcohol before getting on stage at a downtown comedy club and airing her woes.
The Maisels and Weismans – Midge’s parents – are far from observant. But they’re deeply, intrinsically Jewish – and see no conflicts between their modern trappings and their inherited culture.
When Joel Maisel goes to tell his father that the Yom Kippur breakfast is canceled, Moish Maisel is devastated that the “holy” day has been marred.
“If it’s so holy why do you keep factory open,” Joel asks, standing on the floor of his father’s garment workshop.
“You go explain Yom Kippur to a gentile,” his father retorts. “We’re happy but we’re starving, it’s new years but we’re guilty.” Moish is furious with his son’s life choices, and later tells him that his non-Jewish secretary girlfriend will never be welcomed into the family.
“Shiksas are for practice,” he says. “That is a girl you have on the side, that’s not a girl you marry.”
When the Maisels and the Weissmans do have an awkward reunion later in the show, Joel’s mother, Shirley, is unsatisfied with the menu.
“Do you have any matzo meal?” she asks. “Never mind, I have some in my purse.”
The two sets of in-laws don’t exactly get along all that well – but where would be the fun in that? Miriam’s father, Abe Weissman, can’t stand the constant bragging of Moish, who loves to tell how he brought 13 Jews out of Germany in 1943 to work in his factory.
But there are even more interesting family dynamics at play, like Midge’s brother, Noah, and his wife, Astrid, who was not born Jewish.
“I thought that converting would help,” Astrid laments to Midge, complaining that her mother-in-law doesn’t like her. But still, she said, she heard comments at the wedding: “What’s up with the shiksa Noah married?”
Astrid is determined to do anything to fit in, and shows up with arms laden with gifts, including homemade gefilte fish and presents bought on her latest trip to Israel.
“Can’t get enough of the Holy Land,” she says after her 11th trip, bringing home an enormous mezuza case (“it looks like it ate all the other mezuzahs”) and rabbi trading cards for the kids.
Toward the end of the season, viewers are even treated to two songs from the cantor at the Weissman’s Reform synagogue – “Ana Bekoach” as Miriam and Rose wander in late, and “Lecha Dodi” as they began to fight with each other in the pew.
It’s not to say that the Jewish elements of the show are always spot-on – there are anachronisms and some questionable comments and plot points sprinkled throughout.
In a flashback to Midge and Joel’s wedding, which must have been around 1953, a troupe of hired dancers break out into the “bottle dance,” moves not actually from Eastern European Jews but from the famed Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. That show, of course, premiered on stage in 1964.
But minor missteps aside, Mrs. Maisel is a comedic delight of a show, combining Sherman-Palladino’s knack for witty dialogue with the colorful, rich world of 1950s New York and the intensity of family drama and changing times. It would be a shanda not to give it a chance.