In the Diaspora: Molly Goldberg's unhappy epilogue

When the Jews who ruled in television rendered their own kind invisible.

Jerry Seinfeld 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerry Seinfeld 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Decades before Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, a generation before Welcome Back, Kotter and Brooklyn Bridge, American television had its first Jewish hit and first Jewish star in the form of Molly Goldberg, the title character of a popular sitcom. And even before The Goldbergs went onto TV in 1949, the technology's infancy, the Bronx family flourished on radio. Through the fictional Goldbergs, Jews were introduced to the broader nation with unapologetic particularity. The plots of The Goldbergs included an on-air Seder and a timely reference to Kristallnacht; the show took the comedian Menasha Skulnick from the ghetto of Yiddish theater to a mass audience. It was all the brainchild of Gertrude Berg, the creator, writer and star of the show. Shattering barriers in the entertainment industry as both a woman and a Jew, Berg wrote and acted in 12,000 episodes of The Goldbergs over its 30-year lifespan. At one time, a national poll of the most-admired women in America found her rated just behind Eleanor Roosevelt. So you can understand precisely why the gifted director Aviva Kempner was drawn to Berg as a subject. Following on two other nonfiction films about the Jewish experience - Partisans of Vilna and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg - she has found in Berg another compelling and triumphant figure. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Kempner's newly-released and much-praised documentary, presents Berg as the matriarch of the sitcom, the common ancestor to such later Jewish television auteurs as Norman Lear and Gary David Goldberg. In the film, Berg is extolled as "the Oprah of her day." Well, all that may be true as far as it goes, and yet, I'm sorry to report, it falls short of being the whole story. Molly Goldberg's epilogue was not a linear progression to the more recent Jewish shows and characters on television today and in the recent past. Rather, the demise of The Goldbergs led into decades when Jewish network executives (William Paley, David Sarnoff) and creative artists (Oscar Katz, Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard) all but eliminated Jews from prominence on prime-time TV, whether by order or by submission. TO FIND out this missing link in the Gertrude Berg story, you'd need to pick up David Zurawik's trenchant book, The Jews of Prime Time. In it, the Baltimore Sun's television critic reveals the timidity (or cynical commercialism) of Jews who made their own creations Judenrein. "From 1954, when The Goldbergs went off the air, to 1972, not one prime-time network series - sitcom or drama - had a leading character who was identifiably Jewish," Zurawik told me the other day. "Things absolutely didn't go along smoothly after The Goldbergs. To suggest the door was open and everything was fine is wrong. Instead, we got one of the most distressing patterns in American popular culture." Even the show that broke the self-imposed ban, Bridget Loves Bernie, was a very qualified kind of success. It approvingly chronicled an interfaith marriage between Jewish Bernie and Irish Catholic Bridget. Not until the 21st century, when Charlotte converted for Harry on Sex in the City, did American television present both a Jewish man and Jewish identity as attractive on their own terms. Kempner's film only hints at two of the reasons for the lengthy absence of Jews from on-tube visibility. In its final season, with television burgeoning into an extraordinarily lucrative mass medium, Molly and family moved from their Tremont walk-up into a vanilla suburb; her husband was speaking to the Rotary Club and the actors playing her two children were gentiles. Here was a clear indication of TV's direction: denuding ethnicity in pursuit of the greatest possible audience and advertising market. (The same thing happened over time with Lucille Ball. Out went her bilingual Cuban-American husband Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy - theirs was by some standards a racially mixed marriage - and in came the generic suburbia of The Lucy Show.) Then there was the political climate in which television's Jews were operating under growing suspicion. During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Kempner's film explains, the magazine Red Channels successfully smeared Phillip Loeb, who played Molly's husband on the show, as a communist or fellow traveler. Despite Berg's efforts to defend him, pressure from advertisers forced him from the show and he was blacklisted. (His subsequent suicide provided the factual substance behind Martin Ritt's feature film The Front.) CBS cancelled The Goldbergs as a result, though the show later landed at competing NBC. Gertrude Berg's daughter, Harriet Berg Schwartz, distilled the lesson well in a letter to The New York Times shortly after William Paley's death in 1990. She described him as "a man of shrewdness and intelligence, who was in the business of giving the public not only what the public wanted but also what it was safe to give it." We all know the aphorism that a Jew is someone who can't take yes for an answer, and so perhaps it's ethnically appropriate for me to resist the self-congratulation of Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. But it also might be historically correct to question the film's celebratory tone. Between the innovative and confident Gertrude Berg and her artistic landsmen today, there lay too many years when the Jewish role in television was to render their own kind invisible.