Arts & Culture

Love Your Mother

Pity the poor Jewish mother.  She nurtures and sacrifices, only to have her children abandon her.  They never write, they never call.  But so long as they’re happy! Is this the fate of all Jewish mothers?  Consider the case of … Read More

By / August 21, 2009

Pity the poor Jewish mother.  She nurtures and sacrifices, only to have her children abandon her.  They never write, they never call.  But so long as they’re happy!

Is this the fate of all Jewish mothers?  Consider the case of Gertrude Berg, who, for a quarter century, was the most beloved Jewish mother in America, but now has faded from the cultural memory. 

Berg gained unprecedented fame starring as Molly Goldberg in The Goldbergs, the radio and television comedy program that she wrote and produced from 1929 to 1956.  Mrs. Goldberg was usually found in the kitchen wearing an apron, or leaning out the window of her apartment in the Bronx, shouting “Yoo-Hoo” to the neighbors and catching up on the latest gossip.  She was a sturdy woman with a loving heart and a no-nonsense attitude when it came to the welfare of her family.  And with a lilting Yiddish accent she would dispense words of homespun wisdom to her children and her neighbors, even though she sometimes mutilated the English language in the process.

With her new documentary film Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, filmmaker Aviva Kempner has created an entertaining case for reclaiming Gertrude Berg as an important figure in American cultural history.  The film consists mostly of clips from the radio and television programs, along with insightful interviews with family members, co-stars, scholars—and fans, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While Kempner clearly admires Berg, the film is much more than a “Great Jewish Woman” hagiography, mostly because Kempner smartly positions Berg and her character within a larger social and political context. 

Molly Goldberg encouraged Americans to persevere during the Depression, and she supported the war effort during World War II.  She embodied a pragmatic liberalism, taking care of her family while recognizing a responsibility to care for others, and claiming her place as an American without sacrificing her Jewish identity.  Playing the warm but strong mother made Berg not just popular, but also widely esteemed, coming second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in a poll of America’s most admired women.  Mrs Goldberg loved America, and America loved her back.

America’s love for Mrs. Goldberg, however, was not unconditional.  After the war, Berg successfully transferred The Goldbergs to the new medium of television, pioneering the domestic sit-com and winning the first Emmy Award for Best Actress.  But for all her popularity and esteem, Berg was no match for the Red Scare, and she was powerless when her co-star Philip Loeb, the actor playing Molly’s husband, was named in Red Channels as a Communist sympathizer.

Here Kempner’s film takes an admirable turn towards the trenchant, aided in no small part by the commentary from Madeline Lee Gilford, an actress who, along with her husband, comedian Jack Gilford, was blacklisted during the McCarthy years.  Gilford explains that Loeb had played an important role in the actors’ unions, and this activism, along with his stand against segregation, made him a target. 

Berg tried to keep Loeb on the show, but she was fighting a losing battle.  In the film’s most shocking anecdote, we hear how Berg went to Cardinal Spellman, asking him to intervene on Loeb’s behalf.  Allegedly the Cardinal said he might be able to help, but on one condition: Berg had to convert to Catholicism.

The Goldbergs carried on with a different actor in the role of the family patriarch, but the show never quite regained its footing.  In an early instance of “jumping the shark,” in their final season The Goldbergs moved out of the Bronx and into the suburbs.  This relocation mirrors the move made by many increasingly affluent Jewish families in the 1950s, but putting the Goldberg family in suburbia was a bit like serving lox on white bread.  The show went off the air in 1956.

Kempner’s film has the tag line “The Most Famous Woman In America You’ve Never Heard Of,” and it raises the question of how Gertrude Berg fell into obscurity.  Berg briefly had another television show, Mrs. G. Goes to College, in which she played a middle aged Jewish mother returning to school, and she also scored a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway play A Majority of One, in which she played a middle aged Jewish mother who finds romance with a Japanese businessman. 

In these other projects, Berg was playing a variation of Molly Goldberg, but she was a woman removed from her kitchen, adrift and unsure of her place in a changing world.  The Jewish mother finds herself surrounded by fresh-faced kids in a college classroom because television and film became increasingly marketed towards the exploding youth culture of the post-war years.  And the Jewish mother found romance across cultures as the urban ethnic enclaves of the previous era were replaced by the struggle over segregation and anxiety over increasing rates of intermarriage.

The Jewish mother tried to keep up with the times, but clearly they were passing her by, as post-war assimilation often coincided with a certain shame about the poor yiddishkeit past.  In a telling segment of Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the actor Ed Asner remembers growing up in the Midwest and being embarrassed by the overtly Jewish caricature of Mrs. Goldberg. 

Indeed, the Jewish mother was often the scapegoat for anxieties surrounding assimilation, as historian Joyce Antler chronicles in her book on the subject.  The sentimentality of “My Yiddische Mama” was pushed aside, and disparaging portraits of the nagging, smothering, passive-aggressive Jewish Mother became a fixture in the novels of Philip Roth and the films of Woody Allen.  (For a great overview of Antler’s work, check out the following clip-laden slideshow in Slate).

But if Gertrude Berg’s version of Jewish motherhood seemed hopelessly quaint in the last half of the twentieth century, Aviva Kempner’s film allows a new audience to consider the more complex contradictions of Berg’s career.  Molly Goldberg stayed in the home and always put her family first, but Gertrude Berg was an extraordinary career woman with a surprising amount of power in a male-dominated industry.  While Molly was a little plain and prone to malapropisms, Berg was a sophisticated and well-spoken woman, always elegantly dressed with a string of pearls.  And if audiences saw an “ideal” family in the Goldbergs, Berg’s own relationships with her disapproving father and her depressed mother were far more troubled.

By appreciating both the character and her creator in relation to their times, Kempner not only creates a compelling biography of an individual, but also illuminates an era in American Jewish history in a fresh and fascinating way.  And in doing so, the film gives contemporary audiences an opportunity to look back, perhaps with nostalgia, on the immigrant generation that serves as the bridge between our Old World past and our American present.

But along with this nostalgia comes the challenge to wrestle with the very nature of what we consider Jewish-American identity when we no longer share the experience of living in the extended family, working-class urban enclaves of ethnic outsiders represented by Molly Goldberg.  Mrs. Goldberg’s children have left home, going off in a variety of different directions, holding different values and creating different stories.  And while we might look back fondly on our old home, it seems that few of us actually want to live there again.

Kempner’s film tacitly argues that the present success of American Jews owes much to the struggles and perseverance of our Jewish mother.  So it might do us good to pay her a visit, or at least remember to give her a call now and then.  If it’s not too much trouble.