Friday, September 23, 2016

Jewish characters on American television sticoms: From The Goldbergs to Seinfeld

Jewish writers, producers and actors have made an enormous contribution to television.  It is intriguing, therefore, to examine how Jewish characters and Jewish life have been depicted on TV sitcoms.  I have decided to focus on some of the most interesting and prominent shows.  One thing they all have in common is that they all take place in New York.  Has there ever been an American sitcom with Jewish characters that takes place outside of the Big Apple?  Let's see now . . . Well, Rhoda lived in Minneapolis for a long time, although she eventually returned to New York. Oh yes, there was Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) on Murphy Brown, an executive at a Washington, D.C. TV news magnazine show . . .

The 1950s


. . . for all the Yiddish humour, we don’t initially see the Goldbergs observe Jewish holidays, go to temple, or show any signs of living Jewishly - aside from an almost concealed menorah on the sideboard. At least that’s how it seems in the earliest episodes here, but hold the phone. As we get deeper into the series, we go deeper into real Jewish tradition.

 Michael Barrett
From "The Goldbergs: The Most Jewish Show on Television"
PopMatters, April 27, 2010

The Goldbergs was one of the earliest sitcoms on U.S. network television. It originated on NBC radio in 1929 as a 15-minute comedy/drama about the domestic life of a Jewish family in New York City.  It was initially called The Rise of the Goldbergs and was created by writer/actress Gertrude Berg.  The show moved to CBS radio in 1939 with its title shortened to The Goldbergs.  According to the website of the Museum of Broadcast Communication, some critical Jewish issues were raised on the radio program.    In an April 3, 1939 episode, the ominous situation in Nazi Germany was invoked when the Golderg family's Passover Seder was disturbed by a rock was thrown at their dining room window.

After a near 20-year run on radio, Gertrude Berg transformed her material into a 1948 Broadway hit entitled Me and Molly.  The next step was TV.  Berg was able able to persuade CBS to develop a television version.  The TV adaptation, which ran on network television from 1949 until 1954, chronicled the everyday life of  a middle-class Jewish family.  The Goldbergs lived in the Bronx and their home was supposedly located at 1030 East Tremont Avenue, Apartment 3B.  The family consisted of matriarch Molly Goldberg, played by Gertrude Berg herself, Molly's husband Jake Goldberg, played by Philip Loeb, and their two teenage children, son Sammy (Larry Robinson) and daughter Rosalie (Arlene McQuade). Eli Mintz  portrayed the erudite and philosophical Uncle David.
Every episode began and ended with Molly at her apartment window, delivering a Yiddish-accented monologue and pitching the sponsor's product.

Jake Goldberg was in the clothing business, a stereotypical Jewish occupation, while Molly was a kind-hearted but gossipy Jewish housewife.  She was prone to chattering with her neighbours across the courtyard of the apartment building.  In that sense, she was alo a stereotype.  Yet, at the same, as Michael Barrett points out in his April 27, 2010 article on PopMatters (The Goldbergs: The Most Jewish Show on Television), "Molly is always shown exploring new outlets, pushing Rosie to practice the piano and go to college, and attending night school herself. Indeed, she seems to have more activities than humanly possible, including Girl Scouts and nurses’ aide work."  By no mans, can she be dismissed as just a one-dimensional caricature, a cartoonish stereotype.

Berg and Loeb as Jake and Molly Goldberg

In 1951, The Goldbergs ended its run on CBS in a flurry of controversy surrounding actor Philip Loeb.  Loeb found himself blackmailed for alleged left-wing sympathies and he was forced to swear under oath that he was not a member of the Communist Party.  Although the charges against him were never proven, CBS executives and General Foods, the show's sponsor, were nervous about maintaining Loeb.  Even though Gertrude Berg strongly supported her co-star, it was not enough to persuade the network brass and General Foods to change their minds.  According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946 - Preseent, they were adamant that Loeb had to go or the series would not not continue on CBS.

In 1952, The Goldbergs resurfaced on NBC but without Philip Loeb.  The role of Jake Goldberg was taken over by Robert H. Harris.  In the spring of 1954, The Goldbergs moved to yet another network - the long-defunct DuMont network.  Tom Taylor replaced Larry Robinson in the role of Sammy Goldberg and the family moved to the suburban community of Haverville

The following year, a devastated Philip Loeb, besieged with personal problems, his career in tatters, committed suicide by ingesting a fatal overdose of sleeping pills.  Tragically, on September 1, 1955, the 64-year-old was found dead in a New York City hotel room.

From 1955 until 1956, there was a syndicated version of The Goldbergs

The 1960s


Morey Amsterdam played a Jewish character on the popular 1960s comedy The Dick Van Dyke Show. Amsterdam was born Moritz Amsterdam in Chicago on December 14, 1908, the youngest of the three sons of Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary.  On The Dick Van Dyke Show, he portrayed wise-cracking Buddy Sorrell, Rob Petrie's (Dick Van Dyke) co-worker and fellow comedy writer for fictional The Alan Brady Show.

In one memorable 1966 episode, entitled "Buddy Sorrell - Man and Boy" (Season 5, Episode 22, Air Date: March 2, 1966), Buddy decides to have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony since he had never had one as a boy of 13.  Thirty years later, at the age of 43, he secretly takes Torah lessons..  However, his nervous behaviour leads his friends to suspect that he is seeing a psychiatrist or cheating on his wife (who is nicknamed "Pickles)".  The episode ends with a touching scene showing Buddy's Bar Mitzvah ceremony and his call to the Torah.

Morey Amsterdam, as Buddy Sorrrell, has his Bar Mitzvah 

The 1970s


Publicity photo of David Birney and Meredith Baxter

Bridget Loves Bernie was a 1970s sitcom about an affluent Irish-American Catholic woman (Meredith Baxter) who marries an aspiring Jewish playwright named Bernie Steinberg.  Bernie (David Birney) drives a taxi for a living and his family owns and operates a New York City delicatessen.  Meanwhile, Bridget's wealthy parents have servants and her brother, Michael, is a priest.  Thus, Bridget and Bernie not only come from different religious background, they come from different social and economic classes.  In the opening sequence of the series, when the couple introduce themselves, Bridget reveals that her full name is Bridget Theresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald.  They then declare in unison, "We have a problem!"

Bridget Loves Bernie was loosely based on the 1940s radio show Abie's Irish Rose and the series was somewhat controversial for its time.  It ran for just one full season, from 1972 to 1973.  Only 24 episodes were ever produced.  Although Bridget Loves Bernie didn't have poor ratings (it had a prime time slot between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show), CBS executives decided to cancel the show due to some negative response to its portrayal of inter-faith marriage.  The Rabbinical Assembly of America, for example, described the series as "an insult to the most sacred values of both the Jewish and Catholic religions."  Rabbi Abraham Gross, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of Orthodox Rabbis and Educators, stated that the show was a "flagrant insult" to Jews.  He protested that intermarriage was strongly prohibited under Jewish law.

In 1974, after co-starring in Bridget Loves Bernie, Meredith Baxter and David Birney wed in real life. The couple had three children together and divorced in 1989.  During their marriage, Meredith was known as Meredith Baxter-Birney.  In 2011, she published a memoir called Untitled in which she accused Birney of abusing her and claimed that he had hit her.  She stated that she dealt with the marital violence by drinking heavily.  Apparently, according to an NBC interview, Birney denied the allegations.

David Brirney was born in Washington, D.C. to non-Jewish parents. California-born Meredith Baxter is the daughter of the late Whitney Blake, who starred in the 1960s sitcom Hazel.  


Although Valerie Harper is not Jewish, she is best known for her portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern, a Jewish woman from the Bronx.  The character of Rhoda first appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show back in 1970.  After relocating to Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rhoda became best friends with Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), the associate producer of a TV news show.  A former art student, Rhoda resided in Mary's apartment building,and made her living as a window dresser/costume designer.

Even though Rhoda Morgenstern was a very likeable character, she was also very insecure.  She was obsessed with her weight and her attitude toward men was neurotic. She didn't hide the fact that she was desperate to end her single status.  Yet, despite her negative stereotypical traits,, Rhoda struck a chord with audiences. Women identified with her problems.  She was so popular that she CBS developed a spin-off series about her.  So, after four seasons,in Minneapolis, Rhoda Morgenstern returned to her hometown of New York,  The first episode of Rhoda, on September 9, 1974, set a ratings record.  It had a larger audience than ABC'S Monday Night Football.

As the series progressed, Rhoda  married Joe Girard, played by the late David Grogh, to whom she had been introduced while visiting her family and friends back in New York.  Joe ran a wrecking company, and was the divorced father of a ten-year-old boy named Donny. The show's hour-long wedding special was highly publicized and it broke television ratings records, garnering over 52 million American viewers.  Unlike Bridget Loves Bernie,, just two years earlier, the fact that that Joe was not Jewish was not really an issue, not even with Rhoda's family.

Nancy Walker had the role of Rhoda's meddling mother.  Walker, who died on March 25, 1992, first played Ida Morgenstern in an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore entitled "Support Your Mother."  Her character was so well-received that she became part of the cast of the Rhoda spinoff series.  Although Walker was convincing as a stereotypical Jewish mother, the diminutive Philadelphia-born actress was not Jewish.

Nancy Walker (right) with Valerie Harper in Rhoda

In her article "A History of Jewish Mothers on Television: Decoding the Tenacious Stereotype" (Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought, Volume 5, Issue 1, July 1, 2011), Myrna Hunt points out that although Ida Morgenstern was a loving mother, she was not such a benevolent presence in Rhoda's life:

Molly Goldberg, the "gold standard," for the Jewish mother, is originally portrayed as the buxom and benevolent meddler who can solve all problems by mixing common sense, a considerable dab of compassion, and predictable wisdom. Although a hovering mother, she is lovable and respected.  This portrait of the Jewish mother dramatically changes in the situation comedies of the 1970s when she becomes a devouringly negative, albeit loving presence, in her daughter's or son's life, well represented by Ida in Rhoda . . .

Julie Kavner, who played Rhoda's insecure younger sister, Brenda, was born in Los Angeles and is Jewish in real life.  Kavner now provides the voice of Marge Simpson on the popular animated series The Simpsons.  Harold Gould, who portrayed Rhoda's long--suffering father, Martin Morgenstern, passed away on September 11, 2010 at the age of 86.  Gould, born to a Jewish family in Schenectady, New York, was known for playing older Jewish characters and grandfatherly types.

The 1990s


Paul Reiser, a comedian from New York City, created and starred in Mad About You, a highly successful television series about a married couple in the Big Apple.  Reiser comes from a Jewish family and he attended East Side Hebrew Institute, a traditional Jewish day school in Manhattan.  In Mad About You, he portrayed a documentary filmmaker named Paul Buchman.  Buchman's non-Jewish wife, Jamie, played by Helen Hunt, worked as a public relations consultant.  The series ran from 1992 to 1999.on NBC.

Although Mad About You featured an inter-faith couple, religion was never mentioned on the show.  According to Vincent Brook in his book Something Ain't Kosher Here: The Rise of the "Jewish" Sitcom,  the show's producer, Barnet Kellman once stated: "Resiser never wants religion and religious differences specifically mentioned on that show.  I don't think he's afraid of it, by the way, and I certainly don't think he wants to pretend that he's anything but Jewish.  I just think he doesn't want it to be the issue, and he doesn't like the contentiousness of the exclusiveness of it."

Paul Buchman didn't talk much about being Jewish, but his family's Jewishness was clearly evident. Much like Ida Morgenstern, Paul's mother, Sylvia, played by Cynthia Harris,was an overbearing, stereotypical Jewish mother. His Uncle Phil, portrayed by comedian Mel Brooks, came from a Polish immigrant background and knew German.


Seinfeld, the so-called "comedy about nothing," was a landmark American sitcom. It was phenomenally popular.  The series ran for nine seasons on NBC, from 1989 to 1998.  It featured four neurotic New Yorkers who were not really very nice people.  In the final episode of the series, they all end up in prison for breaking the Good Samaritan Law and mocking the victim of a mugging.

Most of the show's producers, writers and actors were Jewish.  It's co-creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are both stand-up comedians and they were both born to Jewish families in Brooklyn, New York. Seinfeld is the son of an immigrant Jewish father from southern Ukraine and a mother of Syrian Jewish descent. When he was a teenager. he volunteered at a kibbutz in Israel.

Jerry Seinfeld played a version of himself on the series.  Not surprisingly, his TV character, also named Jerry Seinfeld, made his living as a stand-up comedian.  Jerry's TV mother, Helen Seinfeld, was portrayed by Liz Sheridan.  Helen was an interfering Jewish mother, but she was not known for making chicken soup or home-cooked meals for her son.  Jerry was usually seen eating cereal or dining out at a restaurant.

Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was the only female member of the quartet of friends.  Elaine was not Jewish.  This was made clear in an episode of Seinfeld entitled "The Serenity" (Season 9, Episode 3, Air Date: October 9, 1997).  In the episode, Elaine discovers her "shiksa appeal" ("shiksa is a Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman).  As a result, several Jewish men in New York City, including her former boss, become attracted to her.

Elaine Benes was most likely raised a Catholic.  She celebrated Christmas and in some episodes she is seen wearing a crucifix.  However, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the actress who portrayed Elaine, was born in New York City to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.  Her parents divorced when Julia was a toddler and the youngster was relocated to Washington, D.C. when her mother remarried.  During Julia's childhood, she sometimes attended Unitarian church services with her mother.

Michael Richards, the actor who played Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld, was born in Culver City, California on July 24, 1949.  His father was killed in a car crash and his mother never remarried.  Michael's parents were not Jewish.  His ethnic background is Italian on his mother's side (her maiden name was "Nardozzi") and English on his father's side. Michael was raised by Jewish mentors who influenced him greatly.  Kramer, however, was Jewish.  The character was loosely based on an ex-neighbour of Larry David, the show's co-creator and its head writer and executive producer from 1989 until 1996.

Jason Alexander (birth name: Jay Scott Greenspan), the man who portrayed George Costanza, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Jewish parents.  Despite his Italian last name, George exhibited stereotypical Jewish behaviour.  In his book Something Ain't Kosher Here: The Rise of the Jewish Sitcom, author Vincent Brook describes George's characteristics:

Beyond dispute is the fact that George Louis Costanza, Italian surname withstanding, both looks (short, pudgy,balding) and acts (whiny, tight-fisted, nebisher) stereotypically Jewish.  George has been described as "one of the most Jewish characters in TV history'. by The Jewish Journal, as "a man weaned on the milk of Jewish neurosis" by Entertainment Weekly.

George's mother, Estelle (Estelle Harris), although not specified as being Jewish, displayed all the stereotypical characteristics of a Jewish mother  Harris, now 88 years old, was born in Manhattan to Polish Jewish immigrants.

George's father, Frank Costanza, had an Italian Catholic background.  In the episode "The Doll," Frank travels to Tuscany to meet a supposed long-lost cousin.  In the episode "The Fatigues," it is implied that Frank is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a male Catholic organization.  Nevertheless, the  the role of Frank was played by two Jewish actors.

The original Frank Cosstanza was John Randolph, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 88. Randolph, born Emanuel Hirsch Cohen in New York City, was the son of Jewish immigrants. In 1993, he made his only appearance as Frank in an episode of Seinfeld entitled "The Handicap Spot" (Episode 4, Season 22, Air Date: May 13, 1993).  He was later replaced by comedian Jerry Stiller, another Jewish New Yorker.  It's interesting to note that Randolph's scenes in "The Handicap Spot" were reshot for syndication with Stiller as Frank.

Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza

- Joanne

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. Surely there are more examples, but I can't come up with any. Small correction: Harold Gould played Rhoda's father.,