I remember waiting each year when I was little for the acknowledgment on television that the High Holy Days were upon us. At some point during Rosh Hashanah, usually at an off hour, the local networks would screen a drab blue and white card that read “Happy New Year to our Jewish Friends.” It was in the time slot usually reserved for PSAs about drug abuse or starving children but that gesture meant a lot to me. Seeing the Jewish holidays acknowledged on television seemed validating in some kind of sad way. They sure weren’t mentioning Rosh Hashanah on “The Brady Bunch,” despite the fact that the man who created those characters, Sherwood Schwartz, was probably deep in prayer at his synagogue.
As I sat in Rosh Hashanah services on Friday night listening to our wonderful rabbi talk about the need to care for and protect the planet, I looked around at the high turnout of members from our shul. Kendall and I belong to Beth Chayim Chadishim, the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue. The BCC congregation has always been incredibly warm and welcoming to its few straight members. Not that our sensibilities are that much of a stretch from the gay congregants. Kendall and I could beat any BCC member in a game of “Name That Showtune” and we could spew more quotations from the films of Joan Crawford or Rosalind Russell than a West Hollywood Drag Queen.
During the services, several people got up and spoke about how they never felt like they really belonged in any synagogue before they joined BCC. Many of the members grew up feeling like outsiders, unaccepted by the groups in which they lived because of their homosexuality. As they talked I thought about how their words resonated with my own Jewishness. Those feelings of “otherness,” the longing to be accepted by the larger group. But how could that be? I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, went to a school where over half of the student body was Jewish, and had a large extended family of observant Jews. Sure, I was surrounded by Jews in my daily life, but they were curiously absent from another place where I spent an inordinate amount of time.
Having spent a big part of my childhood hypnotized by the shimmering blue light of the cathode ray tube, I was still pretty young when I reached the conclusion that Jews simply did not exist in the world I saw on television. We were as culturally underrepresented as gay people and if we were shown, it was usually with the same outrageous stereotypes. This is particularly puzzling when you consider the disproportionate number of Jews who had important roles behind and in front of the cameras. While I won’t go as far as our pals Hitler, Goebbels, and Henry Ford to say that Jews controlled the media in an international conspiracy, I will say that we were clearly well represented at all levels of the television industry.
Jews weren’t always absent from the small screen. In the decade before I was born, there was one bona fide Jewish hit on television. Beginning as a popular radio program, “The Goldbergs” followed the adventures of Yiddish-accented immigrant Molly Goldberg, her husband Jake, and their two children. The show moved to television in the late 1940s and was a top-rated show until 1954, surviving even a McCarthy Era witchhunt against Philip Loeb, the actor who played Molly’s husband. Led by actress Gertrude Berg, who also produced the show and wrote many of its scripts, the Goldbergs made no attempt to hide their Jewishness. Life magazine said that watching “The Goldbergs” was like “slipping on a pair of comfortable old shoes that never seem to wear out.” The shows may seem dated today, but they evoke an ethnic diversity that simply disappeared from the airwaves during my formative years.
Even though many of my favorite programs were written, produced, and directed by Jews, Jewish people didn’t exist in the white bread version of America that was presented in my childhood. Where were Beaver Cleaver’s Jewish friends? Didn’t Darrin Stevens at McMann & Tate ever have a Jewish client? How is it possible that the Clampetts never came across a Jewish neighbor in Beverly Hills? Don’t you think that Lucy Ricardo would encounter some Jews in her desperate attempts to break into show business? Did Fred and Ethel Mertz have a restrictive covenant on their Manhattan brownstone that prohibited Jewish people from renting? No matter what show I watched back then, one question rang in my ears until I couldn’t hear anything else. WHERE WERE THE JEWS?
On the few occasions when we did see Jewish characters on TV, they were comic foils with more stereotypical traits than a 1942 German propaganda film. I remember how excited we all were when an episode of “the Dick Van Dyke Show” revolved around a song called “Bupkis,” supposedly written by one of Rob Petrie’s army buddies. Although the word Jew was never uttered on the show, we knew that “bubkis” was the Yiddish word for “nothing” and that several of Rob’s old friends were obviously Jewish. So was Rob’s writing partner Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) although again, the word was never used. I remember the episode in which everyone thought Buddy was having an affair but it turned out he was just studying with a rabbi so he could finally have the Bar Mitzvah he never had as a child. Ironic how thrilled we were at the slightest whisper of Jews on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” when the characters of Super Goys Rob and Laura Petrie were actually based on the lives of Jewish Carl Reiner and his wife.
I could count the other Jewish people I saw on TV during those years on the fingers of one hand. On “The Waltons,” the Depression-era Family Hour show that helped get me through my parents’ divorce, the tolerant clan went a little nuts when they found out that Jason Walton’s new bride was Jewish. Their concerns mirrored those of my own family members who warned me that “it’s hard enough for two people of the same faith to make it in this world, why add that extra stress?” But Jason and Toni Walton did make it, so much so that the actors portraying them, Jon Walmsley and Lisa Harrison, actually got married in real life. So there, John and Olivia!
On “Little House on the Prairie,” the long-running series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of children books, troublemaker Nellie Oleson eventually married Jewish businessman Percival Dalton (aka Isaac Cohen), sending her nasty mother Harriet into an anti-Semitic rage. Mrs. Oleson should have aimed her tirade elsewhere—the two stars of the show, Michael Landon (Pa Ingalls) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) were both Jews.
In September of 1972 every Jewish person I knew couldn’t wait for the fall season to begin. For the first time since the Goldbergs ended their reign, we had our own show. Although “Bridget Loves Bernie” was a pretty standard sitcom, it created tons of controversy because of its premise: a nice rich Catholic girl (Meredith Baxter) marries a swarthy, working class Jew (David Birney). Not since Darrin and Samantha Stevens’ inter-species marriage was a TV union more nervously anticipated. Adding to the nightmare for the Bridget Fitzgerald’s Catholic parents, Bernie Steinberg was a lowly cab driver. For Chrissakes, Bridg, if you have to marry a Heeb, what’s wrong with a Jewish doctor? Oddly, while most goyishe shows were written, produced, and directed by Jews, you would have been hard-pressed to find a Jewish person behind the scenes at this sitcom. Hell, it was even directed by America’s favorite Gentile, Ozzie Nelson. I watched every episode of “Bridget Loves Bernie” but didn’t really mind when the show was cancelled after one season. Although it was popular with viewers (sandwiched between “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), CBS pulled the plug because they were worried about offending people on both sides of Bridget and Bernie’s marriage. I don’t remember being offended, but the scripts were certainly full of stereotypes, especially in scenes involving Bernie’s overbearing Jewish parents played by Catholic Bibi Osterwald and Harold J. Stone (the actor who replaced blacklisted Philip Loeb on “The Goldbergs”). Like Jason Walton and his Jewish bride, Meredith Baxter and David Birney fell in love and got married in real life. They had three kids but divorced in 1991. See, Bernie, your parents were right! Oh wait, did I mention that actor David Birney was really Irish Catholic?
It was definitely a topsy-turvy world for Jews on television in the 1960s and 70s. For all its talk of brotherhood and tolerance, you couldn’t find a Jew on “Star Trek” to save your life, even though William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were both observant members of the tribe. Of course there were no Muslims on the Enterprise either and people claim Spock’s Vulcan salute had strictly Jewish origins. And how about the most famous Jewish character of the 1970s? Mary Richards’ beloved Jewish friend Rhoda Morgenstern was played by Catholic Valerie Harper while Rhoda’s non-Jewish husband Joe Gerard was played by Jewish actor David Groh. Go figure! I remember when Harper and Melissa Gilbert were running against each other in a rather heated race for President of the Screen Actors Guild a few years ago. There were many jokes at the time about aggressively Jewish Rhoda going head-to-head with timid shiksa Laura Ingalls. In the end, the aggressive Jew won, but it was Melissa Gilbert, not Valerie Harper. Oh well, Valerie got the last laugh. Right now she is touring the country as Golda Meir in the play “Golda’s Balcony.” You go, Rhoda! Your mom Ida Morgenstern, the quintessential Jewish mother (played by Irish Nancy Walker) would be so proud.
Even today, there are few shows where Jewish characters embrace their Judaism as unabashedly as the Goldbergs did over 50 years ago. The prerequisites for Jews on TV still seem to include being highly neurotic, self-deprecating, and married to a shiksa.
Oh my God, I should have my own show!