The Legacy of the Jewish Mother

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jul 24, 2009 12:00 AM

Before there was multiculturalism, there was assimilation. Before assimilation, there was ethnic pride. Before ethnic pride, there was fear and frustration in the old country, with hope for a better life in America. Such is the immigrant experience. Poverty, prejudice and tyranny, a combination of hardships and fierce ambition, drove men and women to our shores, beginning with the Pilgrims.

The pilgrimage continues today. Everyone has a story tailored from personal experience.

Americans who worry that Sonia Sotomayor will take ethnic activism to a seat on the Supreme Court can nevertheless appreciate her biography, her rise from poverty within a minority Puerto Rican community, to achievement in the best schools and a successful law career that eventually led to her nomination to the Supreme Court. Latinos rejoice. They think it's their turn, that through her they'll get the recognition they deserve. She's their cultural icon, a mark of acceptance, just as Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a symbol of pride for Jewish women and Thurgood Marshall was a marker for blacks.

The immigrant experience is both wonderful and fearful, subject to the standards of different generations and different times. The immigrant reflects both the stereotypes of his or her group as well as the idiosyncratic attributes of the individual. So, we simplify and generalize as we look at biographies of different immigrants and how they impart meaning for future generations.

Such thoughts came to my mind watching a new documentary film, which opened in Washington and New York and may soon come to a theater near you. "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" is about a radio, television and Broadway star of yesteryear who was, as one cultural historian put it, "the Oprah of her day." Gertrude Berg was a Jewish broadcast star of the '30s, '40s and '50s, with a career encompassing the ebb and flow of attitudes toward Jews in a time when how Americans saw themselves was changing, often dramatically.

The documentary is the work of Aviva Kempner, whose work on two previous award-winning documentaries focused on Jews in other circumstances. "The Partisans of Vilna" was about Jewish resistance fighters who joined partisan commandos fighting the Nazis in the forests of Lithuania and Poland during World War II. Her film demonstrated how Jews "fought back" despite having to deal with prejudice among the other partisans, some of whom were as contemptuous of Jews as the Nazis they killed.

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" told the story of "Hammerin' Hank," the Detroit Tigers slugger who was the first major Jewish baseball superstar. Fans threw pork chops on the field, taunting him. Hammerin' Hank became a profile in courage in 1934 when he refused to play ball on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, even though the Tigers were fighting for the pennant -- which they eventually won (only to run into the Dean brothers in the World Series, which they lost). He soon silenced his critics four years later, hitting 58 home runs, just two shy of the mark that Babe Ruth set in 1927, which everyone thought would last forever. He returned from the war in 1945, just in time to lead the Tigers over the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

Gertrude Berg wrote, directed and acted in "The Rise of the Goldbergs," a family sitcom set in a Bronx tenement. The character Molly Goldberg, the Jewish mother who could have been Greek, Polish or Italian, debuted in 1929 less than a month after the stock market crash. Her embracing maternal sentiment was so typical that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that "it wasn't me who got us out of the Depression, it was the Goldbergs." Molly, with her Yiddish accent, was voted the second most admired woman in America, after only Eleanor Roosevelt.

The show moved to television in 1949 and was quickly second only to "Amos 'n' Andy," which made affectionate fun of blacks just as the Goldbergs made fun of Jews. "I Love Lucy" replaced Molly less than a decade later, and Lucille Ball became the first lady of television, the wife of a Cuban immigrant, and replaced Molly as the queen of the comedy of assimilation. Along with the Goldbergs, "Amos 'n' Andy" eventually succumbed to political correctness, replaced by Archie Bunker, a white blue-collar bigot who played the prejudice card from a more sophisticated point of view.

Actor Ed Asner summed up Molly Goldberg's waning popularity: "I was concerned they were not laughing with the Goldbergs, but at the Goldbergs. I wanted to blend, blend, blend." But stereotypes survive. When Thurgood Marshall was introduced to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, his new colleague on the Supreme Court, he called her "Mrs. Goldberg." She took it as a compliment to Molly. Not everybody would have.