Gertrude Berg is one of the few Jews who succeeded in the entertainment industry by playing up her Jewishness.
Born Tilly Edelstein on the Lower East Side in 1898, she changed her name to Gertrude Berg, and became famous as Molly Goldberg, the beloved Jewish mother of “The Goldbergs” on the radio in the 1940s and television in the 1950s.
“Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg,” a new documentary from filmmaker Aviva Kempner, highlights Berg’s accomplishments during those years, a necessary task because although Molly Goldberg was at one time the most famous mother in America, today she is mostly unknown, replaced in the public imagination by June Cleaver and Lucy Ricardo.
At the screening I attended, I might have been the only person in the theater under 65 — granted it was an early showing on a weekend afternoon — and what was a learning experience for me was clearly a moment of nostalgic recognition for the other viewers.
After seeing the movie, though, Berg’s absence in pop culture seems baffling. In its radio incarnation, “The Goldbergs” received ratings second only to “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The television show earned Berg the first Emmy Award for Best Actress in 1950. Kempner makes the case that Berg, through the 12,000 scripts she wrote in her lifetime, essentially invented the television sitcom, creating a grammar still in use more than 50 years later.
“The Goldbergs” started television’s obsession with American family and home. The image of Molly Goldberg leaning out her window — to pitch Sanka coffee directly to the audience, or to chat with her tenement neighbors across the breezeway — is iconic.
With her innovative use of product placement and by marketing her show across multiple platforms — including cookbooks and comic books — Berg became a one-woman media mogul, or “the Oprah of her day,” as screenwriter Margaret Nagle says in the movie.
Her biggest accomplishments seem remarkable even by today’s standards. She hosted a complete Passover seder on the radio in the 1930s. In the depths of World War II, she used her show to address Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and immigration.
Berg got the acting and writing bugs at her father’s resort in the Catskills, where she entertained the guests on rainy days with theater productions, and got her break in radio after being cast in a commercial where she sold Christmas cookies in Yiddish.
She wasn’t Molly Goldberg, though.
Berg couldn’t speak Yiddish, and needed her husband to transliterate the script for her cookie commercial. The film shows clips from a “Person to Person” interview with Edward R. Murrow where we see the real Gertrude Berg: bragging about her china cabinet in a trans-atlantic accent. To gather script ideas, Berg wandered through the marketplace with a notebook, giving her shows an authenticity that audiences craved.
Berg created a different kind of Jewish mother: caring but not overbearing; family-oriented, but not tragically enslaved to her husband and son; full of pride and optimism about both her faith and her adoptive country. It’s an archetype that existed in the real world both then and now, but rarely makes it back on the screen or in popular culture.
The movie suggests that Berg wasn’t so much a universal figure as a figure with broad appeal for the various ethnic outsiders looking to make good in America. Kempner interviews black and Greek viewers who saw their own families in the Goldbergs.
There is a flip side to presenting those differences in public, of course.
In the film, the actor Ed Asner said “The Goldbergs” seemed to clash with the Jewish goal of assimilating into the broader American culture. When Molly Goldberg spoke malapropisms in her Yiddishe lilt, Asner said that he felt the audience must surely have been laughing at the immigrant experience of the Goldberg family, not with it.
“Molly Goldberg, with her accent, interfered with our blending,” Asner says.
In the end, the broader culture beat “The Goldbergs.” In 1950, shortly after the show went on television, Philip Loeb — who played Molly’s husband Jake — was named as a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and blacklisted. CBS dropped “The Goldbergs.” NBC agreed to pick up the show, but only without Loeb.
In 1955, for its final season, “The Goldbergs” moved from the Bronx to the suburbs.
“They really didn’t know what to do when they got there,” television historian Robert Thompson says in the film.
The show lost its verve, and quickly disappeared. Its timeslot went to “I Love Lucy.”
Looking back, it’s easy to wonder if “The Goldbergs” faded from popular culture because of its sincerity. The television families that followed don’t resemble the Goldbergs. They have boorish fathers, nagging mothers and bratty children.
If it was the first sitcom, “The Goldbergs” precedent is limited. Its humor was drawn from the realities of daily family life, not from an exaggerated view of its dysfunction.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)