Actress and social activist Marlo Thomas was in Pittsburgh last Thursday to help the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, celebrate its 120th anniversary.
The event was held at Rodef Shalom Congregation, where the women’s service organization recognized Judy Greenwald Cohen with the Hannah G. Solomon Award for her work on behalf of women and girls in the Pittsburgh community, as well as young adults with disabilities.
Thomas, who is known for inspiring an entire generation of women to be independent in her groundbreaking sitcom “That Girl,” which aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, is also known for her work raising $800 million each year for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. St Jude’s was founded in 1962 by her father, Danny Thomas.
During her keynote address to NCJW, Thomas demonstrated that, at 75, she is as adept as ever at making people laugh, as well as continuing to inspire women to follow their dreams and affecting positive social change.
“What I like best about your organization is the part of your mission statement that says ‘turn progressive ideals into action,’ ” Thomas told NCJW. “We often forget about that.”
Turning ideals into action is something Thomas knows a thing or two about. More than 40 years ago, she created the book and television special “Free to Be…You and Me,” which celebrates the individuality of children, and which was adopted into the public school curriculum in 35 states. She is a founding director of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and recently launched a nationwide antibullying campaign in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others.
“I love that you’re a Jewish organization,” Thomas continued in her address to the NCJW. “Everyone thought my father was Jewish, and I grew up in Beverly Hills, which was practically a shtetl,” she said.
She recounted her father’s honorary admission to the Hillcrest Country Club, which at the time was restricted to only allow Jewish members, and which was the stomping ground of the comedian pals of Danny Thomas, including Danny Kaye, Milton Berle and George Burns.
“Groucho Marx said, ‘Look, I don’t mind having a non-Jew as an honorary member,’” Thomas recalled. “ ‘But couldn’t we at least pick someone who doesn’t look Jewish?’ ”
Thomas’ 2010 memoir “Growing Up Laughing” details her life as a child and young adult surrounded by the comedians who congregated at her parents’ home, most of whom were Jewish.
“I think that it’s no accident that most of the great comedians were Jewish,” Thomas told the Chronicle in an interview just prior to the NCJW event. “There’s something there. And I think that it’s a wonderful survival tactic. You know, my dad was Lebanese. He came from the same Mid East, and he also grew up with being an outsider, and being fearful and being maligned. I mean Arabs and Jews have the same kind of outsider concept about themselves, and so I think that was why he was close to all those guys. They all had that sense of humor as a means of survival and a means of defense against that world that was WASP and white and so inside. And I think that’s where that humor comes from.”
Thomas shared some of her childhood stories with NCJW, in addition to speaking about her passion for activism, her plan to never marry … and her 33-year marriage to Phil Donahue.
“Phil Donahue is the greatest husband in the history of the Western world,” she told the crowd to ringing applause. Then: “And he’s nothing to brag about.”
Thomas currently hosts a segment on her website called “It Ain’t Over ’Til it’s Over,” in which she interviews women who have realized new dreams when facing a crossroads in life. She is a big proponent of encouraging women to pursue their dreams, despite their age, or where they are on their life’s journey.
“A lot of women, their dreams run out on them,” Thomas told the Chronicle. “They had a dream and maybe it didn’t happen, or they had a dream and maybe it’s kind of gone over. Maybe they are empty nesters, or lost their job, or can’t get back in the job market when they want to, and it’s hard to pursue a dream that has run out. And so, what’s another dream? I think that’s a very important idea for women to get a hold of, that there are other dreams, and finding them, and searching for them, and understanding what you love to do.”
While Thomas is a true believer in women finding and fulfilling their personal dreams, she is also a living example of the impact that one person can have on the world around her.
“What’s that wonderful Jewish saying? ‘Repair the world?’ I love that idea,” she told the Chronicle. “It’s such a great concept. Repair the world. That’s what we’re here to do. And it comes from a great heritage. And I believe in heritage, I really do. I think the Jewish people have hung on to their heritage like the Lebanese have, and I think the Irish have. Hang on, and not to assimilate, but to take part in the world and to repair the world in your way. There is something that we all bring from our grandparents that’s rich and different, and I think is very exciting.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)