By Saul Golubcow
I think I have been waiting for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” ever since I was a coming of age teenager in the 1960’s and starting to think about how Jewish characters and the Jewish experience itself are depicted on screen and stage. Synchronously in line with my long wait, this Amazon Studios comedy (with a bit of drama) series, having recently aired its first season, takes place in the late 1950’s, and its renewal for two more seasons appears headed into the 1960’s. It truly is marvelous with a tour de force performance by Rachel Brosnahan as the leading character Midge Maisel and the comedic brilliance of Tony Shalhoub (remember “Monk”) as Midge’s father Abe Weissman. What I most appreciate is its drawing of Jewish characters who are comfortable in their Jewish skins, a conceptualization I have found stunted or missing throughout my adult lifetime.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel is a Jewish housewife who besides taking care of her two young children and a swank Upper West Side apartment supports her husband Joel’s ambitions of becoming a comedian. Midge, who has an innate sense of what’s funny, critiques Joel’s sets, but is disappointed when she discovers he has stolen his best routine from Bob Newhart. Marital conflict ensues with Joel leaving Midge for his non-Jewish secretary with whom, he confesses, he has been having an affair. Midge and her children move in with her parents, and during an evening of excess inebriation prompted by anger at what her husband has done, Midge finds herself at the comedy club where Joel performs, impetuously takes the stage, and delivers a “self-exposed” set on her situation to which the audience responds enthusiastically. Midge then partners with Susie Myerson, an employee and business manager aspirant, to develop Midge’s career as a comedienne.
Midge, her immediate family including a sister-in-law who converted to Judaism, her manager, other comics (including Lenny Bruce), impresarios, lawyers, and judges comprise a pervasively Jewish world where Jews move fluidly in and outside of that world and navigate with pride and confidence a New York City multicultural environment. Non-Jews are present, as friends, co-workers, and other ethnic makeups that populated the city at that time. But the backdrop remains Jewish with natural occurring exposures to holidays, institutions such as the synagogue, ethnic humor, and cultural expressions including biases that may rely to a degree on stereotype but rarely devolve into caricature.
Midge’s comedy emanates from threads of conflict, hypocrisy, prejudices, and interpersonal trespass present in her Jewish environment, but they tie more to a universal human condition than specifically to the Jewish religion, culture, or history. The anger suffusing her comedy wells from the outrage she feels being “dumped” by her husband for his secretary and the constraints placed and abuses heaped upon women by society as a whole. Her routines at times are tinged with sadness as she reveals her ambivalence in being a mother in line with societal expectations. The Jewish experience may not be totally guiltless in its acquiescence to the mores and social manners of the times (Midge’s parents insist that she take Joel back for appearance sake; a Bryn Mawr graduate cannot be more than a housewife or clerk in a department store), and Midge uses this complicity as part of the color and background to her acts. But Judaism itself never becomes the villainous causal agent behind Midge’s comedic fury.
As such, the series departs from now worn out and banal insistence that there is something psychologically rotten in the core Jewish experience that debilitates one’s psyche, particularly the Jewish male’s confidence and competence. I appreciate, Mrs. Maisel, your absenting from the series the male, neurotic, Jewish nebbish character such as Woody Allen’s assortment of effete “heroes” or Larry Gropnik of “A Serious Man,” afraid of his shadow, ineptitude blamed on his Jewish rearing, angry with “aggressive” Jewish women, and bumbling before every demand for courage.
Midge’s husband Joel is handsome, physically strong, and when motivated, a creative leader at his work. He adores Midge telling her that he hit the jackpot in marrying someone beautiful, smart, and funny. Even in his despair at discovering that Midge has begun to do stand up comedy and that she is funnier than he, Joel responds forcefully to an obviously non-Jewish member of the audience who had heckled Midge for her audacity in doing comedy as a woman.
Here is where the series doesn’t give in to building a hackneyed depiction of a one-dimensional character. Though strong in many ways, Joel also possesses fatal character weaknesses that doom his marriage to Midge. He is dishonest in his quest to make it as a comedian and, because he believes Midge thinks “less of him,” he succumbs to a moment of unforgivable pique that prompts his walking out. That Midge is a “Jewish” woman has little to do with Joel’s immaturity in seeking male-boosting solace from his secretary. Rather, Joel’s weakness and vulnerability are manifestations of the male ego, ageless and cross-cultural, degenerating into self-pity and impetuous lashing out against the woman he loves when he felt himself to be lacking.
And much credit to you, Mrs. Maisel, for not engaging in the tiresome replay of attraction to the shiksah/sheigetz as a compelling force within Jewish characters seeking everything from solace, comfort, validation, excitement, and assimilation in the pursuit of the non-Jewish other. Midge’s comedy may aim invective at her failed Jewish marriage, at the stereotypes surrounding Jewish women’s sexuality, at the parochial expectations of her parents, but there is no stock, respondent falling into the arms of a non-Jewish lover. Joel’s secretary, Penny, is not blonde, vivacious, WASPish, or Midwestern pert and pretty. Rather, she is fairly plain, shy, socially inhibited, a weak and vulnerable human being who also is extremely needy and struggles to navigate Joel’s Jewish world. One feels sorry for both Joel and Penny in their awkward coupling. The affair is short lived as Joel, feeling shame and regret, longs to return to his Jewish wife, family, and community.
Additionally, kudos to you, Mrs. Maisel for showing us how we can escape the postmodern artistic ethos of superimposing one’s chosen political or ideological proclivities onto the past to find reverberations in support of current causes. The series theme, more than anything else in Season 1, is a woman’s struggle for equality taking us back to the era when the fight for women’s rights was raw and inchoate. After she is arrested for public indecency, to avoid Midge’s being held in contempt of court, her male Jewish lawyer convinces Midge to apologize to the male Jewish judge. In a tone flippant but dripping with decorum, she says: “My behavior earlier today was irrational, irresponsible, and extremely disrespectful. I let my emotions get the better of me. After all, I am a woman.” Certainly we don’t miss the irony that her husband Joel’s emotions had gotten the better of him causing the breakup and Midge’s drive toward her personal emancipation.
Midge’s comedy, not politically based, neither of the left or the right, is spurred by a rebellion partly temperamental, present from an early age, and partly by her Jewish upbringing tied to a history and tradition that had allowed and even encouraged women, albeit at times grudgingly, to inhale breaths of expression and justice and work toward those ends. Perhaps for this reason, so many of the early feminists were Jewish.
So great start Mrs. Maisel, looking forward to your next set and beyond when, who knows, you may reach Ms. status and look back at what your honest comedy had helped to accomplish.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.