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Monday, September 23, 2013

The Goldbergs, Then And Now: The Portrayal Of Jews On TV

"The Goldbergs" stars Wendi McLendon-Covey as Beverly Goldberg, Patton Oswalt as adult Adam Goldberg, Sean Giambrone as Adam Goldberg, Troy Gentile as Barry Goldberg, Hayley Orrantia as Erica Goldberg, with George Segal as Pops Solomon and Jeff Garlin as Murray Goldberg. (Eric McCandless/ABC)

“The Goldbergs” stars Wendi McLendon-Covey as Beverly Goldberg, Patton Oswalt as adult Adam Goldberg, Sean Giambrone as Adam Goldberg, Troy Gentile as Barry Goldberg, Hayley Orrantia as Erica Goldberg, with George Segal as Pops Solomon and Jeff Garlin as Murray Goldberg. (Eric McCandless/ABC)

A new sitcom, “The Goldbergs” debuts on ABC tomorrow. It’s not the first time a show called “The Goldbergs” has been on television.

In 1949, a groundbreaking program of the same name made the leap from radio to TV. It was the first Jewish sitcom and had a huge audience.

Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, joins Here & Now to take a look at how Jews have been portrayed on television, from the original Goldbergs to the Goldbergs of today.

Interview Highlights: Jeffrey Shandler

How important is the fact that the family is Jewish?

“It depends on who you ask, which is what makes it so interesting, so Adam Goldberg will tell you that it’s not a big deal. On the other hand, Jeff Garlin, who plays the father, says ‘You know, by calling the show ‘The Goldbergs,’ you might as well call it ‘The Jews’.’ And George Segal, who plays the grandfather, says ‘This isn’t a Jewish family. This is every family.’ So you have got a wide range from the universal to the autobiographical to the particularly Jewish, this tells us maybe more about the viewer and the discussant than the actual program. But certainly a program named ‘Goldbergs’ makes that possible because, for some people, that name signals a Jewish family.”

On how Jewish characters have changed throughout TV history

“Well, you know, there isn’t a continuum here because Jewish characters come and go and sometimes they’re a singular presence. So one of the reasons that the character of ‘Rhoda’ got a lot of attention, especially when she first appears in the ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ is that you didn’t have a lot of Jewish characters on television, especially Jewish female characters and by the time you get to ‘Seinfeld,’ there are not only more Jewish characters, but the idea of Jewish characters are getting played with, and ‘Seinfeld’ does really, wonderfully, perverse things with Jewishness and the shows has characters that we are told aren’t Jews, and yet they are loaded with Jewish markers.”

On how the new Goldbergs do not hide their Jewishness 

“And here we actually have a kind of similarity with the original Goldbergs series, is that Adam Goldberg says ‘This family is not overtly Jewish, they are just implicitly Jewish’ and Gertrude Berg said about her Goldbergs, in an interview years ago, she said, ‘They weren’t very self-conscious about being Jewish, they just sort of were,’ and I think that kind of sense that Jewishness is just there is noteworthy in its own right.”

Trailer for ABC's The Goldbergs
1949 episode of CBS's The Goldbergs

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Tomorrow, the new sitcom "The Goldbergs" debuts on ABC. It takes place in the 1980s and is based on show creator Adam Goldberg's real-life family. Now it may be just a coincidence, but the premier comes more than 60 years after another sitcom called "The Goldbergs" made the leap from radio to television. So how has the portrayal of Jews on TV changed since then? Joining us to discuss is Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. Welcome, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY SHANDLER: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, you've seen the pilot episode sitcom "The Goldbergs." Tell us about the members of the family and a little bit about the show.

SHANDLER: Well, I would say if you were going to classify this in the range of sitcoms, I would put it in the genre of the family from hell. You have a nuclear family. You have the mother, the father, three kids, a grandfather. And they're very loud. They're very raucous. They're yelling at one another all the time. Their emotions are in overdrive. And that is the source of the comedy.

HOBSON: Well, let's take a listen to a little bit of "The Goldbergs." Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOLDBERGS")

TROY GENTILE: (as Barry Goldberg) What the hell is this?

WENDI MCLENDON-COVEY: (as Beverly) It's a locket. It's got my picture inside so you can always have your mother near your heart. Sweetie, you're just not ready to drive. You're too immature, and quite honestly, a little high-strung.

GENTILE: (as Barry Goldberg) I am not high-strung. I'm strung just fine, like a tennis racket or a banjo or...

SEAN GIAMBRONE: (as Adam Goldberg) You know, I think it's great 'cause all the cool guys in my grade, they have mom lockets, all of them.

GENTILE: (as Barry Goldberg) Hey. Don't poke the bear, all right?

HOBSON: So a loud family. There's an overprotective mom. But how important is the fact that the family is Jewish?

SHANDLER: Well, you know, it depends on who you ask, which is what makes it so interesting. So Adam Goldberg will tell you that it's not a big deal. On the other hand, Jeff Garlin who plays the father says, you know, by calling the show "The Goldbergs," you might as well call it the Jews. And George Segal, who plays the grandfather, says this isn't a Jewish family. This is every family.

So you've got a wide range of, from the universal to the autobiographical to the particularly Jewish. This tells us maybe more about the viewer and the discussant than the actual program. But certainly a program named "Goldbergs" makes that possible because, for some people, that name signals a Jewish family.

HOBSON: Well, let's go back about 60 years now. There was another show called "The Goldbergs" that began as a radio program, aired on TV from 1949 to 1956. So we've got to remember this is right after World War II. It's been called the first Jewish sitcom. The producer of the new "Goldbergs" program says there's no connection between his show and the original. But let's take a listen to a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOLDBERGS")

GERTRUDE BERG: (as Molly) Hello, everybody. Excuse me for talking through from my kitchen window. I'm just in the middle of serving supper. My cousin Samuel(ph) is here for dinner. If I could spell, I could write books about my cousin Sam. But he's a cousin so maybe silence is golden.

HOBSON: Well, what are your thoughts on that, Professor Shandler? Obviously a very different sound than what we heard from the new "Goldbergs"

SHANDLER: Yes. Well, certainly, Molly Goldberg - the character we just heard is performed by Gertrude Berg who was the creator, the writer, the producer and the star of the series, so it's very much her brainchild - is identifiable by an accent, at least that would have been recognizable at the time in the 1950s, as a Jewish accent, an American-Jewish accent.

And what's, for me, even more striking about the clip you just played is that Molly Goldberg is raising the curtain on her window of her apartment in the Bronx and leaning out the window and talking to the television audience as if they were neighbors across the air shaft in the next apartment. And it's a very simple device, but it's a very powerful way of establishing her family as the viewers' neighbors.

And the new "Goldbergs" show about this very raucous, wild, out-of-control family is really the polar opposite of Gertrude Berg's family of "The Goldbergs," which were very accommodating, and pleasant, and harmonious and good neighbors. And that was a concern of Gertrude Berg's in creating the series that she wanted people to feel that this family would be welcome to them as neighbors.

HOBSON: We're talking with Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. And you're listening to HERE AND NOW.

There were a lot of shows that have come over the years that have very strong Jewish characters, and I'm thinking, first of all, of Rhoda Morgenstern back on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" played by Valerie Harper. And then she had her own show "Rhoda" which aired in the '70s. Here, she calls her friend Mary after she reluctantly moves back in with her parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RHODA")

VALERIE HARPER: (as Rhoda Morgenstern) No, Mar, I'm just fine. I'm fine, honestly. It's just that things got a little cramped at Brenda's so I took a temporary little place up town. Mm-hmm.

NANCY WALKER: (as Ida Morgenstern) Chicken salad sandwich and some milk for you.

HARPER: (as Rhoda Morgenstern) What? Oh, that's just room service.

HOBSON: And then let's get to the show that no discussion about Jews on American TV would be complete without, and I don't think we need an introduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Boy, I'm in the mood for a cheeseburger.

JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) No. We got to go to the soup place.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) What soup place?

JASON ALEXANDER: (as George Costanza) Oh, there's a soup stand. Kramer's been going there.

SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) He's always raving. I finally got a chance to go there the other day, and I tell you this, you will be stunned.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Stunned by soup?

SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) You can't eat this soup standing up, your knees buckle.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Huh. All right. Let's go. Come on.

SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) There's only one caveat. The guy who runs the place is a little temperamental, especially about the ordering procedure. He's secretly referred to as the Soup Nazi.

HOBSON: So, Professor Shandler, as you hear those clips from those shows over the years, how have things changed? How did things change from the old "Goldbergs" of the 1950s up until "Seinfeld" in the '90s?

GENTILE: Well, you know, there isn't a continuum here because Jewish characters come and go, and sometimes they're a singular presence. So one of the reasons that the character of Rhoda got a lot of attention especially when she first appears in the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" is that you didn't have a lot of Jewish characters on television, especially Jewish female characters.

And by the time you get to "Seinfeld," there are not only more Jewish characters but the idea of a Jewish character is getting played with. And "Seinfeld" does really wonderfully perverse things with Jewishness, and the show has characters who are - we are told, aren't Jews and yet they are loaded with Jewish markers and Jewish issues come up...

HOBSON: Elaine Benes, George Costanza, right? I mean, we've got two characters that you would think they're Jewish but they're not.

GENTILE: Exactly. And everything is double-edged because it's a show about nothing but, of course, it's about everything. And one of the things that they interrogated and really brilliantly through the medium of comedy was what it meant to signal Jewishness in this context. And so they would throw all these markers out at you. If you knew those markers, you were seeing them everywhere and yet - then they were telling you they have no meaning. And that made people crazy in, I think, a very productive way.

HOBSON: And yet here we are in 2013 with the new show "The Goldbergs" and they are out there. This is a Jewish family and that's it. There's no hiding anything.

GENTILE: No. And here we actually have, I think, a kind of similarity with the original "Goldbergs" series is that Adam Goldberg says, you know, this family is - they're not overtly Jewish. They're just sort of implicitly Jewish. And Gertrude Berg said about her "Goldbergs" - in an interview years ago, she said they weren't very self conscious about being Jewish. They just sort of were. And I think that kind of sense that Jewishness just is there is noteworthy in its own right.

HOBSON: Jeffrey Shandler is a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. "The Goldbergs" premiers tomorrow on ABC. Professor Shandler, thanks so much.

GENTILE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: And we'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. You can go to hereandnow.org.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We're already getting some comments. One of them is from Ruth Camden(ph), who writes: I honestly, honestly am one of the most liberal non-biased people you will ever, ever meet. But yes, I thought the same thing when I saw ads for "The Goldbergs," and that is do we really need another comedy sitcom where the main characters are Jewish? And I only say this because African-Americans and Hispanics have been complaining for years regarding how white TV is. And that's Ruth Camden.

HOBSON: There's one comment. We'd love to hear from you at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

PFEIFFER: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • geraldfnord

    There are all kinds of Jews; I have not seen it, and might not, not being a fan of sit-coms, so this is a bit unfair, but the intro to this piece makes me concerned that it might be a sort of Jewish minstrel show. (Yes, one with a largely Jewish cast, but note that African-American entertainers sometimes did minstrel shows, burnt cork, white paint, and injurious stereotypes alike…it paid the bills, for awhile at least.)

    I dislike acting humourously-impaired…many of my fellow Jews and (especially) I do have some characteristic behaviours and attitudes worth satirising, celebrating, or otherwise used to sell beer, cars, and crappy food-like substances. But I’m more similar in attitudes and habits to my Anglo/Gentile wife than to the Bobover Rebbe, or even to the nice Reform guy down the street who loves the Sox and never had an interesting theological or scientific thought in his life. And almost any Sephardi in America will tell you that they’re very different to us European-influenced rabble…and most Israeli Jews will do treble back-flips to avoid being lumped-in with the likes of me (even though that’s exactly the sort of flashy move that krav maga abjures).

    This does not even touch on the stereotypes within the Jewish communities about our sub-groups…let’s just say that a Litvak, a Roumanian, and a Syrian would in stereotype never get along, not be able to understand their ancestors’ birth-languages, and even have trouble with each others’ Hebrew.

    Pardon my griping…I guess that part of the stereotype holds in my case…but even from so useful and generally beneficial a source as Jon Stewart, there are jokes that make me feel like Ralph Ellison watching Step’n Fetchit, or any gay person watching almost any gay portrayal in the media pre-1990 or so….

  • Emily

    I would have loved to hear Northern Exposure enter the discussion of Jews on television; it is a favorite of mine so I’m biased, but I found it so funny and interesting the way a Jewish doctor from New York attempted to assimilate (or outrightly rejected) the culture of a tiny rural Alaskan town, and their reaction to his presence when most of the other characters had no context for understanding Jewish culture. There were several episodes that explore it more explicitly and do so beautifully.

  • darnthealarm

    I don’t know of any minority religion or race that is as self effacing as Jews…I don’t think that Blacks or Hispanics are capable or willing to use stereotypical characteristics for laughs…so what’s left?…Jews…we laugh at ourselves and are willing to share it with others…go figure…

  • eileen

    I was very disappointed to hear, at the conclusion of the interesting report, the host quote what I think was a tweet from a woman who claimed she was not prejudiced but felt the Goldbergs would be one too many Jewish series (how many have there been, exactly? and was there ever a Jewish leading man or woman in the past, say three decades?). Mentioning this negative and ignorant tweet’s message was to end a thoughtful, unbiased discussion on a sour note . . . perhaps to encourage bad or confused feelings about such programs instead of opening people’s minds. Moreover, to include it at the end of the interview was to display the immature and perhaps biased thinking on the part of the host. Let’s hope it was just ignorance, or just plain not thinking when an assistant producer told her to read it.

    On another tack, I’m hopeful this will be a successful series that will indeed open dialogue about and stir curiosity about Jewish lifestyles today. Far from the Molly Goldberg of the past, Jews in America are all different—from Orthodox to assimilated—and have different traditions and ways of life. The more we can learn about minorities, the more myths and prejudices we can dispel.

    Onward.

  • randy pettit

    I don’t think there’s been much TV since the 50′s or before that wasn’t written, produced or starred in by Jewish people. Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and almost every stand up comic on the Ed Sullivan show. How else would a whitebread boy from Michigan even know what a shmuck was at age 12 in 1961? They just didn’t say it but we all knew it.

    It’s all good.

  • angelasw

    i took jewish identity in cinema while in college, and i must say, they have come a loooong way, from tragedy to comic relief. i just feel like its sad that any one has to pay attention to this detail in the first place.

  • guest

    Come on…from Lucy to Archie Bunker to whatever, it;s called entertainment. Let’s name all the examples.

  • Guest

    I was brought up in a middle class Jewish family, albeit in the ’60′s and ’70′s. I watched five minutes of The Goldbergs and thought it was so awful I couldn’t watch anymore. Bad dialogue, bad acting, and utterly humorless. Blech.

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