Nearly 80 years ago, one of the most popular programs in the history of broadcasting debuted. “The Goldbergs,” a long-running series — first heard on the radio and later shown on television — about a Jewish matriarch and her family, offered some audiences their first introduction via airwaves to Jews, and others an opportunity to romanticize one’s immigrant past. Over the past several years, archivists, scholars, filmmakers and critics have been scouring basements, closets and archives to explain the legacy of Molly Goldberg, America’s beloved baleboste famously played by actress Gertrude Berg. Given the show’s place in the pantheon of American popular culture and Jewish history, it will be a long time before a full assessment can be made of its influence. But recent scholarship is emerging, including some that has revealed the program’s power to soothe American anxieties about race, religion, class and gender.
Along with “The Amos ’n Andy Show,” “The Goldbergs” helped establish radio as a source of mass entertainment. By the early 1930s, the program had become so popular that executives at NBC Radio concluded that audiences were ready for more shows “of a Jewish type.” In 1949, “The Goldbergs” successfully transferred from radio to the new medium of television. During the show’s final season, 1955-1956, the setting switched from the Bronx to the fictional bedroom community of Haverville, a New York suburb, where Molly Goldberg mustered her strength and compassion to be an exemplary wife, homemaker and suburban citizen. In Haverville she negotiated a new world of detached housing, manicured lawns, packaged foods and social rules. “The Goldbergs” mirrored the struggles of second-generation, middle-class American Jews as they abandoned cities for the promised land of suburbia.
Berg was the genius behind the show’s success. She not only created and played the role of Molly, but also served as executive producer of “The Goldbergs” and churned out thousands of scripts for radio and television, a stage adaptation on Broadway and a Paramount Pictures film. Cy Major, the radio writer for the Forverts, commended Berg for her skill at building each episode to a suspense-filled climax. As an actress, Berg was so convincing that audiences often conflated actress and character. Although she claimed there was little difference between the two, Molly and Gertrude were alter egos: The actress studied at Columbia University, lived in Manhattan on Park Avenue and kept a country house in Westchester; the character lived in a modest, middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx, and her attempts at speaking erudite English resulted in delightful malapropisms. Molly was a down-to-earth woman whose primary ambition was to nurture her family and friends; Berg, also a devoted mother and wife, was for a brief period the most powerful and most celebrated woman in television, as well. “There is probably no woman in American popular culture who has assumed, auteurlike, all the creative and commercial responsibilities Gertrude Berg managed to perform in a career spanning thirty-five years,” scholar Donald Weber wrote in an essay for The Jewish Museum exhibition catalog, “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting,” written by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler (Princeton University Press, 2003).
But the glory of “The Goldbergs” on television quickly faded. In just a few years, Lucille Ball and her wacky antics captured the attention of viewers who no longer sought folk wisdom from an old-fashioned Jewish mother. “The Goldbergs” failed to sustain an audience, a permanent network and a regular corporate sponsor. From 1949 to 1956, the program bounced from CBS to NBC to the DuMont Network, and finally into the ether of syndication. As filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who is currently producing a feature-length documentary about Berg, pointed out, “The Goldbergs” provided the foundation on which “I Love Lucy” and later TV comedy was built. “It was one of the first family sitcoms set in an apartment building,” she noted in an interview with the Forward. “That was a model for Lucille Ball, ‘The Honeymooners,’ and even a precursor to ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends.’” Neighbors yelling, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” and involving themselves with Molly’s family life set the stage for Kramer to walk unannounced into Jerry’s apartment.
So why is everyone still mad about Molly? For starters, a new generation of Jews raised in the suburbs has reclaimed New York. “The Goldbergs” is a nostalgia trip for folks who are in search of stronger ties to culture, community and family. In one episode from The Jewish Museum’s National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting, Molly extends hospitality to group of English women on holiday in New York. She introduces them to khremsl — a fluffy pancake of matzo meal and honey — and explains that “it’s an American recipe.” In Molly’s eyes (and stomach), khremsl represents the true essence of American cuisine: sweet, syrupy and unapologetically ethnic.
Andrew Ingall is an assistant curator at The Jewish Museum, where he oversees the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting and the Barbara and E. Robert Goodkind Media Center.
On Sunday, April 23, Ingall will join professors Donald Weber, Joyce Antler, Marla Brettschneider and Ari Y. Kelman; documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, and television critic David Zurawik for a discussion on the history and legacy of “The Goldbergs.” J. Hoberman will offer the keynote address. The event, presented at New York’s Center for Jewish History, is co-sponsored by The Jewish Museum, Jewish Women’s Archive and Yeshiva University Museum. For more information, visit www.ajhs.org.