Shtick, stereotypes, and self-parody: How ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ gets Jewish culture wrong
There’s a scene in the second season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — Amy Sherman-Palladino’s award-winning Amazon Prime series about a budding female Jewish comedian in late 1950s Manhattan — that helps illuminate the show’s odd relationship to Judaism.
It is the summer of 1959, and Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a heroine caramelized with beauty, wit, kindness and privilege, is vacationing with her family at a classic Jewish resort in the Catskills called Steiner. Midge is separated from her husband, Joel (he cheated and is mournful; she used the pain as a springboard to rediscover herself as a confessional downtown comic unafraid to work blue).
In the scene, Midge is perched in a rowboat with a new suitor, a handsome young doctor named Benjamin (he doesn’t have a last name, but you can bet it ends in a “-baum” or a “-stein” or a “-schitz”). They’re having a tempestuous meet-cute, the doctor feigning detachment and refusing to paddle their boat. On “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” even awkward first dates sound like a Marx Brothers routine.
Benjamin: “I don’t row.”
Midge: “What d’you mean you don’t row. Everybody rows.”
Benjamin: “Then go and ahead and row.”
Midge: “The boy rows.”
Benjamin: “Not this boy …”
Benjamin finally whips out the Steiner daily newsletter and begins reading ironically from the announcements page. “There will be a twilight gathering of Holocaust survivors tonight,” he tells Midge.
It’s a line that passes in a blink; it’s also historically unlikely. The episode is set in 1959, but the capitalized “Holocaust,” to refer exclusively to the Nazi annihilation of European Jewry, didn’t gain purchase among the general public until the 1960s and ’70s, a gradual evolution that some historians argue began with the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Whether an erroneous Holocaust joke matters in the context of a confection as buttery and fantastical as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” depends on how charmed you are by the show’s blithe tribal sarcasm, and the way it regularly repurposes Jewish stereotypes (and lends them a kind of retro chic) at a moment of resurgent anti-Semitism both domestically and among anti-immigrant nationalist regimes in Europe.
Many are charmed. “Mrs. Maisel” is up for three Golden Globes on Sunday. It won two Globes in 2018, and won five Emmys, among them the award for comedy series, a first for a streaming series. Its narrative engine in Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), who fights for her career at a time when stand-up comedy was all but closed to women, gives the show the aura of a feel-good, #MeToo fairy tale.
Meanwhile, on a twin track, “Maisel” has become an endurance test of ethnic self-parody.
Consider the three episodes in which the two families at the center of the show, the Weissmans and the Maisels, vacation at the Steiner Mountain Resort; by the end of those hours, I was way more in tune with my Jewish self-hatred than I believe binge-viewing is supposed to leave you.
Sherman-Palladino, herself the daughter of a onetime Catskills comedian, uses these Borscht Belt-set episodes to stage a veritable Coachella festival of Jewish histrionics. Here among the mountain air and the buffets and the rigorous recreational schedule, the Jew is free to indulge his every native personality trait. You want neurotic fastidiousness? Watch Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) at check-in. Obsequiousness? See the great Saul Rubinek in a tragic role as the resort director. “Mr. Weissman! Ooh, you look thin!” begins an extended groveling sequence. (Abe is a Columbia math professor and longtime Steiner loyalist, which doesn’t exactly explain why he’s treated like such a macher.) For classic boorishness, nobody can top Midge’s father-in-law Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollack), who enters the rec room with, “Wimpy Bernstein? How they hanging? A little lower this year, I think …”).
Interviewed by the Times of Israel for the season two premiere, Sherman-Palladino described her tonal approach to the period. “My whole cadence is from my father; he was Borscht Belt, Bronx-Jewish, Mel Brooks ‘2000 Year Old Man.’ So, for me, Jews created humor. And at this time they really created humor. That inflection, that rhythm. The … ‘oy’ and the ‘thing’ — it’s New York and it’s Jews.”
That tack can work for a five-minute bit — or as the shtick underlying a comedy set. But the approach curdles in the commission of an 18-hour (and counting) period comedy about a second-generation Jewish American comedian at the culture’s midcentury, evolutionary launch point.
At least I think Midge is second-generation: For a show so ostensibly obsessed with Jewish families and their too-close atmospheres, we know very little about the Weissmans and the Maisels. Through two seasons — and one extensive Yom Kippur dinner scene — the show has yet to produce an ambulatory grandparent. Even if the show is meant to foreshadow a steadily accruing, generational disinterest in the immigrant struggle, the choice to leave out the elders, to avoid showing what formed these people, is a curious omission.
There are some clues. The Weissmans have been coming to Steiner for 27 years, which suggests forebears who escaped an unnamed European pogrom some time before the Great Depression. (White Russian? The stirrings of German fascism? Something even more ancient?) True, nothing is deadlier than a shtetl-flashback scene. But as the show evinces myopia about the long-ago past, it also has nothing to say about the devastation of the recently ended McCarthy witch hunts, other than a left-wing lawyer’s glib allusion to Ethel Rosenberg (“took four zaps in the chair to kill poor Ethel. ... There was smoke coming out of her ears”)
In a storyline that appears as season two concludes, there is a hint that Shalhoub’s Abe will relinquish his great assimilation project (it involves subsuming himself in the crisp, feature-less elocution and phony gentile niceties of the Ivy Leagues) and embrace his anti-establishment political beliefs in the way that his daughter, Midge, has come to embrace her deeper comic self. On “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Abe and Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle), are the presentable Jews — spacious Upper West Side apartment, well-mannered, cultured — to those unfinished doppelgangers the Maisels, Moishe and Shirley (Caroline Aaron) who have a clothing manufacturing business in the Garment District.
The in-law relationship is defined by a running tension: the Weissmans’ classist revulsion at the Maisels’ tackiness. It is an age-old dichotomy: the fully arrived, acculturated Jew versus the self-made, too-Jewish variety. Fine, but what lies beneath the surface of these equally valid forms of midcentury American Jewish arrival, the intelligentsia vs. the garmentos?
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” might revel in the vernacular of its Moishes, but it doesn’t respect them with story. They’re ciphers, like the hacky comedians manspreading over Midge’s brilliant ascendance in nightclubs. As season two concludes, Midge books a huge tour and Abe gets attacked by plot: Not only is his sweet daughter moonlighting as a rebel comic, he discovers, but his son is CIA. Heretofore portrayed as pragmatic, cautious and morally conservative, Abe appears to throw over his tenured professorship at Columbia and his much-coveted position on a “top secret” government project for Bell Labs to reveal a halcyon past of coffeehouse political agitation.
Father and daughter are now as one: Jewish and dangerous. This development tracks so poorly with what we know of Abe (including that he sailed through his government clearance for Bell Labs) that it ends up feeling more like virtue signaling than a deepening of his character.
The dawn of the 1960s is presented in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” as Jewish comedy’s generational escape from its vaudevillian traditions (Lenny Bruce haunts scenes like a messenger from the future). But the era of the show was a seminal one for the American Jew as well. “Gone are the bowing, cringing, fearful ways of his ghetto ancestors, but also the burning, almost pathological desire to prove his mettle which characterized the Jew of the Emancipation era,” Lothar Kahn, a professor of modern languages, wrote in a 1961 essay titled: “Another Decade: The American Jew in the Sixties.” In their place, Kahn observes, “has emerged an American Jew who stands upright, speaks and lives freely, as one citizen among others, and openly preserves like them a measure of religious, cultural and even national autonomy.”
However “Jewish” Sherman-Palladino wants the show to be, “Maisel” fails to grapple with the realities of the moment in Jewish American history it portrays. Which is ultimately what leaves me queasy about its tone — the shtick, the stereotypes, the comforting self-parody. The stereotypes aren’t that comforting anymore.
‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)
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