Mrs. Maisel and the Jewish Revolution
I was delighted when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won the Golden Globe for best television series — but not for the reason you think. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is as Jewy as it gets. It is witty and humorous and deserves its award. But more than its laughs and giggles, Hollywood — and the rest of us — really need the very serious and timely message hidden in this overtly Jewish show.
We are witnessing a massive cultural shift in Hollywood and Western culture. For decades, abusive behavior and mistreatment, especially toward women, went unchecked. As the most powerful people in Hollywood summarily announced at the Golden Globes, “Time’s up.” The revolution is well underway.
The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries. People who upheave society are not just rebels, they are zealots. Average people don’t take on city hall. Hollywood and Western culture desperately needed drastic change, and it took the strength, courage and near-recklessness of incredibly brave revolutionaries to inspire this transformation.
As is often the case with revolutions, initially the #metoo movement brought everyone together. But the subsequent hedging and handwringing by more moderate voices was inevitable. The pushback began. It was then followed by the pushback to the pushback as people quickly retreated from the harmonious center to their partisan corners.
“Mrs. Maisel” embodies the Jewish secret to resolving this vicious cycle.
In the show, 20-somethings Miriam and Joel Maisel are living out their scripted lives along with their two children in 1950s New York City. Everything changes when Joel confesses to an affair and Miriam, or Midge, as her friends call her, kicks him out. As per “the script,” Midge’s parents expect a quick reconciliation, but when Joel apologizes and begs for a second chance, Midge goes off-script and says no. Viva la revolución!
The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries.
Midge’s rebellion leads her on a winding road to a bright future as a trailblazing female comic and a strong, powerful woman. The most impressive part of Midge’s personal cultural revolution is that her path is entirely original, yet she manages to include multiple parts of her previous, scripted life in her new life. In other words, Midge does not innovate at the expense of her entire past. She rejects all that is bad in the script and embraces all that is good. Her parents, her family, her fashion, her etiquette, her femininity, her Judaism and her sentimentality are all brought along into Midge’s journey.
In the season’s final scene (mild spoiler alert), Midge confirms her identity is independent from her past but also rooted in that same past when she creates her stage name: Mrs. Maisel. Despite the fact that she is divorcing Mr. Maisel, and despite the fact that she is an independent woman, Midge appropriates the name she was given and turns it into the name she chose.
In some ways, this frames Midge as a moderate revolutionary — a feminist hero toppling society’s conventions, gently. Midge’s foil in the show is her manager and adviser, Susie Myerson. She is the other kind of revolutionary. Susie is completely cut off from her family, she dresses and acts androgynously, and she has enough chips on her shoulder for herself and for Midge. There’s nothing gentle about Susie.
Some may think that a gentle revolutionary is weaker than a scorched-earth revolutionary. But the historic Jewish cultural revolutions of deity, ritual, philosophy, literacy and justice were not scorched-earth revolutions. We validated and valued the past while molding the present to create a better future. We have adapted and adopted from every culture we have visited on our 2,000-year Diaspora journey. We have created Judaisms that are unique to their time and place, interpretations specific to different academic spirits, and rituals that connect us to our surroundings. We are the gentle revolutionaries.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the story of Jewish revolutions retold for a postmodern world. To inspire Hollywood’s cultural revolution, we needed scorched-earth revolutionaries. Now, to make Hollywood’s cultural revolution stick, we need gentle revolutionaries.
Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.