September 18, 2019

The Two Worlds of ‘Mrs. Maisel’

Photo provided by Amazon Prime Video

What is so intriguing about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the acclaimed television series now in its second season on Amazon Video that features a young, wealthy Jewish woman from New York City’s Upper West Side in 1958 who decides to pursue a career in underground stand-up comedy?

Essentially, two things.

First, the time in which the show is set — near the end of post-World War II conformism and the Eisenhower era — is when the underpinnings of the countercultural 1960s were taking hold in small nightclubs and among clandestine political groups in urban centers such as New York, Boston and San Francisco. Amid Americans’ fascination with suburbia, big cars and TV dinners, came the birth of the civil rights movement, the testing of free-speech laws and the stirrings of the sexual revolution. Mrs. Maisel, also known as Midge, is so interesting because while she is a product of society’s emphasis on conformity, she uses the privilege gained as the daughter of the Weissmans — a Columbia University math professor and a tightly wound, European-educated mother — to test the limits of that conformity. At a time when male comedians were changing their names to seem less Jewish, she does the opposite, using her married name, “Mrs. Maisel,” as her stage name while crafting a slightly blue comedy routine. 

Second, “Mrs. Maisel” gives us a slightly twisted slice of urban American Jewry that is not about new immigrants learning to assimilate and differentiate ­— such as the characters from authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer — but rather about assimilated Jews who live almost exclusively in a Jewish orbit yet are beginning to see the limitations of that experience. Midge is not rebelling against being Jewish; in fact, she seems quite proud of it when she chides her husband, Joel, about his gentile secretary/mistress (“She’s just a Methodist version of me!”). By the 1950s, Jewish men had been taking their Jewishness on the non-Jewish road for decades, but not many Jewish women had the ability to do so.  

The show depicts the nexus and the division between the affluent Jews on Riverside Drive and the gritty magnetism of the Greenwich Village scene that was fostering the growth of the folk-music revival, bebop jazz and stand-up comedy. In addition to the Village’s counterculture bringing forth folk artists such as Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs, and jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Nina Simone, its comedic component was led by performers such as Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Red Foxx and, of course, Lenny Bruce. In fact, comedy pushed the limits of free speech the way jazz pushed the boundaries of the 12-note musical scale (Bruce famously claimed his comedy was inspired by jazz). Enter Midge, the Uptown assimilated Jew, fully acclimated to American culture yet still inhabiting an almost exclusively Jewish orbit. The only recurring, non-Jewish characters seem to be Zelda, the Weissman’s maid; and Joel’s love interest, Penny Pan, who is nothing more than a Jewish fantasy of a gentile woman. 

Although genteel anti-Semitism is very much a normative part of 1950s New York culture, Midge seems oblivious to it. She comfortably moves from Uptown to Downtown (mostly in taxis) without much noticing it. But even when she ventures out of her Jewish cocoon, she seems to end up among Jews. For example, The Music Inn (whose founder, Jerry Halpern, is Jewish), which became the Mecca of the folk revival, is depicted in various episodes as it existed then (and still exists today). Another notable Jewish figure who inhabited that Village scene was Israel “Izzy” Young, founder of The Folklore Center. 

The Gaslight Café, where Midge performs, became a folk-music magnet but was also a popular venue for comedy. Profanity became an essential element of the comedic enterprise (Midge listens to albums of the young Red Foxx on her phonograph). And, of course, gender stands at the center here. Women weren’t comedians, just “vocalists” (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, et al). How many times do booking agents ask Midge, “Are you a singer?” In the last episode of Season 1, Midge gets heckled by a man who says, “Go clean your kitchen!” — to which Midge responds, “I’m Jewish. I pay people to do that.” She seems oblivious to the world around her. She’s already rich and thus has nothing to lose.

As has been noted by others, Midge seems loosely modeled after the young Joan Rivers (who, unlike Midge, made her unattractiveness part of her act), and her nemesis in the first season, Sophie Lennon, seems like a kind of Phyllis Diller or Moms Mabley (“You have to play a character; you can’t just be yourself.”). The show does a wonderful job juxtaposing the wealth of Jewish assimilation (Midge studied Russian literature at the very goyish Bryn Mawr College) and the rough-and-tumble life of the “outer borough” Jew (i.e., Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx) depicted by the savvy and hilarious agent Susie Myerson (who hails from the gritty streets of the Rockaways). 

And there is the scene in Riverside Park about the noted pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock that is especially incisive. Spock’s book on parenting was a bible for an entire generation. Of course, Midge doesn’t seem very interested in her children at all. Interestingly, she often doesn’t even know where her kids are, which seems normal and, in some way, not far from Spock’s view.

Astrid, the wife of Midge’s brother, Noah, is a great character, a convert to Judaism who endlessly and unsuccessfully tries to win favor from her Jewish in-laws by being way too Jewish. “I can’t get enough of the Holy Land,” she says. What assimilated Jew referred to Israel as the Holy Land? In any case, in one scene, she gives Midge’s 4-year-old son, Ethan, “Rabbi Cards” as a gift. As she gives him one card, she says, “This is Rabbi Hirschenson from Hoboken,” which is actually a crazy reference. Haim Hirschenson was indeed a famous rabbi from Safed and a colleague of Rav Kook, who was “exiled” to Hoboken because he wrote the teshuvah in favor of women’s suffrage in Israel. Could the show’s writers have added Hirschenson because of his position on women’s suffrage? If so, it’s a fabulous reference.

Before Bob Dylan arrived in the Village in 1961 and while Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles were making Jews laugh in the Catskills, there must have been people like Midge, Jewish refugees from Riverside Drive, who left their kids with gentile baby-sitters because they saw something brewing in the smoky, smelly and noisy jazz and folk clubs of the Village and, after listening to Charles Mingus, had a late-night snack at Schmulka Bernstein’s delicatessen. They couldn’t abandon their Jewishness. Instead, they made it into a commodity. Izzy Young did it. Bob Dylan did it. Joan Rivers did it. But why does Midge do it? That may be part of what keeps our interest. 

Midge isn’t in it for the money or the sex or even the fame (at the beginning). She does it because she is bored of her Riverside Drive “Classic Six,” six-room apartment. There is a scene where she and Lenny Bruce and some black jazz musicians are sharing a joint between sets (Midge’s privilege enables her to try anything!). The musicians ask Bruce to introduce the second set, but Bruce demurs because he’s too stoned. Midge interrupts by saying, “An activity! Yes, I’ll do it. It’s an activity!” She then goes onstage and nails it. When she returns to Bruce offstage, he looks at her quizzically, as if to say, “Who are you? No one does this for an activity!” Maybe that’s what is so interesting about Midge. She’s not doing it for the reasons everybody else does. She doesn’t have the self-esteem problem Joan Rivers had. She just wants an activity. And it is that banality that makes her so interesting and often quite funny, because she seems as confused as we are.


Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, the Brownstone Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute in Manhattan, rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue and author of “American Post-Judaism.”