“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the most Jewish series on television. If you’ve seen it, you know that the show is a romp about a Jewish comedienne in the 1950s. You also know that the titular character never faces anti-Semitism.
As Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) tries to make it in stand-up, she encounters blatant sexism and acknowledges Jim Crow racism. But as a show that depicts a 1950s Ashkenazi family, hatred of Jews is missing from the landscape.
This realization is almost as irksome as the scene in the pilot in which someone orders pork chops at a kosher butcher. Was Mrs. Maisel’s era actually the haven from hatred showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino depicts? In some ways, yes.
Fresh off the complete devastation of the Holocaust, the next decade became the one when Judaism began to be accepted as an American faith.
The 1955 bestselling book “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” by Will Herberg normalized Judaism as a part of America’s religious heritage. Depicting the United States as a “triple melting pot” comprising three major faiths, the groundbreaking book encouraged the public to include Jewish immigrants as a part of America’s proud history of offering refuge from religious persecution. Jews were like the Pilgrims, with brisket instead of turkey.
Some of the most virulently anti-Semitic folks have never met a Jew. Their hate is a symptom of ignorance. In the 1950s, through pop culture, scores of Americans met Jews for the first time.
As Mrs. Maisel would have gained celebrity, so did other Jewish figures, normalizing Judaism and making anti-Semitism less common. Before and after Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America in 1945, Hank Greenberg rocked the baseball world. Joshua L. Liebman, a Reform rabbi, wrote “Peace of Mind” in 1946, which stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
It didn’t hurt that in the ’50s, the ultimate pop-culture villain had come to rise: the Nazis. Today, it seems Hitler’s regime is the go-to figure of evil in movies and political debate. After World War II, no one wanted to be compared with America’s sworn enemy.
Because anti-Semitism was so characteristic of the Third Reich, it drew a new stigma. Discriminating against Jews became un-American. According to the 1950 “American Jewish Year Book,” “Organized anti-Semitic activity, which began to decline after the war, continued at a low ebb during the year under review.”
“Mrs. Maisel doesn’t mention anti-Semitism because the subject was not much discussed in polite company.” — Jonathan Sarna
But that didn’t mean anti-Semitism vanished.
“In the 1950s, there were still clubs and hotels that excluded Jews, and professions that Jews had trouble entering,” Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said. “Quotas limited Jews’ choices when they applied to college. That was why the American Jewish community established a new university named Brandeis in 1948.”
In 1958, the Liberty Lobby arose, which was a deeply anti-Semitic political advocacy group created by Holocaust denier Willis Carto.
“It was the Jews and their lies that blinded the West as to what Germany was doing. Hitler’s defeat was the defeat of Europe and America,” wrote Carto in one of his letters, which were presented as evidence in a federal civil lawsuit. The Anti-Defamation League credits the group with keeping anti-Semitism alive so it could be absorbed into the new incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
Back in the day, Liberty Lobby had a daily radio show that at its conclusion, offered listeners a copy of its “America First” pamphlet. President Donald Trump’s administration gave fresh life to that slogan. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land; from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first,” Trump said in his 2017 inaugural address.
After a slew of neo-Nazi marches, synagogue shootings and anti-Jewish vandalism, one could wonder if the resuscitation of this ethnocentric slogan comes along with its hateful anti-Semitic heritage.
However, when Mrs. Maisel worked makeup counters by day and comedy clubs by night, these ideologies were fringe, not in the Oval Office. Considering that landscape, it may seem less mystifying that a show about Judaism in the 1950s could be realistic and not prominently feature anti-Semitism.
In truth, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fails to fully portray the challenges faced by 1950s Jews.
“Even in the bubbles of the Upper West Side, the Catskills and the hipster night clubs that define Mrs. Maisel’s life, she would keep running into reminders that she and her family were, ahem, different,” historian Gil Troy, who teaches at McGill University in Canada, said. “Certainly, at the makeup counter, she would have to endure some Upper East Side WASPy-snootiness.”
The opulent lifestyle Midge enjoys, filled with countless hats, elaborate breakfast feasts and a diligent maid, is historically accurate. Many of the show’s details properly portray the lives of Jews in the 1950s.
“It was not just in terms of their security and social acceptance that contemporaries viewed the postwar era as a golden age for American Jews; prosperity characterized the period as well,” Sarna wrote of 1950s Jewry on the My Jewish Learning website. “Jews had become fundamentally middle class, their proportion in non-manual occupations exceeding that of the general population.”
In the 1950s, there was an uptick in Jewish journalists, authors, engineers, architects and college teachers. In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the comedienne’s father, Abe Weissman, works as a mathematics professor at Columbia University. This represents the era well.
But anti-Semitism remained the way for gentiles to assert their power over Jews, regardless of how wealthy and educated they became.
“At any given moment, a cabbie, a store clerk, a waiter, even in the insular bubbles, could push back and try to take down a Jew — especially an obviously outspoken, wealthy Jewish woman,” Troy said. On the show, male comedians and promoters constantly are trying to cut down Midge for being a woman. In reality, the people who wait on her hand and foot also had the power to bring her down to size for being a Jew. “In a bizarre way, it was an equalizer that transcended class, but it was clearly a power play,” Troy said.
But it’s also likely the subject of mistreating Jews is taboo on the show because in that era, discussions about anti-Semitism were.
“Mrs. Maisel doesn’t mention anti-Semitism because the subject was not much discussed in polite company,” Sarna said. “Most of all, Jews in the 1950s worried that they would be labeled as communists and stigmatized because of the [Julius and Ethel] Rosenberg trial. That is why so many Jews, even ex-communists, prudently joined synagogues and temples, and made sure to purchase U.S. Savings Bonds.”
In 1959, being accused of “dual loyalty” was a legitimate fear in Jewish society. Jewish Americans addressed it by actively trying to prove their love for the United States — not complaining about how gentiles treated them.
Ariel Sobel is a screenwriter, filmmaker and activist, and won the 2019 Bluecat Screenplay Competition.