Thursday, July 16, 2009

Yoo Hoo!

I saw the documentary, Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, by Aviva Kempner, last nigh. Here's the film website, a NYT article, and here's Rotten Tomatoes, where the film is rated 92% fresh. Unfortunately, it's in limited release, and Molly Goldberg/Gertrude Berg will probably remain for most people the most famous woman you've never heard of.

That so few know who she is shouldn't be understood to qualify her fame. She was incredibly popular, ranked by a popular magazine (I forget which, unfortunately, but a major, widely read mag) as the second most influential woman in America behind Eleanor Roosevelt (and the richest woman ahead of ER). Her television show was the highest rated on television for almost a decade. The radio show that preceded tv was as popular for twice as long, so her rain as a pop icon ("The Oprah of her day") ran from the early 30s into the mid 50s. And if not for McCarthyism, Lucille Ball might never have had a shot to replace here.

The audience was lively. Judging by their accents (it was too dark for racial profiling) and their vocal or otherwise palpable reactions to much of the film, most in the theater were Jewish. My wife might have been the only one who wasn't. And the two of us might have been the only ones this side of 60. People were there to revel in nostalgia. Like my mother, they grew up watching The Goldbergs, and that was very much their story. Of course, as the film makes clear, it was the story of anyone who grew up in a family. But if you were other than WASPy, it was even easier to identify with it as your story. And if you were a New York Jew, then you might have felt like you owned the story. (And if your name happened to be Goldberg, well..) Before the show, one woman asked the assembled, "Anyone here from the Bronx?"

A few things in particular caught my attention. One, the early success of the radio show was around the same time as the rise of fascism world-wide. Given her success, it might have been easy to argue the US was incredibly tolerant to Jews in a way that ignored that it was also a time when the German-American Bund, Charles Coughlin, and the America First Party were popular and influential. Unlike Hollywood, she even had an episode (only one) with a brick thrown through her window. This really drove home to me something that's been true of antisemitism at least since Augustine, that elements of tolerance and success for Jews are not dispositive of Jewish oppression. In fact, they coexist rather well.

Two, Ed Asner's interview was quite different from the rest of the film. Though Gertrude Berg herself was born in the US, the character Molly Goldberg had some vaguely Eastern European accent. Through most of the film, I was amazed at this brazen willingness to express difference, something I wish was more pronounced today. But for Asner, who grew up wanting to fit in and hide his difference, that foreign accent made him incredibly uncomfortable.

Three, and for this you see the film (in part because I don't want to render it superfluous for you and because I really couldn't convey this) was the role of antisemitism in McCarthyism. When her costar Philip Loeb was targeted as a supposed Communist (he was a prominent trade union activist), Berg fought for him and stood up to General Mills - and it ruined her. There was a certain Catholic cardinal who could have made it all go away - but he insisted she convert. It was a proud, but unsurprising moment when then off-Broadway play that played a huge role in breaking McCarthyism was The Life of Sholem Aleichem.

At present, it's only showing in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema or the Quad Cinema. Tomorrow it opens in DC and one theater on Long Island. Next week, it goes into somewhat wider release. Check at the film's website to see if it'll be near you.

No comments: