Jews in Television: 1950s & 1960s

From Milton Berle to Dick Van Dyke.

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The Goldbergs

While Caesar and his fellow comedians may have succeeded for a time in projecting Yiddish "right into American living rooms" by the end of the decade the spontaneous, unpredictable humor of the variety show format gave way to the more tightly controlled situation comedy. Following Berle's eclipse, Caesar's Your Show of Shows went off the air in 1957. In the monolithic, increasingly domesticated, television America of the 1950s, even The Goldbergs could not retain their distinctive ethnic character.

When in 1955 the television family moved from a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx to a suburb aptly named Haverville (city of the "haves" as David Marc observes), most of the show's explicit Jewish content had been erased; no longer were episodes routinely devoted to Jewish holidays like Passover or Yom Kippur. One program about Molly's favorite recipe was called "Molly's Fish" since "gefilte fish" seemed much too Jewish.

Now members of the suburban, assimilated middle class, the Goldbergs had left their Bronx (Jewish) neighbors and their working-class roots behind them. Yet Molly's malapropisms, and her Yiddish accent, persisted, and she continued to sprinkle her language with well-known Yiddish words. In spite of the show's "ethnoreligious denial" under Molly's influence white-bread Haverville became in some ways "Berg-larized."

But with Molly's core Jewishness camouflaged in suburbia, the show lacked a vital center and did not survive; it was canceled in 1956. Displaced by homogeneous, suburban-based "WASPcoms" as David Marc calls them, the "Ethnicorns" of early network TV like The Goldbergs lost their audience. With the exception of Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy, only families of Northern European descent survived on the television screen. (A brief 1960 revival of Berg's show was named Mrs. G; the letter stood for "Green" not "Goldberg." The domesticated sitcoms of TV's early years left no room for either diversity or irreverence.

According to a 1991 study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, in the 1960s family shows were "all American... carefully noncontroversial" and homogeneous; in that decade, for example, just one in 700 characters was Jewish. Shimon Wincelberg, who wrote for television during this period, explained that "back in the 60s, there was a sort of informal quota on television westerns, police shows, detective shows; they let you do one Jew a year...one black a year...The producers made you feel that they were doing you a great favor by throwing you a bone."

In Todd Gitlin's view, a great deal of "self-censoring" took place in early TV regarding the presentation of images of Jews, blacks, and other minorities. As far as Jews were concerned, network executives were driven by marketplace judgments as well as by "self-protectiveness against any real or conceivable anti-Semitic charge that Jews were too powerful in the media." In the belief that much of their audience preferred its "Jews Gentile" producers, advertisers, and suppliers kept any character or theme that might be "too Jewish" off the air.

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Joyce Antler

Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.