Two houses, quite unlike in dignity, in fair Manhattan, is where we lay our scene. One is the House of Weissman, whose patriarch serves as an esteemed tenured professor of mathematics at Columbia University. The other is the House of Maisel, whose patriarch operates a garment factory, a profession commonly known as “the rag trade.”
We are of course in the milieu of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the award-winning series about Miriam Maisel, née Weissman (played by Rachel Brosnahan), an affluent Jewish girl, circa 1958, who seems to have it all: Upper West Side apartment, supportive husband, a toddler and a baby, and two very sophisticated and cosmopolitan parents. But by the end of the first episode, her husband has left her for another woman, and she is forced to move back in with her parents. Miriam decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.
Critics have seen Mrs. Maisel as an Eisenhower Era precursor to the Modern Woman. A review in the New Yorker notes that her “routines feel like feminist TED talks, with some ‘fucks’ thrown in.” The New York Times proclaims that Brosnahan’s star turns “comes at a time when it’s crucial to reclaim women’s place in stand-up history.”
But something deeper than feminism seems to be at work in the series. Consciously or not, it touches upon a historic division within the American Jewish community: the chasm between American Jews of Russian or East European descent and those of Germanic descent.
Jews from Germany and Central Europe began arriving in America in large numbers in the 1840s, and quickly eclipsed the older Sephardic community. By 1880, the American Jewish population had risen to approximately 250,000, the vast majority of Germanic background.
In 1881, that demographic began to change. Anti-Semitic decrees by the Russian Czar, and bloody massacres in Eastern Europe, led to a surge in immigration from those regions. By 1900, nearly half a million East European Jewish refugees had arrived, roughly double the number of German Jews. By 1914, another one and a quarter million Russian and East European Jews had reached our shores. The flood did not abate until 1921, when new immigration quotas became law.
This human torrent created serious problems for American Jews of Germanic descent. Although the first German Jews were mainly impoverished peddlers and cattle dealers, their later brethren were very different. Equipped with German education but freed from German restraints, they flourished in America. They included titans of finance like Abraham Kuhn and Solomon Loeb, founders of Kuhn Loeb & Co.; department store magnates like Abraham Gimbel and Benjamin Bloomingdale; investment giants like Jacob Schiff and the Seligman brothers; and cultural leaders such as Oscar Hammerstein I. Some of these successful German Jews entered public life, including Oscar Straus, the first Jewish cabinet member; Herbert Lehman, the first Jewish senator; and Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and father of Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary.
These German Jews harbored mixed feelings toward their cousins from the East, most of whom had grown up in ghettos, isolated from the culture and ideas of their gentile neighbors. Poor, provincial, and insular, these new immigrants settled in squalid urban neighborhoods, and found work in garment and cigar factories. Whereas German Jews had established Reform Judaism, which allowed them to mix more freely with their Christian neighbors, the Russian immigrants clung to Orthodoxy, and founded Yiddish newspapers and theaters, enabling them to retain their European identity rather than assimilating. They embarrassed their Germanic co-religionists, who feared that these unrefined people would threaten their own hard-won acceptance by Christian society.
As with most immigrant waves, the passage of time smoothed out the rough edges. The late-arriving Jews worked hard and saved their money. Their children grew up speaking English rather than Yiddish, and sent their own children off to college to become doctors and lawyers.
But beneath the surface, dividing lines remained, like pale but permanent scars. Generations later, many a Jewish family of German heritage would look askance at their son dating a girl from a Russian family.
This is the cultural frontier where the Weissman and Maisel families portrayed in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel meet. Although critics have focused their attention on the daughter, the eponymous Mrs. Maisel, the real entertainment value in the series is the interaction between her parents, the Germanic Weissmans, and her in-laws, the Eastern European Maisels.
The Weissmans (the name, perhaps not coincidentally, is German for “white man”) have passed smoothly into Gentile America. Abe Weissman (played by Tony Shaloub) is an urbane, polished academician, respected by his WASPish dean and adored by his students. His wife Rose (Marin Henkel) governs a patrician domain, aided by Zelda, the Polish house maid. If Rose ever washed a dish or laundered a sock, it must have happened decades ago. Now her only excursions into the kitchen are to give orders to Zelda. Her second language is French, not Yiddish, and when she prays in temple she faces East toward Paris. Abe and Rose are proud to have sent their daughter Miriam to “the very goyisha” Bryn Mawr.
The Maisels live in Manhattan too, but in another world. They are living proof that while you can the Jew out of the shtetl, you cannot take the shtetl out of the Jew. Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollack) runs a garment factory in a seedy building, whose pipes are always on the verge of bursting. He keeps his business afloat by dealing with loan sharks, and keeps the collectors at bay by patrolling his factory at night armed with a baseball bat. His wife Shirley (Caroline Aaron) is a large, coarse woman, who applies too much makeup, hides money in closets, and wears fur coats in the summer time.
Abe Weissman dresses meticulously, and consults his wife on the correct socks to wear to a faculty meeting. Moishe Maisel tells Abe: “In my business … we don’t have ivory towers and uncalloused hands. In my business, a man sweats and stinks ‘til he dies.”
Rose Weissman takes art classes at Columbia, and swoons at the sight of a male nude model. Shirley Maisel plays mahjong for high stakes, and then has sex with Moishe when she wins.
Abe interviews a suitor of daughter Miriam, carefully vetting his financial statements to ensure his ability to afford a wife. Moishe has never been in a bank until his son Joel forces him to go. Amazed at the high ceiling and tiled floor, he exclaims: “I feel like I’m in the Vatican .… It’s so open, so flaunting, so gentile.”
Each night, Rose waits until her husband is asleep before getting out of bed to go to the bathroom to apply face cream and to put her hair up in curlers. In the morning, while Abe is still sleeping, she stealthily returns to the bathroom, removes the makeup and rollers and brushes her hair, then returns to bed and pretends to sleep — all to ensure that her husband will find a perfectly coiffed wife when he awakes. Her daughter Miriam adopts the same custom with her husband.
Shirley leaves chicken soup in the freezer in Joel and Miriam’s apartment, and carries matzo meal in her purse, “just in case.”
But the widest gulf between the Germanic Weissmans and the Eastern European Maisels is in their treatment of their grandchildren, Ethan and Esther.
The Weissmans have adopted the WASPish notion that children are to be seen and not heard. When their grandchildren stay in their apartment, the grownups are served in the dining room while the grandchildren eat in the kitchen with Zelda. One evening, Miriam, angry with her parents, flees the dining room for the kitchen to be with her children. Rose hurries after her, exclaiming: “You can’t eat with the children .… They’re not used to it. You’ll frighten them.” One morning when Zelda has the day off, Abe, Rose, and Miriam, caught up in the rush to get off to work or class, barely notice when baby Esther utters her first word. They walk out of the apartment leaving the grandchildren alone. Fortunately, they remember to go back for them just before the elevator arrives. It’s unclear which of the three will have to stay home to tend to Ethan and Esther.
When Miriam’s convert sister-in-law Astrid asks her who stays with the children, Miriam absent-mindedly answers: “A lot of people.”
The Maisels, on the other hand, dote on their grandchildren, hugging them whenever they are within reach. They construct a nursery in the factory, where Shirley teaches Ethan to gamble at cards. (“Want to make this interesting? Ask Daddy for cash.”)
One scene visually captures the contrasting attitudes toward children between the Weissman and Maisel grandparents. They have just learned that Joel and Miriam are separating. All four are seated in the living room, tense and upset. Then grandson Ethan arrives for a goodnight kiss. Abe and Rose Weissman sit there, immersed in their feelings, hardly noticing him. Moishe and Shirley Maisel reflexively raise their arms, inviting him in for a big hug.
The Weissmans and the Maisels are caricatures, of course, and their differences are grossly exaggerated. But the fact that this successful comedy series can base so much of its humor on the gap between these two Hebraic varietals tells a lot about how far Jews have progressed in the United States.
From the 1920s’ Abie’s Irish Rose (Jewish-Irish) to today’s I Feel Bad (Jewish-Indian), mixing stereotypical Jews with another ethnicity in a family environment has proved a formula for comedic success. But in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel both sides of the chasm are Jewish. In fact, both sides are Ashkenazic Jews. The show succeeds not by mixing Jews with non-Jews, but by mixing two types of Northern European Jews. By 1958, these two tribes had been separated by thousands of miles and several generations from their ancestral homes. Yet, as their comical interactions show, they had never moved that far from their origins, after all.