By Bill Simons
It is 1954, the apex of the Jewish-American century. Yarmulkes sit atop the men’s heads at the post-wedding reception. A 22-year-old bride, Midge Maisel, formerly Miriam Weissman, seizes the microphone. Radiant, beautiful, deliriously happy – and fueled by three glasses of champagne – Midge thanks her indulgent parents for their generosity and proclaims new husband, Joel, her perfect love. Just getting warmed up, Midge, attired in wedding gown and veil, launches into standup comedy shtick. Diminutive in height, but bombastic in personality, the new Mrs. Maisel ends her routine by joking that there is shrimp in the egg roll. Although the shellfish line was faux humor, the rabbi and other guests, goaded to shock and indignation at the specter of a treif ambush, rise and exit in disgust.
Flash forward to 1958: 26-year-old Midge, four years into marriage, appears to have a perfect life: loving husband, two adorable children, supportive parents and in-laws, and a huge and elegant Upper West Side apartment with a closet full of fashionable dresses. Then, everything implodes.
Husband Joel, bored in marriage and the well-paying sinecure job at a landsman’s plastics business, seeks adventure trying his hand at standup comedy and conducting an affair with his secretary, Penny Pann, a pretty and vacuous Methodist version of Midge. When Joel announces he plans to seek a divorce, shock and anger overwhelm Midge. Trained to be an adornment as wife and mother, with a Bryn Mawr degree more a totem of status than educational attainment, Midge lacks employable skills or the capacity for single life. Crisis, however, forces Midge to recognize that she wants something more than a wedding ring, and she summons forth formidable and unexpected courage.
During the heyday of the grand Jewish department stores, Midge, herself a devotee of dazzling technicolor lipstick, finds glamor, audience and excitement working in the cosmetics department at B. Altman. Then, improbably, Midge, sans sensors, finds her chatty, eccentric, confessional style of conversation well suited to standup comedy at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, a venue where her hubby Joel had bombed. The rise of the amazing Mrs. Maisel has resonance in the early history of pioneer Jewish comediennes Joan Rivers and Totie Fields.
After a long COVID layoff, Amazon Prime will bring back “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for season four on February 18, sufficient warning time for newcomers to catch up on past episodes. Critically and popularly acclaimed, the dramedy premiered in 2017. Seasons two and three of the series debuted, respectively, in 2018 and 2019. In addition to the beguiling Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, the talented ensemble cast includes Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Marin Hinkle, Tony Shalhoub, Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron, Zachary Levi and Jane Lynch. With the exception of Lynch, the preceding performers all play Jewish characters. Borstein, Zegen, Pollak and Aaron are Jewish; the other actors are not.
Showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, frequently taking the roles of producer, director and screenwriter, has invested “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with an entertaining mixture of serious theater and brash humor in its exploration of American society, gender roles and Judaism circa 1960. As the daughter of Jewish-American standup comic Don Sherman, Sherman-Palladino, who previously earned kudos for her creation of the “Gilmore Girls,” knows Midge Maisel’s world.
Midge’s world is New York City, or more specifically those sections of Manhattan where the demographic and ambience are overwhelmingly Jewish. Although theology is not an interest of Midge’s, she intermittently attends synagogue services. Her parents appear to observe kashrut in the home. Midge and her mother, Rose, are positively euphoric when the rabbi agrees to come to their apartment to break the Yom Kippur fast. She loves to eat and prepare Jewish foods, particularly brisket. Everyone in Midge’s family is Jewish, even sister-in-law Astrid, a convert who elicits laughter with her earnest attempts to be more devout than those born into the tribe. Aside from a college dalliance with a good-looking WASP, Midge’s romantic relationships, both pre- and post-Joel, are with Jewish men.
The Borsht Belt, the resort hotels of the Jewish Alps, provide cool, hilltop refuge from the sweltering summers of Midge’s New York City. Even as a divorced mother in her mid-20s, Midge, with girlish enthusiasm, joins her parents for several weeks in their annual Catskill colonization of the fictive Steiner’s Resort, which has a to-be-explored Binghamton connection. To complement doting staff, platters of kosher food, frenetic activities, a beauty contest that Midge has dominated since adolescence, pool, lake and nightclub quality entertainment, matchmaking is a priority. When Rose’s new friend, Mrs. Ettenberg, bemoans that her doctor son is looking for a “weird” girl, Midge’s mother knows just the young lady for him.
After overcoming the awkwardness of their initial meetings, shared weirdness and discomfort at their mothers’ matchmaking, Dr. Benjamin Ettenberg and Midge become a couple, share physical intimacy and announce their engagement. A brilliant young surgeon, Jewish, affluent, 6’4”, blandly handsome, quirkily eccentric, supportive of his fiancée’s showbusiness ambitions and smitten with the lady, Benjamin would appear a perfect husband for Midge. Then, surprisingly, and impersonally, Midge ends the engagement by letter.
A hurt and angry Benjamin knows just where to find Midge: at her usual table, surrounded by friendly sycophants, at the Stage Deli, where she admits the letter was cowardly and callous, but, despite the doctor’s comfort with a working wife, Mrs. Maisel is not willing to take on a potential drag to her burgeoning comic career. Akin to Carnegie’s in “Broadway Danny Rose,” the Jewish deli is the Greek chorus in Midge’s world. The Stage Deli, retrofitted to circa 1960, is Midge’s place to nosh and schmooze.
We left Midge at the end of season three abandoned on an airport runway, fired for inadvertently outing gay singer Shy Baldwin, the headliner for whom she was to open for on-tour. Tune into season four to watch Midge encounter the 1960s. Midge faces multiple challenges: reigniting her fledgling career, balancing that peripatetic career with the needs of her two young children, navigating romance and encountering the feminist movement. Laughter, struggle and revelation await.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.