What I Learned from Mrs. Goldberg


A few nights ago, I was looking for a break from the tedium of grading freshman compositions, and, in the course of doing the 21st-century equivalent of flipping channels (paging through Netflix on my smart DVD/TV set-up), I discovered something I had never known before: The Goldbergs.

Apparently, in the 1950s, before there was Archie Bunker or The Jeffersons, before Will and Grace and The George Lopez Show, there was a situation comedy about–get this–a Jewish family from the Bronx that moved to Haverford, Connecticut. I was floored, absolutely gob-smacked to discover this, because I thought (silly of me, I know) that diversity was a modern invention. And by modern, I mean a within-my-lifetime kind of thing. But apparently it’s not. After the shock of that discovery wore off, I had another shock to deal with: I, the person who has watched way too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island , who has a fondness for Mrs. Trumble in I Love Lucy, who knew the members of the Little Rascals at least as well as my own cousins, I had never been aware of this show. How could that happen?

If you’ve never watched the show, you might want to take a look at this teaser. Apparently someone else is aware of The Goldbergs; Aviva Kempner has created a documentary about the show (which has nothing to do with the brand-new ABC show of the same name). Here’s a link to the trailer:

I don’t pretend to be a more authoritative voice about Mrs. Goldberg and Gertrude Berg’s effect on the early days of television and radio in the United States than Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Susan Stamberg, but I do have a little something to say about Molly Goldberg and what she’s taught me after having watched a handful of episodes.

Molly is a woman of say, fifty to sixty years of age. She doesn’t try to be younger or more attractive. And it is clear in every moment of the show that she doesn’t need to. No one expects her to apologize for or cover up her age ; she is respected for being a smart, caring, and active woman. This is what Molly teaches us: it’s okay to be over fifty. Many older women today are trying to negotiate that tricky passage between the days of youth and attractiveness and the days of maturity. Unfortunately, we have few role models to help us navigate. Molly is a good role model. From her, I have learned that being thin, or wrinkle-free, or fashionably dressed isn’t as important as it seems to be.

Secondly, Molly cares about the people she lives with. She tries hard, even when she’s rebuffed. I think this is an important lesson for us today, and I wonder when our television shows stopped teaching it. When did laughing about people’s stupidity or meanness become more appealing to viewers than watching how characters negotiate the common difficulties of living together? These difficulties can be funny, too, but they are not dehumanizing. Molly teaches us what it means to be human and live in a social environment that may be less inclusive than we’d like it to be.

Most of all, Molly Goldberg is just a nice, lively character. I’d like to say that she’s larger than life, but the truth is she’s not, and I think that’s why I like her. She’s one of us–when we’re at our best. I say we could all do with a little bit more of Mrs. Goldberg in our lives.