In 1929, the great American radio-listening public was first introduced to The Goldbergs. The brainchild of the actress and writer Gertrude Berg—who starred as the clan’s beloved yiddische mama, Molly—The Goldbergs was not only groundbreaking in a formal sense but also for its portrayal of the denizens of 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx as a relatable American family. And it did so even as anti-Semitism was ascending to its most virulent heights worldwide (a topic the show was unafraid to confront; one famous episode airing shortly after Kristallnacht had bigots throwing a brick through the Goldberg family’s front window).
Listen to episodes from the original radio show here:
In 1949, The Goldbergs made the leap to the new medium of television and in 1956 passed off the air into legend, and eventually, obscurity (and YouTube).
This fall on ABC, the great-grandchildren of the original viewers will see a whole new set of Goldbergs on their TV screens in The Goldbergs; and no, it’s not a remake. This Goldbergs is the creation of Adam F. Goldberg. A heartwarming sitcom based directly on Goldberg’s own family and set in the 1980s, it’s like a Reagan-era Wonder Years, and from what I can glean from the 4-and-a-half-minute preview released by the network this week, it seems to employ many of the same tropes: the blustering dad who has difficulty expressing tenderness (played here by the wonderful Jeff Garlin aka Jeff Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm); the overprotective, slightly fretful mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey, so hilarious in Bridesmaids and Reno 911!); the trendy sister, the obnoxious older brother. The conceit of the show is that we are watching home movies shot by the younger iteration of an adult-as-voiced-narrator, the precocious baby of the family rarely seen without an enormous and cumbersome vintage Camcorder in hand. (The wisecracking grandfather, the only main character without a Wonder Years corollary, is played by George Segal, who I have to say I’m very happy to see. TV hasn’t been the same since Just Shoot Me went off the air.)
It’s all pretty standard, if funny, stuff (and as I mentioned, I’ve only seen the sneak peek; this could turn into an absurdist Buñuelian satire of the mores of the bourgeoisie, for all I know), and its matter-of-factness is for me sort of poignant, for lack of a better word. I’m younger than Adam Goldberg, but I also grew up watching television (a lot of television) in the 1980s, and I’m pretty sure that back then, this new show would not have made it to the air. The original Goldbergs, like The Cosby Show did during my childhood, might have shown America that a group that white, Middle-American Christians had traditionally Othered might not be so scary after all, but this “normalization” seems to have been inevitably followed by a long drought (re: Cosby, when was the last time you saw a major network, buzzed-about sitcom about a family of color?).
This was an era in which Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty were playing Sicilians. There were occasionally explicitly Jewish characters on television, but if aliens invaded planet Earth with only Must-See TV as an anthropological guide to the peoples they had conquered, they would think “Jew” equaled “single neurotic urban male who lives exclusively in New York and dates blonde women who seem to bemusedly tolerate him.” There were no Jewish women, except to show us how desirable non-Jewish ones were by comparison, and certainly no Jewish children, because duh, you’d have to sleep with, or God forbid, marry a Jewish woman for that, and gross. Unless she’s Fran Drescher, but everyone knows that woman makes her own rules. It’s like saying Queen Elizabeth epitomizes your typical 1950s housewife.
At first glance, The Goldbergs betrays none of that anxiety. The pilot episode revolves around whether or not the older brother will actually be given access to a car upon getting his drivers’ license—there are no bar mitzvah jokes or what my husband likes to call “comedy klezmer” (part of the general family that also includes “sexy saxophone”). The Goldbergs are simply an American family, with typical American family problems: kids growing up too fast to suit their parents; parents who embarrass their kids by talking too loudly or buying the wrong cassette tape at Sam Goody (although can REO Speedwagon ever really be wrong?). “Goldberg,” in this context, doesn’t seem to be any kind of signifier meant to cue our assumptions about what these people might be like, and are we OK with that. It’s just a typical last name for a typically eccentric (which means, not very) American family, no different than “Arnold” or “Cunningham” or “Simpson.” They aren’t the first Jewish-American family on television, but at least we now know they probably won’t be the last. Somewhere up in that big Bronx tenement in the sky, Molly Goldberg must be kvelling all over the place.
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