Norman Lear at home in Los Angeles, 1984

Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

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Norman Lear, Pioneering Television Producer, Dies at 101

An excerpt from ‘Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish’

Abigail Pogrebin
December 08, 2023
Norman Lear at home in Los Angeles, 1984

Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

Archie Bunker was a racist, sexist antisemite, but his creator, Norman Lear, reminds us he was all talk. “There was nothing violent about his attitudes about anything,” Lear says. “He was more fearful than anything else. I mean, he wouldn’t light a cross on a lawn or be any part of that. But his invective would cover the landscape.”

Lear says there are too many instances in All in the Family’s nine seasons on the air to recount the times Archie knocked the Jews, but in one episode, he needed a Jew: When Bunker feigned injury from a minor traffic accident in order to recover insurance, he wanted to hire a Jewish attorney to help him win. “He went to Rappaport, Rappaport, and Rappaport or something like that [it was actually Rabinowitz] because he wanted the smartest lawyer, so he wanted a Jew,” Lear recounts. “And of course, when the law firm sent somebody out to the house, the attorney was, from first blush, anything but Jewish. This lawyer explained to Archie that since his firm knew the neighborhood, they figured Archie couldn’t be Jewish: “So of course they sent me: I’m the house goy” (a reference to the designated gentile who would turn the lights on and off for an Orthodox family during Sabbath).

Lear sits at a wooden table in his spacious Beverly Hills office, looking relaxed in a blue chambray shirt, vest, and rimless glasses. There is no overt evidence that this is the man who made $485 million when he sold his company in 1985 or that he fits a description from Chicago’s Museum of Broadcasting Communications: “No single individual has had more influence through the medium of television in its 50-year history than Norman Lear.” Despite a producing career that’s spanned four decades and included iconic series such as Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, plus some debacles along the way, he appears to be a very youthful, hearty 82-year-old, perhaps by necessity: In addition to his three children and five grandchildren from his first two marriages, at the time we meet he now has 8-year-old twins and a 15-year-old son by his third wife, Lyn Davis.

“I was thrilled to see Benjamin bar mitzvahed,” he says of his teenager. “His mother’s not Jewish, and I would not have insisted. It was his decision and that thrilled me. But I have no interest in the formal processes of the religion. When I infrequently go to a gospel service, I’m more comfortable there than I am in synagogue. I think Jewish services are stiff and dull and awkward.” Lear grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut; on Passover, his grandparents “came with their dishes” from New Haven. The Lears moved to a small apartment in Brooklyn just in time for his bar mitzvah celebration. “I remember a bathtub full of soft drinks and beer and ice,” Lear says with a smile. “And a bunch of fountain pens. And two-dollar bills.”

Lear says his brand of Judaism is social consciousness. “I will say this about my own Jewishness.” He leans forward. “I was inordinately aware of antisemitism in the world. I listened to Father [Charles] Coughlin on the air as a kid—I don’t remember how old I was. And I listened to a fellow by the name of Carl MacIntyre out of New Jersey who was a Protestant Jew-hater. And I had a nose for antisemitism unlike any other. People for the American Way came directly out of that nose.”

He’s referring to the organization he started in 1981, which became an influential watchdog safeguarding constitutional freedoms. He founded this group after spending hours watching ministers Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson on television—preparation for a screenplay he was writing which, he says, was going to “savage” their profession. Lear recalls his revulsion watching these evangelists: “I thought, ‘Not in my America,’” he says. “‘This is really dangerous.’ And so I decided to create a TV spot—a 60-second commercial which ended with a fellow saying, ‘They can’t tell you you’re a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your political point of view: That is not the American way.’ So somebody suggested, ‘Call the organization “People for the American Way.”’” Lear chuckles. “I’m on sort of a rant here, but it all began out of this Jewish nose.”

That Jewish nose isn’t sensing rampant antisemitism these days, but it’s still wary. “While I feel absolutely at home and fully integrated in this country, history teaches that one’s guard should be up,” Lear says. He is also watchful of the behavior of Israelis. “I remember the first time I started to read the word ‘humiliation’ in newspapers: ‘Arabs being humiliated at roadblocks.’ I know just enough about uniforms and humanity to know that, no matter who they are, some percentage of people in uniform will behave very badly. So there had to be some truth in those accusations of Israeli abuses from the beginning of the settlements. And to the extent that Jews caused humiliation, I was very upset.”

Lear makes it clear he thinks religious allegiances are obsolete; he has a vision of creating harmony via our television screens. “I think when the hardware, the technology becomes available, one of the most helpful things that could occur—by ‘helpful’ I mean to bring together races, religions, and so forth—would be an international Sunday morning service. It would be closer to gospel, but it would be universal gospel—music from every discipline everywhere in the world—which was all about that which unites the human of the species, not the stuff that divides us like, ‘I worship this way, you worship that way.’”

How would he square his proposed melding of religions with the joy he felt when his son chose to become a bar mitzvah? “It’s not easy,” he concedes. “What I want to maintain are the memories of my grandmother Hannah Rachel and all the gorgeous little fresh-to-this country Jews. But you see it’s only my memory; my kids don’t have those memories. And you can’t pass those on. They die with me. My memories of Friday nights with the spanking white tablecloth and the candles and so forth …” He trails off.

“We live at a time when, I don’t know how many dozens of times in the course of a year, I’ll have a conversation with my wife about how difficult it is to pull the family together in our own home. We have three kids: The twins are 8, Benjamin is 15. They are so bloody busy. It used to be just the father’s late.” In other words, family togetherness—which he connects to Jewish scenes of his childhood—makes him want to keep certain rituals afloat. “I could cry remembering how my grandfather took an hour and a half for the Passover ceremony that used to bore the shit out of us,” he says with a laugh, “but now I reflect on it, how sweet it was.”

So he carries that tradition on, albeit without religious content. “At my Seder this year, we did a reading of Justice Learned Hand’s speech about liberty, and then we talked about how it applies to everything that’s going on in the world,” he says. “It was the best Seder service I can remember. My kids got it.” He pauses. “I realize that I haven’t answered your question.” He has, in his way. It’s what I’ve heard from so many: They reject Judaism—and often religion in general—but they can’t let go of feeling Jewish. “I’m sure others have expressed to you the enormous pride in the contributions the Jewish people have made anywhere one cares to look,” Lear says, “except perhaps ice hockey. But medicine, science, music, comedy—my God.”

He says his proudest Jewish moment was watching his son hold the Torah, but other Jewish snapshots resonate, too. “Eating my grandmother’s matzo balls. Just remembering her stooped over the oven and her soup ... The smell.” His eyes water. “I cry easily. Jews are wet. I like that. There are wet people and dry people. Jews are wetter.”

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewishby Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.