At the time I met Mary Tyler Moore, her stellar decades as star of then tradition-challenging sitcoms—from The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s to The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s—were TV history.
Our encounters in the ’90s often occurred at The Plaza, at benefits for diseases like diabetes for which she was an ardent advocate and dealt with personally. A standout encounter of ours was the 1991 Anti-Defamation League Gala honoring Christian Rescuers who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Mary and I sat at adjoining tables. During the event, then-ADL director Abe Foxman recalled being baptized as a child, Maximilian Schell read Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” and the Rudin brothers—Lewis and Jack—were honored with the “Recognition of Goodness Award. Mary smiled through that very long evening.
Between hora sessions, which we danced together, hand-to-hand on the ballroom floor, Mary (aka Mrs. Robert Levine) introduced me to her mother-in law. “Your shviger!” I exclaimed. “My what?!” she shouted back with a giggle. I explained to her that Yiddish offers a specific nomenclature for each member of a family.
“So what’s mishpokhe?” Mary asked.
“That’s the whole kit and caboodle,” I replied.
And I will never forget the Dec. 13, 1999 National Foundation for Jewish Culture Gala which brought the Catskills to The Pierre Hotel. The centerpieces were Hebrew National salamis arranged with red roses in bouquets topped with mustard dispensers. The foundation’s Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor, honored Carl Reiner, the creator and writer of The Dick Van Dyke Show and co-star and writer of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.
Mr. Reiner in his inimitable toasty-roasty style outed Mary Tyler Moore as a Jew: “One of your grandfathers was Jewish and [you are] married to a Jewish doctor,” said Reiner. During our dinner chat, Ms. Moore, sitting next to her husband Robert told the table: “Masha is the one who gave me the names of all my family members!” Then she rattled off the Yiddish roster starting with, “My mother-in-law is called a shviger…”
Mary helped America smile.
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Masha Leon is an award-winning journalist and longtime cultural columnist for The Forward and other publications. She has won Poland’s Knight Cross of Merit Medal for articles relating to Polish-Jewish affairs, and is a frequent speaker on her history as a Sugihara survivor.