Gertrude, Molly and Me

This post first appeared as “Gertrude Berg, My Inspiration” on The Sisterhood blog in the Forward. Click here to read it there.

Gertrude Berg when she started out in radio.

Gertrude Berg left this world at the age of 68 on September 14, 1966, two months to the day before I entered it. I’d like to think that maybe our souls met one another in a possible netherworld between life and death. I imagine that the departed Berg whispered something in my fetal ear — planted a seed — that would come to fruition exactly 43 years later, when I sat down last September at my laptop and wrote my first blog post as a first step on the path to a new career in journalism.

Actually, I thought it was Berg’s dramatic alter ego Molly Goldberg, and not Berg herself, who was my muse. After all, it was Molly’s photo that I put on my blog’s header. It was in homage to Molly, the quintessential Jewish mother, that I assumed the persona of “The Gen X Yiddishe Mamme.”

However, since recently reading Berg’s 1961 memoir, “Molly and Me” (co-authored by her son Cherney Berg), and viewing Aviva Kempner’s documentary film, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” — the DVD was released this week, and is reviewed here — I realized that I have even more to learn from and be inspired by Berg than I do the Jewish uber-balebuste character she inhabited for nearly 30 years that “The Goldbergs” ran on radio and TV. (The radio version was called “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”)

It was Berg who was ultimately far more of an interesting character. Unlike Molly —an impossibly great cook, attentive parent, loving wife and loyal friend and neighbor — Berg was a real person with real faults. It’s not as though Berg didn’t possess some or all of Molly’s positive qualities, it’s just that she didn’t lead an existence in which all loose ends were tied up and problems solved at the end of every episode.

But don’t think that Berg didn’t try to make us think that her life played itself out like Molly’s. Not only did she make public appearances as Molly (à la Stephen Colbert) but she also recounted the story of her life as though it were a sitcom. Her autobiography is not so much of a memoir as it is a collection of beautifully crafted short stories and sketches about the real-life characters who served as inspiration for the fictional characters that populated the thousands of shows she wrote. Other than the occasional short-lived bout of garden-variety anxiety or self-doubt, Berg presented her life as consistently rosy and invariably amusing.

Not once did she make mention of an older brother who died in childhood of diptheria, and all references to her mother ended after the chapters recounting Berg’s teenage years spent at her parent’s hotel in the Catskills. A product of her era and without the benefit of hindsight, Berg did not understand how much more she would have been appreciated by Jewish women of future generations had she revealed the hardships she endured, including her mother’s downward spiral into mental illness and eventual institutionalization.

It is Berg, far more than Molly, who would capture the attention and gain the admiration of mothers today. Molly was the exemplary — yet typical — immigrant who struggled to rise to the middle class and raise first-generation American children, and it was because of this that so many listeners and viewers identified with her. But it was Berg who uniquely managed to build a remarkable creative and business career at a time when very few women were doing so. She paved the way for women, and also Jews, in American society.

When I look at my blog’s header, I now see both Molly Goldberg and Gertrude Berg. Molly Goldberg was a woman of her times. Gertrude Berg was a woman before her time. I am a woman of my time who is grateful to them both.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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