Major Project: Gertrude Berg (2013)

By October 5, 2013November 15th, 2018Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers
The following essay on Gertrude Berg was written by Jolie Elins, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Jolie Elins
October 12, 2013

I’ve always loved the performing arts, so when I learned that my major project could be almost anything, I knew I had come upon a way to explore further topics I find fascinating, and to show it to others through a medium I find interesting.

I am interested in not only acting, but behind the scenes as well. I’ve always wanted to write a script, film, direct, and edit a movie. Even in plays and musicals I am often not only acting in them, but helping to build sets, and make costumes.

Deciding to make a movie for my project wasn’t the hard part. But then I needed a subject. I have also been interested in feminism and Jewish identity, so the idea of doing a short documentary on a Jewish woman came easily. When looking for the one I would be writing about, I had really only four requirements. She needed to be a woman, obviously, she needed to be Jewish, she must have worked in the performing arts, and I needed to find her interesting. Originally the one who came to mind was Fanny Brice. Even without knowing much about her I knew she filled three of the requirements immediately. When I first brought up this topic with Rabbi Peter, he gave me some information on three women whom he thought I might find interesting. Those were Fanny Brice, Molly Picon, and Gertrude Berg. Now, I am as stubborn as a mule, and having already picked Fanny Brice, I was reluctant to look at any other choices. I hadn’t even heard of Molly Picon, or Gertrude Berg. Then my mentor, Renee, gave me the task of writing a short paper on each of the women to make sure I really looked at all of my options. This took me quite a while as, as I mentioned before, I was adamantly against choosing anyone else but Fanny Brice. When I finally did the assignment, I found that Gertrude Berg filled not only the four requirements, but also an unexpected fifth. I had wanted to find someone who hadn’t been born into the entertainment business, but worked her way up, finding what she wanted and getting it. This was important to me because it is a quality I admire, and I felt I could connect with it, as it’s what I want to be able to do someday.

Determination, as defined by, is a fixed purpose, or intention. Gertrude Berg was definitely determined. She started by doing plays in her town when she was a young girl, and she continued to do what she loved her entire life, becoming not only one of the first women to act, write, direct, and produce on both radio and television, but was also a successful businesswoman and activist. Gertrude Berg created the first sitcom, which started with her radio show The Rise of the Goldbergs. This, and her TV show, The Goldbergs, paved the way for I Love Lucy and other sitcoms.

I realized that I had really only chosen Fanny Brice because she was better known, and that Gertrude Berg was the one I wanted to do my project about.

Gertrude Berg, born Tilly Edelstein, grew up in a small apartment in New York City, just around the corner from her grandparents. She had an older brother, Charles, but he died of diphtheria at age seven, when Berg was only three. Her mother never got over this loss and was institutionalized later in her life. Many people speculate that because of this her childhood was a little dark, and that the family portrayed in The Goldbergs is her projection of the ideal of the happy family life she didn’t really have. Many think that her grandmother, whom she called Bubeshu, was her inspiration for the role of Molly Goldberg. She always felt loved by her grandmother, and learned from her about being accepting of others, caring for them, and how to make a good dinner. She said in her autobiography, Molly and Me, “I was part of everyone in the apartment across the areaway [in my grandmother’s apartment], not only because I was born to them but because they wanted me to belong for myself–with my faults, with my temper…” (“Molly and Me,” Berg, p. 45). She was brought up that she had value as a person. It made her more confident, more sure that she was worth being paid attention to, especially in a time when not only women but Jews were seen as “less than,” undervalued. She knew her worth.

Gertrude had been writing and performing her entire life. She’d been writing skits to perform at her father’s resort, Fleischmann’s, in upstate New York. It had always come naturally to her. Her father’s resort is actually where she met her future husband, Lewis Berg. It was he who recognized her brilliance, and encouraged her to do what she wanted to, and to pursue a career, which was unusual in a time when most women were housewives. They were married in 1918. It was around this time that she changed her name from Tilly Edelstein to Gertrude Berg, which inspired the name of her famous character, Molly Goldberg. In fact, Molly became so popular that eventually Gertrude Berg became known primarily by that name.

Gertrude Berg was so determined to perform that she took a job voicing a Christmas cookie commercial for city utility Con Ed, in Yiddish no less, a language she did not speak. Lewis did, however, and wrote the words out phonetically so she could say them for the commercial. This kind of determination foreshadowed the rest of her career.

Gertrude was always writing, but one day with the encouragement of her husband, she brought a radio script to a CBS executive. She had written the script in pencil, and the executive could not read it, but she had the chutzpah to act it out for him. He liked it so much that he hired her to write the show, and to temporarily play the role of Molly until they could cast a professional actress. One day, Gertrude got sick and couldn’t do the show. The next day CBS received so many letters and calls that their switchboards went down. Everyone was asking for Molly! Her radio show coincided with the Great Depression of 1929, and in the very heart of it, she was told by a CBS representative, “We’re sorry, Mrs. Berg, but we can’t pay a cent over $2,000 a week!” Life was rough in America, and everyone looked forward to feeling better when they listened to The Goldbergs.

The radio show eventually became a television show, entitled The Goldbergs. It began in the middle of World War II. This was especially significant, as Molly made sure the show depicted a realistic Jewish family, and Jewish traditions. “I wanted to show them [Jews] as they really are … as I knew them…” (Something On My Own, Glenn D. Smith, Jr., P. 31.) It was the way she portrayed her Jewish characters naturalistically that helped viewers to accept them. They got to know Jews without discriminating against them, and they were able to realize that being Jewish didn’t make them awful people; it was just a part of who they were.

Gertrude also became a savvy producer and businesswoman, working with sponsors, and became very wealthy because of it.

In 1947 the Hollywood blacklist was released by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was the most famous of blacklists, issued under McCarthyism to keep screenwriters and other Hollywood professionals who were accused of being Communists from working in their field.

[ Lorence, James J. (1999). The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-2027-9.] Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg on The Goldbergs, was one of the original 151 people on the Hollywood blacklist. In 1950, a representative from General Foods, which sponsored the show, called Gertrude Berg and told her that she had to fire Loeb from her show. Berg refused, supporting her friend even when she was told that the show would lose its sponsorship if she didn’t fire Loeb. She characteristically stood her ground and replied that if General Foods ended their sponsorship she would use every available platform to tell her fans to ban their products. [“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” a documentary directed by Aviva Kempner.]

Berg may have bought Loeb some time, but eventually he had to leave. Loeb, unable to handle being shunned by the business, committed suicide, like several other blacklisted workers. Berg may not have realized it then, but this was the beginning of the end. Loeb was replaced by another actor, although the show never regained its full popularity. The show was cancelled in 1956. Berg too, was eventually blacklisted, for “communist sympathizing” because she had helped Philip Loeb. Another factor in the show’s cancellation is that television had changed. The characters portrayed on most shows were now very non-ethnic and white and The Goldbergs didn’t fit with the new style. Berg never went back to television, but instead spent the last years of her life on Broadway and doing summer stock, until she died in 1966.

Throughout the rest of Berg’s life, she continued to be an activist, fighting for the rights of those who were discriminated against. In fact, Berg and Coretta Scott King were awarded in 1965 by the American Jewish Congress in recognition of their continued service to the civil rights movement.
In Glenn D. Smith, Jr.’s biography of Berg, Something on My Own, he writes that the Goldbergs represented an “idealized family in desperate times.” He talks about how Berg used radio (and later television), “to attack the various social problems affecting her listeners. The Great Depression, the persecution of the European Jew, and the Second World War, provided the backdrop for many of her shows’ plotlines… She saw radio as an educational medium, tied to notions of ethnic unity and national identity.” The Goldbergs appealed to a large cross-section of American life, regardless of people’s background. Her accomplishments resulted in enormous wealth, creative control, and celebrity status and her voice on the radio became “as recognizable and welcome as [her listeners’] own mother.”

Even today, many years after her time, Gertrude Berg is a great role model. She is somebody who can still be looked up to, someone whose examples won’t become outdated. It makes me a bit sad that not many people know of her, because she is truly someone to admire. Even I, when I first started this project, thought that she wasn’t someone cool, just someone I needed to write about, another chore. Since learning more about her though, I’ve realized that just because her career ended decades before I was born doesn’t make her less cool than today’s superstars. In fact she’s better. Not only did she act in her show, but she did almost everything else too! As a Bat Mitzvah today, I believe that Berg is not only a role model, but a superhero. When she realized what she wanted to do with her life, she got up and did it. When the blacklist was published, she stood beside her friend despite the eventual consequences. Gertrude Berg is an inspiration to me.

A couple of years after her show ended, someone called the CBS president, and asked about Gertrude, and he didn’t even know who she was, despite her show having made his network much more popular. She may not be known now but her obscurity doesn’t matter, as she is known to me.