Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

The secret Jewish life of Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore Credit: Vulture.com

No, Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at the age of 80, was not Jewish.

True: her husband, Dr. Robert Levine, is Jewish. In terms of her personal life, that seems to be all.

But, in at least one role, she played a character who, in real life, would have been Jewish.

I am talking about her role as Laura Petrie, wife of Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

The word “Jewish” was rarely, if ever, uttered. And yet, according to David Zurawik in The Jews of Prime Time: “The Dick Van Dyke Show was a Jewish show.”

Really?

In fact, The Dick Van Dyke show had started its screen life as “Head of the Family.” Carl Reiner was to have played Rob Petrie.

But, typical for television at that time, the show was deemed “too Jewish.” They had to recruit the thoroughly gentile Dick Van Dyke to play a television writer for the elusive Alan Brady, who was played by Carl Reiner.

In fact, Rob Petrie was Carl Reiner – even down to the New Rochelle, New York address.

The Petries lived at 448 Bonnie Meadow Road, and the Reiners lived at 48 Bonnie Meadow Road.

In the words of Oscar Katz, former head of programming for CBS: “They de-Jewishized it, midwesternized it and put Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in the leads.”

But, no one was fooled. The show remained “Jewish,” at least in a Marrano underground Jewish kind of way.

Consider Morey Amsterdam, who played the eternally wise-cracking Buddy Sorrell. He was certainly Jewish. So was his wife, Pickles. After the second season of the show, she was banished off screen, where she was never seen nor heard from again.

(I am sure that someone has written a dissertation: “Unseen, Unheard: Pickles Sorrell As A Metaphor for Traditional Jewish Women.”)

In one episode, “Buddy Sorrell – Man And Boy,” Buddy laments the fact that he had never celebrated becoming bar mitzvah when he was a young adolescent, and so he furtively studies with a rabbi in order to have a belated coming of age ceremony.

What makes this particular episode historically significant? It appeared in the early 1960s – when Judaism and Jewishness were practically invisible in American popular culture.

So, yes – the “real” Laura Petrie would have been married to Carl Reiner. She would have been the wife of a Jewish television writer.

There was a second Jewish aspect to Mary Tyler Moore’s career.

It happened on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which begat (using biblical terms, now) “Lou Grant.”

Mary’s best friend was Rhoda Morgenstern, played by Valerie Harper, and that friendship would ultimately spawn its own spinoff, “Rhoda.”

Rhoda was, of course, Jewish – and while that fact was never emphasized on the show, it did become the focus of one particular episode. Believe it or not, it is an episode that had seared itself into my memory.

It was the episode: “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda.”

A friend invites Mary to play tennis at a country club. She asks Mary if she has any friends who might want to join them to make a foursome. Mary suggests Rhoda. The woman hesitates, and it becomes clear to Mary that the woman does not want to include Rhoda because she is Jewish. Mary shows her the door.

What made this episode of an otherwise trivial show so memorable? Because it dealt with anti-Semitism – and during the 1970s, that was a theme that the television networks simply did not want to touch.

I will miss Mary Tyler Moore. Her characters took her from the wifey, often on the brink of tears Laura Petrie, to the independent woman who “could turn the world on with her smile,” and would then throw her beret into the air.

But my favorite Mary Tyler Moore moment?

There is no contest.

It was the episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in which Chuckles, the clown, is killed. He had been dressed as a peanut, and a nearsighted elephant “shelled” him.

No one who saw that episode will ever forget it, because it was one of television comedy’s most iconic moments. It is Chuckles’ funeral, and Mary is trying very hard to keep a straight face.

That is, until the priest quotes one of Chuckle’s favorite lines: “A little song, a little dance, a squirt of seltzer down your pants.”

And with that, Mary loses it.

Right about now, I am hoping that Mary Tyler Moore and Chuckles are laughing in heaven.

Especially in the days after the women’s marches in various cities of our nation.

They were saying, in essence: No, we will never be Pickles. We will never be invisible. We will never be silent.

They were throwing their metaphorical berets into the air.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

34 Comments

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  • But both Laura Petrie and Mary Tyler Moore were self-confessed Protestants. Laura made at least referred to “the minister at our church” in one episode, and Mary Richards disclosed her Presbyterianism in the first episode.

  • Is there a Jewish influence on both TV series? Sure, no doubt about it. Is using a headline “The Secret Jewish Life of Mary Tyler Moore” appropriate? No, it is not. That is definitely a stretch that is more fanciful than accurate. A more accurate headline might have been “Jewish Influences on the TV Series of Mary Tyler Moore.”

  • Growing up liberal and Mormon, the Dick Van Dyke Show was a family favorite in my home. This article simply affirms that my parents used the light-hearted viewing of that show to reinforce the socially liberal sensibilities of their own views in us, their kids. Even though I abandoned liberalism as a young adult in a vain effort to feel more “Mormon,” I eventually realized that doing so was simply too much of a personal sacrifice. Belief in God notwithstanding, I am at heart socially liberal, and viewing that show back then was simply part of my ethical and religious upbringing. Nowadays, I don’t attend church, and keep my religious values private, but fully embrace that long-neglected liberalism as if we had never been estranged.

  • By all accounts, the Mary Tyler Moore who did political ads for President Carter in the 1980 campaign had moved away from the Democratic activist camp quite a while ago. MTM has been quoted as saying she did not share a lot of Gloria Steinem’s views, and would have assisted in the 2008 McCain campaign had she been asked to do so.
    Mary might well have marched in those recent demonstrations, but she certainly would have avoided the profanity and veiled threats of violence that came from a few of the speakers.
    MTM was a feminist on her own terms, and in her own way. She showed compassion, for example, raising substantial money for juvenile diabetes. That sort of compassion is, in fact, present in nearly the entire political spectrum, left and right.

  • Here in Minnesota we’re mourning MTM as one of our own. Her tv show was based in Minneapolis and exterior shots, especially the shows open and close, were filmed here. MTM came to Minnesota for a couple occasions honoring her. The last was 2005 when her hat tossing statue was unveiled on the downtown sidewalk where it was filmed. It’s still a favorite Minnesota spot which has been visited often since her death with some leaving flowers. (At the moment the street is being renovated so the statue is easily accessible in a nearby building.)The same is true of the mansion that housed her 3rd floor apartment.

    MTM is credited as a role model and inspiration for Oprah Winfrey, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and many other women. It wasn’t only her role as Mary Richard’s, but also the MTM production company whose output included Hill Street Blues and other popular tv shows.

    MTM was a remarkable women and I’m sad to see her go. Damn.

  • Give it a break … stop making it about you and your religion. It’s about the woman who died.

    I look forward to the day when there will be one tv series that doesn’t have a jewish reference.

  • In addition to being a beloved actress, Mary Tyler Moore and her husband at the time Grant Tinker were prolific television producers under the company “MTM Enterprises”. They produced some of the most memorable television of the late 70’s and 80’s. (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, WKRP in Cincinnati, Remington Steele…)

  • Why? What’s wrong with a Jewish reference, or a Christian reference, or a Muslim, Sikh or agnostic reference? If you don’t like to read a Jewish point of view, don’t read the series of articles.

  • I just read, and I am not sure of its accuracy, that Ed Asner had a distancing from Mary Tyler Moore in the last several years as MTM became more of a libertarian, and supported some Republicans, whereas decades ago she supported Democrats.

    Don’t distance yourself from your friends because of politics. Terrible idea, even if the Asner report is false.

  • The article is trying to make a jew out of MTM … she was a Christian. Why write this stupid article other than inject another jewish theme.

    BTW … nothing anti-semite about objecting to stupid articles.

  • What about Baptist concerns? Methodist concerns? RC concerns? Frankly I am sick and tired of every tv program and every movie having jewish concerns.

  • Sunshine,. I got your point loud and clear. And so did the editors of Disqus, who deleted your original comment.

  • Hey it’s what I expect of pansy assed liberals. Nothing worse than a liberal who calls themselves a Christian.

  • I generally agree with you. However, the trump reign is something we have not seen before. I voted against Trump, and have friends who voted for him, but if they agreed with his horrific anti-Moslem, Mexican, ‘grab her pussy’ statements, they would no longer be my friends.

  • They don’t ALL have a ‘Jewish POV’, as you say. You are not seeing the TV shows that don’t have this. How sad for you.

  • I guess it didn’t occur to you that your posting was offensive, Sunshine. Much easier to blame others, isn’t it?

  • Unfortunately, Liberalism often includes:

    *looking the other way on safe space free speech repression
    *silence, if not down right support for preventing conservatives or even right wing radicals from speaking on college campuses
    *treating people who have concerns about affirmative action as racists
    *support of race card phonies like Al Sharpton
    *characterizing even the slightest limitations on late term elective abortion as a war on women
    *supporting Donald Trump accusers of improper sexual advances while maligning/destroying the same type of accusations against Bill Clinton
    *demanding Gingrich return his book advance while letting Hillary Clinton keep her book advance

    Partial list. None of the critical list above list endorses right wing nuts, but thou hath not looked inward very well, ex Mormon.

  • “None of the critical list above list endorses right wing nuts, but thou hath not looked inward very well, ex Mormon.”
    False judgment of others and other forms of religious bigotry top my list of “Thou shalt Nots.” Your list and assertions only serve as a confession without repentance of that very worst sin of sins in my book. So, “physician, heal thyself.”

  • Each bullet point refers to false judgment of others done by quite a few on the left. They practice their own type of judgment, which is their particular litmus test on key issues, and one must not veer from their view, or face harsh judgment. You refuted nothing on my bullet list. You simply called me a bigot, which is rather judgmental, it would seem.

  • Your own words label you as a bigot. I just don’t shy away from confirming what you say about yourself in other words. When some on the left make blanket statements about conservatives, it borders on bigotry, absolutely. If a person condemns wrong actions without judging the net worth of the person in error, that is not bigotry. Telling another person that you think they are behaving badly is simply expressing viewpoint. It’s when you imply they have no human worth because of it that you cross the line as so many on the right do when convinced other people are going to hell.

    There is a fine line between being articulately observant and just being a bigoted, self-appointed judge of others. That is the actual reasoning behind the much quoted mantra of social conservatives, “love the sinner, not the sin.” The trouble is that social conservatives want to practice very conditional “love” toward those they perceive as “sinners,” and what they offer as that love is really a form of persecution and torture, akin to those of the Inquisition: “Confess and we will let you live in misery for the rest of your unworthy days.”

    The evidence for such a blanket assertion on my part is simple. Social conservatives want to limit other people’s access to everything and anything they consider “harmful,” even if such things cause no harm to society and give the perceived sinner some actual personal peace and happiness. That is why just such a person as Kim Davis feels called of God to refuse to do her sworn legal duty to provide marriage licenses to LGBT couples. Her core bigotry cannot just let people she has personally condemned as sinners go live their lives as they see fit. She feels compelled to prevent them from living as they see fit for themselves because she sees what they do as sin and sin is far worse than criminal behavior to her, so she willing and self-righteously breaks the law to “save” them from themselves by refusing to do her sworn job. That is what makes her the bigot that she is.

  • Lots of blanket statements you made about social conservatives without even qualifying the statements. You don’t even know what my philosophy is.

    You rush to a judgment because I express the opinion on the intolerance of many on the left. Your statements against me as a bigot represent the classic if you are not with me you are against me intolerance I mentioned in my bullet points.

    Since you could not refute my bullet points in the slightest, you practiced the art of changing the subject to Kim Davis, and stereotyping social conservatives. Your intellectually lazy, talking points attempt to connect me to social conservatives because I criticized many liberals, is classic bait and switch. When you don’t have a point, you change the subject.

    You allegedly oppose judgments, and you then launch them like a toddler plagued by diaper rash.

    Your childish change of subject surely points in the direction of a double standard on the issue of judgment.

    Your baloney just hit my slicer.

  • “You rush to a judgment…”
    “…you could not refute my bullet points…”
    “…you practiced the art of changing the subject…”
    “Your intellectually lazy, talking point attempt…”
    “…classic bait and switch…”
    “You allegedly oppose judgment…”
    “…launch into them like a toddler plague by diaper rash…”
    “Your childish change of subject…”
    “…double standard…”
    “Your baloney…”

    All of your “criticisms” amount to very personal attacks against my character. I have not said any such thing to you about you. You are the one who, in fact, is having the tantrum, based solely on your choice of words and expressions. Furthermore, you suffer from the classic error of most bigots in believing that you get to set the agenda and control the topic and content up for discussion. I have the right to respond to and/or ignore any part of what you post at my sole discretion. All that you can know or have a right to know when I ignore some point you wish to make is that I did not find it interesting enough to respond to. The only reason we are still talking is that you react like a salted slug to each and every response I post. Watching you writhe in the foam of your own words is sort of fun I am sorry to admit.

  • You complain about personal attacks, when you started by characterizing me as a bigot. That simply helped make my point about intolerance from many activists, in this case, intolerance coming from the left.

    The need for you to tell me you are having fun is an indication I have drawn blood. Your cherry picking of things to which you want to respond, and what you want to avoid answering, just another example that I have hit close, or right on, a nerve.

    Poor boy can dish it out but cannot take it.

    Fire away, intolerant one.

  • You keep missing the point that your attacks are silly, pouty nonsense to me. I note them, even cataloged some just to point out to you just how harsh of invective you inject into your speech. I have remained entirely civil in pointing out that you simply cannot be civil to any measurable degree. Your efforts to insult as a debate tactic just get in the way of finding a reason to debate. I think we are done here. It’s getting boring to fend off your weak attacks without any substance behind them.

  • Delighted to end it, but you don’t seem to recognize that calling someone a bigot, as you did, is clearly a silly attack/insult, and totally without substance. If that is remaining civil, we are using two different dictionaries.

    Over and out.

  • So, your insistence that you long for the day when there is no Jewish part in a tv show or movie doesn’t make you anti-Semitic? Isn’t that the very meaning of anti-Semitism–“against (anti) Jewish (Semitic) referents in tv and movies.”?

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