Our New Rebbitzen - Handsome and a Baptist!

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Remember Tillie Edelstein? Sure you do. You knew her as Gertrude Berg.

Born in 1899 and raised in Harlem she began her acting career during summers at her father’s Catskills hotel, “Fleischmann’s” creating shows for the guests’ children. She married Lewis Berg, an English born Jewish engineer, changed her first name to Gertrude, and a few years later began writing radio scripts. Her creation, “The Rise of the Goldbergs” enjoyed a 17-year run second only to “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

In 1949, Berg convinced CBS executives to broadcast “The Goldbergs” on television, TV’s first family sitcom.  She played the lead role, Molly Goldberg, the matriarch of a typical Jewish family.  Her TV audience was treated to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the Goldberg family and on one show the first Seder ever broadcast on TV. Molly dealt with all the issues a Jewish family of the day confronted, including a rock thrown through their window during the Seder, with intelligence and balance. A huge success, “The Goldbergs” was eventually canceled. It was but one of the victims of McCarthyism – the Communist scare that plagued the entertainment industry of the day.

An infamous moment in Ms. Berg’s otherwise sterling acting career occurred in her 1959 appearance on TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” when during her standup comedy routine Berg described her father's purchase of what he dubbed a “Hanukah bush” (actually a Christmas tree). The response from the Jewish community was loud and clear. She was condemned for mocking the Jewish People and Judaism. Not quite two decades after the close of World War II, most Jews of the day saw the Christmas tree as a symbol of a Christendom which was for the most part mute while the cattle cars of Germany rolled on transporting millions of Jews to their deaths in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. With the loss of a third of the world’s Jews, the display of a Christmas tree was an acceptance of assimilation gone awry – the completion of Hitler’s annihilation of the Jewish people. It left an indelible negative mark upon an otherwise amazingly successful, and in some ways, courageous career.

In 1965, The Commission on Synagogue Relations of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies held a conference on the topic of Intermarriage. One element of this conference was the following:

“Intermarriage: From a Religio-Ethnic Perspective”
By Mordecai M. Kaplan and Herschel Schacter

Intermarriage is a threat to Jewish continuity, an ailment that should be treated “pathologically.” Since a person’s religio-ethnic group is the source of his values, intramarriage is more likely to be successful than intermarriage. Therefore, desegregation of Jews and acceptance of citizenship is one of the ultimate causes for increased intermarriage. It weakens the Jew’s possibility to embrace his Jewish heritage. Jewry must be directed to life of organic Jewish communities. A following discussion of this matter emphasizes the fact that today the question “Who is a Jew” is not sufficient. The question “Why to be a Jew?” must be answered as well, through its aspects and implications on modern Jewry. Through the discussion, some tensions were revealed between Reconstructionist and Orthodox approaches to Judaism. [Taken From “Conference on Intermarriage”, pages 1 through 26]

I am reminded of these tidbits from Jewish history, when considering the recent decision of the Reconstructionist movement to accept rabbinical students who are in relationship with non-Jews. “Today’s announcement is a decision by our faculty about what should or should not hold someone back from becoming a rabbi,” said Reconstructionist Rabbinical College President Deborah Waxman, of the faculty’s vote, which was announced on September 30th. “Our deliberations, heavily influenced through consultation with alumni, congregations and students, have simultaneously led us to reaffirm that all rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal and family lives,” said Waxman. “We witness Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrating these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.” 

One wonders what happened to the discussion topic addressed by the progenitor of their movement, Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, voiced in 1965 that “Intermarriage is a threat to Jewish continuity, an ailment that should be treated ‘pathologically?’” It appears that not only was Gertrude Berg the pioneer of television sitcoms, she as well, through the medium of comedy was a virtual prophet preparing the world for the future when Rabbis and their handsome Baptist Rebbitzens will display a Christmas tree, not a euphemistic “Hanukah bush” in their homes for the 25th of December.

Is this what Dr. Kaplan meant when he stated, “A religion came to mean to me the sum of those habits and values, which give a people the will to live in common, to perpetuate itself and to make the best use of its collective life…?” I don’t believe so.

Perhaps the answer may be found in President Waxman’s own words, “Our deliberations, heavily influenced through consultation with alumni, congregations and students...” says it all. The “pathological” behavioral disease of but a few years ago, is now to be treated by acceptance, in spite of the fact that it has now reached epidemic proportions. The doctor looks to the patient for the answer to the patient’s terminal disease. I think it is not too far-fetched to foresee the prognosis of this approach as nothing less than the eventual demise of the patient.

I know what people are going to say. There goes the Orthodox Rabbi, again unwilling to accept the pluralism that is essential in Jewish life today. My response to this accusation is that I am, as a proud Jew, inherently committed to JEWISH LIFE. I understand the patient does not, on his own volition, provide the methodology for the cure. He seeks the guidance and aid of the doctor, in this instance the doctor of divinity, the Rabbi, in understanding the depth of knowledge and moral guidance provided by the timeless message of our G‑d given prescription for life, the panacea for all our spiritual maladies, the Torah. He spiritually ingests this prescription guided by the dosage prescribed, the insights and direction of his spiritual healer – the Rabbi.

Molly Goldberg, standing by the stove preparing breakfast for her brood would turn to the table and ask her husband, the question of the day, “Nu, Jake, should I poach you or fry you?” Of course she was referring to his eggs. Today, ironically, given the recent decision of the Reconstructionist movement, we are faced with a far more serious question. Shall we see assimilation in its extreme form, the ever increasing rate of intermarriage among American Jews, as the future or death knell for American Jewry? Tragically, unlike the Reconstructionist movement, my answer is the latter.