Jan Chats with Aviva Kempner about ‘Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg’

Jan Chats with Aviva Kempner about ‘Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg’

(First Posted in 2009)

Photo Credit: Kevin Clark. Courtesy of Aviva Kempner.

Jan Lisa Huttner: Aviva, in YOO HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG, you show Gertrude Berg living a groundbreaking professional life, but you say very little about her domestic life. Clearly “Molly” was, in part, the mother Berg wished she had had, but how much of “Molly” was also the mother she wished she could have been?

Aviva Kempner: Actually I never thought of it that way. For me, it was just always amazing that she developed the full character of a loving mother that she didn’t have. I’m trying to think if anyone talked about her feeling guilty. I know that she was very busy and not always there with her kids, but everyone talks about her bestowing gifts on the family, entertaining them, having them out to her country home.

She drew from her family, but as she said: “I’m more hours a day Molly than I am Gertrude.” It wasn’t always so easy. She would be moody. And I think it was very clear that she was a dictator on the set. I didn’t coat that over.

At home, she had full-time help, so let’s be clear that she didn’t have to run a home. As you know from the film, she published a cookbook, but she really didn’t know how to cook.

Jan So what are your personal feelings now about Gertrude Berg as a feminist role model?

Aviva I think it’s amazing what she was able to pull off every day. I mean just to be able to write so many scripts, I can’t imagine it! I wear three hats (writer, producer, and director), but she was also the star.

Jan So what do you think made “Molly” so beloved?

Aviva The “Molly Goldberg” character was crafted as very warm and compassionate and caring at a time where a lot of people were still living with extended families, at a time where a lot of people still had accents, and I think also at a time where, during the Depression, you needed the comfort and the wisdom that she projected.

One man, he just wasn’t good in his presentation, but he had an interesting observation that his father was anti-Semitic but he was sort of softened by watching The Goldbergs, that a lot of times people who are anti-Semitic don’t know who Jews are, and that this was a good way of portraying Jews on the screen. So it wasn’t just Jews listening.

I positioned moments in my film when I saw the letters that people wrote to Berg. The mail I saw in her papers was effusive. Maybe she had hate mail, but she certainly didn’t put it in her collection. Hopefully she threw it out.

On her radio show, she had a Kristallnacht scene, and she did a Passover show right after Hitler came to power. NPR reporter Susan Stamberg said: “I’m not even Jewish, but I was so moved by hearing that Passover ceremony.” And that was even a year before Hank Greenberg didn’t play on Yom Kippur [in 1934]. They were both such important cultural heroes at that time.

In THE LIFE & TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG, we use this line: “When America needed a hero, a Jewish slugger stepped to the plate.” I think you can also say: “When America needed a hero, a Jewish mother was there for you.”

July 3rd telephone interview conducted, condensed & edited by Jan Lisa Huttner.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (7/3/09)

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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