Jews in Television: 1970s & 1980s

From Mary Tyler Moore to Jackie Mason.

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Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The 1970s witnessed a substantial increase in ethnic shows on the air, especially those dealing with African Americans, a response to the more tolerant social climate of the period and the growing ethnic pride movement. By 1975, more than half of the top twenty shows involved major characters who were members of recognizable minority or ethnic groups–e,g, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Chico and the Man, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, and Rhoda, which had a Jewish character in a leading role.

In 1974-75, the peak year of this ethnic celebration, six out of the seven top television shows had leading minority characters. From “virtually denying minorities representation on the air” television thus moved to a “seeming obsession” with them. The extraordinary success of the 1977 miniseries Roots, which followed an African-American family from slavery to the present, perfectly captured the public’s desire for programming that reveled in ethnic heritage; the next year came the miniseries Holocaust, which similarly attracted huge interest both in the United States and abroad. 

valerie harper

Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern on
The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Photo courtesy of Maggiejumps.

The first program to portray the massive horrors of the Holocaust, the show not only opened up the devastation of the Shoah to full public scrutiny but, in the words of Jonathan and Judith Pearl, “cemented the permission for Jews to be fully Jewish both on screen and off.”

Rhoda Morgenstern

In terms of comedy, the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, heralded another milestone for Jews, marking the first appearance of a Jewish woman in a leading role, post-Molly Goldberg. This was Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s wisecracking loyal best friend, played by Valerie Harper. Vivacious, gutsy, and proud of being Jewish (if neurotically obsessed with her weight, appearance, and men), Rhoda fought against the constraints of her situation whether her self-perceived unattractiveness, her envy of Mary’s perkiness, or the meddling of her parents, who wanted her married off.

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Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.

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