I always had a soft spot for the comedian Anne Meara, in large part because she looked a lot like my mother, of blessed memory. Similar cheek bones, the wide smile, a deep dimple in her left cheek. My mother was usually there, too, on her side of the striped love seat, when we’d watch Meara and her comedy partner and husband Jerry Stiller on a talk or variety show in the 1960s and ’70s — Carson, or Mike Douglas, or Ed Sullivan (where the pair was said to have performed 36 times).
So it felt sort of personal when Meara died last week at age 85, leaving behind Jerry, their son (the actor and director Ben Stiller), and a daughter, Amy. It made me think about my mom, and my childhood, and a Jewish moment, fascinating to me, when the parochial interests of Jews were very much part of the general pop culture (a thought, I promise you, that hadn’t occurred to me when I was 11).
Stiller and Meara, like Nichols and May, had a wonderful comic rhythm which drew on their real-life marriage and demeanor. Meara, tall and redheaded, was raised an Irish Catholic on Long Island; Stiller, short and hirsute, was an unmistakable Jew born in New York City. Their best-known characters were Mary Elizabeth Doyle and Hershey Horowitz (“my friends call me ‘Hesh’”), a mismatched pair of lovers.
Like Abie’s Irish Rose in the 1920s and Bridget Loves Bernie in the early ’70s, they made comedy out of their interfaith romance. In a typical (and prescient) skit, the two are brought together by an “infallible” computer dating service. There are no “jokes” per se, just the sight and attitudes of two awkward strangers repeating their last names. On an old clip from the Sullivan show, it’s a little surprising and thrilling to hear the laughter that greets these exchanges. The audience is completely in on the joke, understanding the huge gaps these two will have to bridge if their romance has any chance.
Intermarriage was still fairly rare, at least among Jews, but the taboos on both sides were already softening. Stiller and Meara scandalized Jewish traditionalists, who felt their routines essentially condoned interfaith marriage. At the same time, they titillated liberals, who understood that intermarriage was a sign that Jews were being accepted by the gentile majority.
Stiller and Meara had fun with their Romeo-and-Juliet story, and won over audiences to the idea of star-crossed lovers by the sheer force of their charm. But they were always aware of the tensions — hell, they lived them (at least before Meara converted to Judaism in the early ’60s). Jewish mothers supposedly liked to warn their children that their non-Jewish partners would inevitably reveal themselves as anti-Semites. In their “I hate you” routine, Meara calls Stiller a “matza head” and he calls her a “shillelagh shiksa.” They go on to one-up each other with the intensity of their mutual loathing.
Mary and Hershey became everyone’s favorite interfaith couple in part because Meara upended stereotypes of what Menachem Kaiser calls the “shiksa-seductress” (or, as Roth’s Alexander Portnoy asked of such archetypes, “How do they get so gorgeous, so healthy, so blonde?”). Meara wasn’t a temptress, but the girl next door — a good Catholic who happens to be attracted to a diminutive Jew.
We are conditioned to think of interfaith marriage as a challenge, and I am of the camp that believes that the high rates of intermarriage signal a general erosion of Jewish life, both in sheer numbers and in the seriousness with which individual families inhabit their Judaism. I am respectful of the transitionalists who feel interfaith families represent an opportunity, not a problem; of the communities that are pioneering creative programming to attract the intermarried; and of the individual families who are embracing their Jewish identities and the new possibilities for Jewish engagement. But still, I worry — that Jewish literacy is in decline, that liberal Jewish institutions are in retreat, and that, as open-minded Jews marry out, the Jewish difference will be sustained only by those making the most insular and least inclusive choices.
And yet for all that, I find myself weirdly nostalgic for Stiller and Meara’s heyday, when a major comedy duo could joke about interfaith marriage and a large national audience could find it cute and funny, not threatening. The American Jewish community was still secure in the knowledge that it could survive assimilation. And, let’s face it, their version of interfaith harmony put them on the side of the angels, and the traditionalists on the wrong side of history — in the post-civil rights era, after all, who wanted to be seen as opposing diversity? I like to joke that American Jews are the only group that roots against Romeo and Juliet getting together.
I’ll leave the last word to my mother, who also shared with Meara a wicked sense of humor. In 1972 we were dropping my older brother off for his freshman year at college, and a beautiful Asian student crossed the street in front of our car. “What would you think if I brought home an Asian girl?” asked my brother. “As long as she’s Jewish,” my mother deadpanned.