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The artificial Jewess

70s TV sit-com Jews like the mother of 'Rhoda' were brash, subversive, hilarious -- and often played by non-Jews

“I love the boogie ‘cause it tickles my spine,” she sang. “I love the boogie ‘cause it’s fresh and it’s fine. Just like a cigarette with modern design…”

Best Foot Forward (1943), MGM

A long time ago, and for a long time, this woman was my hero. Her name is Nancy Walker. She’s an artificial Jewess.

The artificial Jewess is at home in America, where Jews play Italians in mafia flicks and Italians impersonate Jews in shows about late-sixties Long Island.

But Nancy was one of the first.

She was the daughter of a vaudevillian and, like her acrobat dad, stood four-feet-eleven. She wasn’t what you’d call pretty, but maybe you’d say she had cheyn.

She sort of seems Jewish. At one time, the press asked if she was – but no, not that she knew of.

And yet: if you remember Nancy Walker, it’s probably in the role of Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970s)

(By the way, Rhoda, Valerie Harper, comes from a Catholic-Methodist home. Her biggest recent role was as Golda Meir. Artificial Jewesses proliferate.)

Fine, but what does it mean to seem Jewish? And why would someone from way outside, like me, dare to comment?

Because, though I live elsewhere now, I’m glad to come from a culture so run through with Jewish tropes and virtues that even non-Jews convey them with zest.

I’m glad someone like Nancy Walker showed me what a ganef and a bren and a kokhlefl are – even deep in my Wisconsin childhood, before I had ever heard those words.

It’s mostly about subversion. Healthy sabotage. That’s what this woman showed me.

I was born too late for Mary Tyler Moore, but right on time for the golden age of home video. In my pious Catholic home circa 1991, PG-rated videos were decadent. The sure thing was to ask Dad to rent a G. Movies like “Swiss Family Robinson” got old fast, and what was left? Old Technicolor schmaltz.

And so it was that I and my seven siblings memorized the MGM musical catalog. That’s where I met Nancy.

Here she is in the midst of a gentle gentile reverie of a movie, “Best Foot Forward” – made in wartime and set in a military boarding school like Riverside or the Citadel. All the girls are in white chiffon; the lads in striped trousers. Nancy’s foil is the superblonde June Allyson, later of diaper-ad fame.


And on this wonderful Wonderbread background our artificial Jewess shines.

“We’ve never met, we’ve never seen each other. But my instinct tells me that you’re young and gay and beautiful,” says her dance partner. We see only her hair. “Thanks, Bub,” says she, turning her face to camera. She is the joke.

But the joke’s on them.

Is transgression not a Jewish hallmark — a virtue for Pesach-time?

In Best Foot Forward, our stand-in for Jewishness smears social boundaries and even mocks the racial regime of her time, singing as she does of the glories of the Barrelhouse, Boogie and Blues (black music) over Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (the old white masters).

On the Town (1944)

A few years later, as an original cast member of Bernstein’s On the Town, she did the same thing to sex roles as Hildy Esterhazy, a cabdriver who cooks.

She sang her number this way; in 2014, Alysha Umphress revised it like this. (Alysha Umphress, by the way, launched the new-wave cabaret bauble “I Could Be Jewish For You” — right on the nose.)

* * *

This time of year, we Easter-fresh monks sing a sixth-century Ambrosian hymn at vespers: Ad cenam Agni providi, et stolis albis candidi, post transitum maris Rubri Christo canamus principi. “The Lamb’s high banquet we await in snow-white robes of royal state: and now, the Red Sea’s channel past, to Christ our Prince we sing at last.”

Neat, huh? Notice the crossing motif.

Sometimes people need to get out, cross over, and get on to get to God. Jews taught me that. Nancy provided illustrations.

* * *

Nancy Walker was not Jewish. But she embodies glorious Jewish qualities. As a monk who sometimes adopts Yiddish diction in these blogs, I’m fine with that.

Not sure how you feel, though.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.