From 1929 to 1956, radio and TV character Molly Goldberg—a cross between Maude, Madea, and June Cleaver—presided over her fictional immigrant family with such warmth and insight that she became one of the most popular people in America. At a time when Jews were commonly portrayed in the media as thick-accented exotics (and at a time when anti-Semitism was sweeping the globe), The Goldbergs depicted a Jewish family as ordinary Americans, set apart from the vast majority of their listening and viewing audience only by a few religious ceremonies. Goldbergs star Gertrude Berg guided her show from radio to stage to television, serving as a producer and head writer, and incidentally creating the model for the family sitcom while advancing her own social agenda.
Aviva Kempner’s documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg traces the story of Berg and The Goldbergs, showing how both helped comfort the country during the Great Depression, before getting mired in the red-baiting politics of the ’50s. Kempner presents testimonials from famous folk like Norman Lear and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, between a few of the surviving fragments of Goldbergs video and audio. Yet unlike Kempner’s previous documentary, The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg, her latest has too much “life” and not enough “times.” Kempner tells the story too straight, jumping from point to point without taking enough time to consider the atmosphere and implications surrounding Berg’s work. Interviewees mention in passing how Berg was a harsh boss, and how the show cautiously broached the subject of the Holocaust, and how some more assimilated Jews considered even the tame version of their culture presented on The Goldbergs to be too broad and stereotypical. Any of these threads could’ve been followed a little further, to more fully explore the era’s mindset.
Or even better: Kempner could’ve delved more into why The Goldbergs is so little-known now, when judging by the footage in his film, it was a show as good as anything from TV’s golden age. Listening to Berg’s characters talk so naturally, honestly, and colorfully about the small, surmountable problems of their daily life is so engaging that whenever Kempner cuts away to another dry historian or fervent fan, it’s doubly aggravating. All the yoo-hooing becomes an unnecessary distraction.