The Unforgettable Jewish World of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

Alex Borstein (Susie), Rachel Brosnahan (Miriam 'Midge' Maisel)

On a warm Friday in April, I found myself retracing the steps of the “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

For six years, the Amazon Studios show, inspired by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Jewish father, an aspiring comedian, has been transporting us to 1950s and 1960s New York through the funny and bright Midge Maisel. Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge has taken us to diners and shuls, department stores and busy streets, seedy nightclubs and opulent theater stages. It has been an unparalleled journey, and this week, it is coming to a close, with the final episode of the series airing on May 26.

And so, as the final season premiered, I decided to make that journey a literal one, and signed up to attend an (unofficial!) “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” tour of New York City through the On Location Company. Actress Katherine Winter, who has appeared in three seasons of the show, including as a TWA stewardess in this last season, channels Midge in fashion — with gorgeous heels, stylish curls and ’50s outfit — and in exuberance, rattling on fabulous facts about the show, from its commitment to timely wardrobe down to the undergarments, to its exacting vision and delightful trivia.

Winter took me and roughly a dozen other tour participants to Cafe Reggio, where cappuccino first landed on these shores, Abe Weissman meets with his lawyer, and where, incidentally, I had my first date with my husband. She brought us into the tiny and charming Albanese Meat and Poultry Shop, called Lutzi’s Butcher Shop in the show, where Midge finds out they “got the rabbi.” And we stopped in the exterior of the Up & Up Bar, where the Gaslight Cafe was located.

As I followed the steps of this show, I tried to think of what it would mean to actually be in Mrs. Maisel’s New York. I spent over a decade living in this city and walking its streets, but this tour, this show, has made me see it in a new light, finding fragments of living history embedded in its streets. Still, as meticulously constructed as Midge Maisel’s New York is, with the perfect hair, wool underwear and well-chosen locations, I’m not sure that it’s a New York that’s ever existed.

The Sherman-Palladinos create fantastical worlds inside real history. That’s partly because the cadence of their shows, including “Bunheads” and “Gilmore Girls” before “Maisel,” has a fast-paced dialogue that feels like its own special language. Their shows are so meticulous, so beautiful, on such another level of craft, especially “Mrs. Maisel,” that nothing and nobody feels quite real; they’re almost fairytale like. The griminess of the streets is taken over by glamour. The cramped clubs and cafes feel roomy. Winter explains how even the foods offered to actors and crew on set are topical: The actress recalls noshing on brisket while filming at Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center, where the synagogue scenes were shot.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has been marvelous TV, and it ends as a marvel. The fifth and last season is, hands down, the best season of the show. It’s a masterclass from the cast and crew, who take us traveling through the future (and past) with these characters. We see a future Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) as a successful agent; Midge as a legendary comedian; Joel (Michael Zegen), Midge’s ex-husband who started out as a villain, becoming one of the show’s most beloved characters. Everyone gets an ending deserving and reverent. Abe finally understands what it means to be a supportive father to daughters — which helps him redeem himself with his granddaughter. Rose gets her triumphant ending. Even Shirley Maisel finds the future that she deserves.

Despite the fact that the finale airs on Shavuot, the Jewish holiday where we celebrate receiving the 10 commandments by eating loads of dairy, there is not a single cheesy thing about this show — to the very end, it manages to avoid anything easy, obvious or overly schmaltzy.

I don’t think we can bid farewell to “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” without addressing the controversy over some of its casting that has been a major talking point on the internet for as long as it’s been on air. Yes, Rachel Brosnahan is not Jewish. But after five seasons, I think she has proven, without a doubt, that there is no better person for the role of Midge. I have enjoyed every millisecond of her on screen.

The show also finally addresses another main point of contention against it. Over the years, people have been upset about Midge Maisel’s parenting — which has seemed often distant or non-existent — and in this final season, we see how that has affected her relationship with her kids. We fast-forward to her daughter Esther in the 1980s, played by Alexandra Socha, who is brilliant like her grandfather, but also scarred by her mother’s constant criticism and lack of acceptance and consideration. Then there’s Ethan, Midge’s son, who in his adult life escaped to Israel and the arms of another fierce Jewish woman who does not like Midge one bit. Still, they go to synagogue with their mother, and answer her (4 a.m.) phone calls.

It’s clear that, despite being so career-focused, Midge is invested, in her own way, in being a mother, as she tries to solve Ethan’s sleep troubles or drama with the kids’ teacher. I do think her parenting is emblematic of many mothers in the 1950s and ’60s, where the emotional wellbeing of children wasn’t quite so focused on in the way of today’s gentle and permissive parenting styles.

In the end, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” doesn’t leave us with any amazing pictures of Jewish motherhood. But what the show has given us in Midge is a strong Jewish woman not defined by her domestic role or love life.

As a Jewish woman, it’s hard for me to see myself in Midge — or Susie, or Rose, or Shirley — even if they make me laugh and cry. But I don’t see them leaving me anytime soon.

Similar to “Gilmore Girls,” I do believe “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will have a staying, ritualistic power. I can see myself watching this show over and over again, taking comfort in Midge’s bright dresses and bright tone, in Susie Myerson, forever my complex, butch, queer heroine, in Rose, so much bigger than the role fate has assigned to her, in the quirkiness of Abe Weissman, the growth of Joel, in Moishe and Shirley, quite and not quite Jewish caricatures that you do, inadvertently, fall in love with.

I can see myself sharing with my children, one day, the beauty of Sherman-Palladino’s idyllic Jewish New York — one untouched by antisemitism and inner Jewish conflict. One that gives us a wide breadth of representation. One that I am already looking forward to revisiting, very soon.

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