Culture, Mishegas, Sex & Gender

A Celebration of Rhoda

With all the recent talk about sexy Jews and women’s rights, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate Rhoda.

Rhoda Morgenstern began life as the quirky (read: Jewish, New Yorker) second-banana best friend to WASP princess Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore show. Mary was spunky and looked smart in pants suits. Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper, was funny and looked sexy in kaftans. And audiences couldn’t get enough of her.
Six episodes into the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Nancy Walker guest-starred as Rhoda’s mother, Ida Morgenstern, and history was made.

Walker’s portrayal of Ida should make us cringe and cry foul at the stereotypes of Jewish motherhood on display. (Perhaps even more so since neither Walker nor Harper are Jewish, something I learned from this excellent article on Jewish womanhood on television from Jewish Women’s Archive.) But Walker and Harper explode the stereotype by foregrounding the intense love these two women feel for each other. Through Rhoda and Ida’s relationship, we really see that the nagging and the pressure and the performance of adversarial behavior is often just that — a performance that belies the deep care and connection these two share.
After four years as Mary’s second banana (and many guest appearances by her mother), Rhoda got her own show. The funny Jewish girl was suddenly a leading lady. And unlike the unlucky-in-love role she played on Mary’s show, Rhoda quickly fell in love and [SPOILER ALERT] got hitched before the end of the second disc… oh, did I forget to mention that season one of Rhoda is now available on DVD? It makes a great Hanukkah gift.
Can’t wait for Hanukkah? Season one is now streaming for free on Hulu. (However, the [SPOILER ALERT] honeymoon episode isn’t available on Hulu for something to do with rights that eludes me.) I understand that in later seasons both Rhoda and Ida’s lives fall apart a little bit, but those aren’t available to watch right now anyway. So in the meantime, relish this chance to watch a Jewish family catch some good breaks. If you like classic sitcoms, if you’re interested in the portrayals of Jews in popular culture, or you are simply looking to kill a half hour with some laughter, do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Rhoda. You can thank me later.

Oh, and a special PS to BZ and any other Simpsons fans out there – Rhoda’s little sister is played by Julie Kavner, the voice behind Marge Simpson, and as someone who’s grown up associating that voice with a very particular character, it’s a real trip to hear it (albeit much younger) coming out of a real live person!

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