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Five decades after first airing, we can see hints of menschlichkeit, as well as ideas to inspire us to press for change

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Mary Tyler Moore (pictured here with Betty White) never joined the feminist movement while still forwarding the women’s movement in a myriad of ways.

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This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the pilot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a television show that introduced Jewish humor – and values – to a world that, coming out of the ‘60s, was navigating changing women’s roles.

For many boomers, especially women, that show was influential. Many Jewish girls found a role model in Mary Richards’ Jewish BFF, Rhoda Morgenstern, a wickedly funny, brash New Yorker played by Valerie Harper. And that show, otherwise, was a vehicle for life lessons, a fact touted in the just-published Love is All Around and Other Lessons We’ve Learned from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, written by Paula Bernstein.

The Mary Tyler Moore show was a morality play – a project that would pave the way for the women’s movement, providing visions of progress. Women could be trailblazing and conforming, break conventions, while simultaneously towing the line in a polite way.

The writers of that show, a handful of funny Jews, would teach menschlichkeit (human decency and kindness) to a generation of young feminists. Women, after all, didn’t need to wear ridiculous hats or throw ourselves against the doors of the Supreme Court. Mary showed us we could be pioneers in our professional lives. We could show deference for the very institutions we pressed to change. We could be purveyors of grace and dignity. All this, while forwarding a movement whose time had come.

Might I take you back to a line from the Hebrew Bible? Genesis 1:16 reads, “And G-d made the two great lights, the great light to rule by day and the small light to rule by night.” Initially, the sun and the moon are described as equal in greatness whereas in the next line, the moon, now small, has been diminished. According to the Talmud, this very specific wording suggests that the light of the moon was dimmed. She became a mere reflector of the sun’s light. The sun, though, retained its radiance.

Interestingly, this regression is alluded to in prayers which Orthodox Jews recite when sanctifying the moon every month. The prayer book reads: “May it be your will, G-d… to fill the flaw of the moon that there be no more a diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it diminished, as it said: ‘And G-d made two great lights…’”

Quoting the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria, Sarah Schneider, in her book Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine & Feminine, explains that the sun and the moon represent masculine and feminine. When the moon was diminished, the feminine in all its forms and expressions was exiled. Since the whole of a woman’s being is associated with the moon, women, forevermore, were dramatically affected by the moon’s diminishment. Man was also affected since part of his constitution is feminine. A priority of humanity, then, is to restore the feminine back to its original station. Kabbalah teaches that the world is rectified as the feminine recovers.

In this context, we can see the women’s movement, the self-help movement, the birth of the psychotherapy professions, and the green movement all help elevate the feminine, healing Mother Earth, or helping bring the broken feminine aspects of self back to wholeness. It is our task to elevate and restore “the moon,” the feminine, back to its former state. And how do we do this? Mary would probably tell you, keep your sense of humour intact, while giving it your best shot!

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Back in the early ‘70s, the Jewish sensibility helped pave the way. Enter Mary Richards, the Mensch. Mary was impeccable, moral, conscientious – the genesis of her unique brand of humour.

That show brought us a nobler, kinder comic voice and a demeanour that would help us temper our urge for progress with reverence for the establishment that we simultaneously wanted to change. Today’s feminists decry the white man’s contribution to society. Mary Richards, in contrast, was always deferential, calling her boss, “Mr. Grant,” while others called him “Lou.” 

It’s interesting that Mary Tyler Moore, herself, never joined the feminist movement, while otherwise doing ground-breaking work as a woman, employing countless female comedy writers and otherwise forwarding the women’s movement in a myriad of ways.

Watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda during the quarantine triggered, for me, a series of revelations, ultimately prompting a project that turned into, “Knock, Knock”: The Kabbalah of Comedy (the how, why & what of funny).

For those who yearn for the era when comedy was clean, tune in to Lou, Rhoda, Mary, and Ted. If you do, I suspect, you, like me, will find layers of meaning and message in those shows, stuff you missed the first time around. Those scripts are infused with the Jewish sensibility from which they emerge, a Rorschach of the Jewish psyche. The humour easily survives the test of time. So do the role models – Mary and Rhoda – who are sorely missed.

If only modern-day feminists had grown up with Jewish humour…

Role models like Mary Tyler Moore and her co-star Valerie Harper, are sorely missed | Photo reprinted with permission of Gracie A. Matisyn

Rhoda and Mary taught me how to calibrate expectations, and host the task of perfecting a fundamentally imperfect world, as I watched interactions like this one:

Rhoda, to her mother: How are ya?

Ida: Well, I have had this splitting headache all day and a little touch of neuralgia, and this tingling sensation in my legs.

(pause)

 

Rhoda: So, you’re feeling good?

Ida: Can’t complain.

As women, and as Jews, we have had thousands of years’ experience hosting disasters, punctuated by the occasional victory. A few funny Jews managed to capture the clever ways we have adapted, laughing throughout, and rolled it out in a couple of iconic television shows.

How might contemporary feminists learn to take themselves a little less seriously? I have no clue. But I’m grateful that Mary Tyler Moore helped shape my feminism into one characterized by ambition but tempered with reverence for authority and gratitude for progress achieved. No doubt, many my age would agree.

Annette Poizner, MSW, a Toronto-based therapist, has authored 13 books, including “Knock, Knock”: The Kabbalah of Comedy (the how, why & what of funny) and The Kabbalah Café: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Minds, among others.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

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