A Taste for Borscht
by Dennis Greene
It took me over a year to discover Amazon Prime’s charming TV series The Magnificent Mrs. Maisel but only two weeks to binge-watch the first two seasons. If you have not done so already, I’d recommend that you add this to your watchlist and catch up before the third season airs in 2019. Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of The Gilmore Girls, is adept at showcasing strong female characters. This time, she switches from Rory and Lorelai’s contemporary life in the storybook Connecticut town of Stars Hollow to focus on the tumultuous lives of a well-to-do Jewish family living on New York City’s upper West Side in the late 1950’s. Rachel Brosnahan, as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the protagonist and eponymous character, is brilliant as she transitions from a married, seven sisters educated housewife with two kids to a struggling, foul-mouthed stand-up comic whose marriage has ended. Alex Bornstein is a scene stealer as her unlikely manager, and the rest of the large supporting cast–including Marin Hinkle ( Alan’s ex-wife on Two-and-a-Half Men) and Tony Shalhoub (the star of Monk)–are superbly skilled and energetic. The sharp contrast between the Weissmans, Midge’s sophisticated, highly educated and emotionally repressed parents and the Maisels, Midge’s volatile and demonstrative garment industry in-laws, provides an ongoing source of humor and tension. The story is fast paced and the 50’s background music and dress sets the scene perfectly. The emotional twists and turns, punctuated by crisp, humorous dialogue and Midge’s biting stand-up routines make each hour fly by. But these are not the only reasons that 16 episodes left me wanting more.
While anyone may enjoy this series, Jews of “a certain age” with New York City roots may find that the world of Midge Maisel particularly resonates. I left Queens in 1952, when I was seven, and yet, many aspects of Midge’s world evoked strong responses in me. Midge’s parents and her in-laws remind me of people I have known. And we have all seen the conflicts that arise when offspring deviate from their controlling parents’ expected paths. Plus, the scenic background of the show reflects an era I remember fondly. When Midge’s four-year old son was sitting in front of a small black and white TV in his grandparents’ apartment, I caught a glimpse of Froggy the Gremlin, and then Howdy Doody on the screen which transported me back 60 years.
The most poignant images for me, though, were those during Midge and her family’s summer vacation at Steiner’s Mountain Resort, and that surprised me. I had never visited the Catskills with my family. My few visits to the Borscht Belt were after college and had been to chase girls. And yet, I knew just what it would feel like to be a guest at a place like Steiner’s. This could be the result of watching Dirty Dancing too many times, but I believe I have a more real connection. The Weissmans’ stay at Steiner’s made me recall my own family vacations at Camp Winadu when I was a kid.
The name “Winadu” sounds more Native American than Borscht Belt because of a compromise. This boy’s camp in the Berkshires could have been named “Camp Winnick, Nadleson and Dube,” but the three founding friends from Brooklyn shortened that by using the first two letters of each of their surnames. They established a kosher Jewish boy’s camp near Pittsfield, Mass. around 1918. During the 1920s, my rich grandparents sent my Dad from Brooklyn to Camp Winadu to rough it for the summer in cloth tents with rustic “outhouses.” By 1950, the rustic camp had grown to include a comfortable mountain resort with 32 guest rooms and separate guest quarters with a pool and tennis court. There was also a guest dining hall with excellent cuisine.
Following World War II, Winadu alumni like my Dad began getting together at Winadu with their families the week after camp ended. My recollections of those family vacations in the Berkshires don’t seem any different from the Weissman’s annual vacations at Steiner’s.
My more direct experience with the Borscht Belt involved several stays at the famous Concord Hotel. Ken Winnarick, a close college friend, was the grandson of the owner of the Concord, and he occasionally invited a few of us up for a free weekend. Ken’s grandfather Arthur Winnarick, along with many other Borscht Belt resort owners, gave hundreds of aspiring performers their start in show business. I recall once getting stoned in the Concord penthouse and then going down to the bar to see Woody Allen, a new stand-up comedian getting his start. He was pretty good. I think we spoke to him after the show, but I doubt he remembers me.
You don’t need first-hand experience with either the Borscht Belt or stand-up comedy to appreciate Midge’s travails. Almost anyone who has had some exposure to the extended New York Jewish Community will find things which stimulate memories or just make you smile.
If a displaced and out of touch Jew like me, who hasn’t lived in The City for 67 years and never knew a word of Yiddish, can get so immersed in Midge Maisel’s world, I’m sure many of you–especially “real” New Yorkers who remember the golden age of Broadway, waiters at the Carnegie Deli who actually knew what a knish was, or ever purchased lipstick at the cosmetic counter at B. Altman–will enjoy reliving those days with Midge Maisel and her lunatic friends and family. I can’t wait for Season 3 to begin.
Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since. Most recently, he has led BOLLI study groups in science fiction reading.