The secret Jewish life of Mary Tyler Moore

Let's throw our berets into the air for Mary Tyler Moore.

Mary Tyler Moore

No, Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at the age of 80, was not Jewish.

True: her husband, Dr. Robert Levine, is Jewish. In terms of her personal life, that seems to be all.

But, in at least one role, she played a character who, in real life, would have been Jewish.

I am talking about her role as Laura Petrie, wife of Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

The word “Jewish” was rarely, if ever, uttered. And yet, according to David Zurawik in The Jews of Prime Time: “The Dick Van Dyke Show was a Jewish show.”


In fact, The Dick Van Dyke show had started its screen life as “Head of the Family.” Carl Reiner was to have played Rob Petrie.

But, typical for television at that time, the show was deemed “too Jewish.” They had to recruit the thoroughly gentile Dick Van Dyke to play a television writer for the elusive Alan Brady, who was played by Carl Reiner.

In fact, Rob Petrie was Carl Reiner – even down to the New Rochelle, New York address.

The Petries lived at 448 Bonnie Meadow Road, and the Reiners lived at 48 Bonnie Meadow Road.

In the words of Oscar Katz, former head of programming for CBS: “They de-Jewishized it, midwesternized it and put Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in the leads.”

But, no one was fooled. The show remained “Jewish,” at least in a Marrano underground Jewish kind of way.

Consider Morey Amsterdam, who played the eternally wise-cracking Buddy Sorrell. He was certainly Jewish. So was his wife, Pickles. After the second season of the show, she was banished off screen, where she was never seen nor heard from again.

(I am sure that someone has written a dissertation: “Unseen, Unheard: Pickles Sorrell As A Metaphor for Traditional Jewish Women.”)

In one episode, “Buddy Sorrell – Man And Boy,” Buddy laments the fact that he had never celebrated becoming bar mitzvah when he was a young adolescent, and so he furtively studies with a rabbi in order to have a belated coming of age ceremony.

What makes this particular episode historically significant? It appeared in the early 1960s – when Judaism and Jewishness were practically invisible in American popular culture.

So, yes – the “real” Laura Petrie would have been married to Carl Reiner. She would have been the wife of a Jewish television writer.

There was a second Jewish aspect to Mary Tyler Moore’s career.

It happened on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which begat (using biblical terms, now) “Lou Grant.”

Mary’s best friend was Rhoda Morgenstern, played by Valerie Harper, and that friendship would ultimately spawn its own spinoff, “Rhoda.”

Rhoda was, of course, Jewish – and while that fact was never emphasized on the show, it did become the focus of one particular episode. Believe it or not, it is an episode that had seared itself into my memory.

It was the episode: “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda.”

A friend invites Mary to play tennis at a country club. She asks Mary if she has any friends who might want to join them to make a foursome. Mary suggests Rhoda. The woman hesitates, and it becomes clear to Mary that the woman does not want to include Rhoda because she is Jewish. Mary shows her the door.

What made this episode of an otherwise trivial show so memorable? Because it dealt with anti-Semitism – and during the 1970s, that was a theme that the television networks simply did not want to touch.

I will miss Mary Tyler Moore. Her characters took her from the wifey, often on the brink of tears Laura Petrie, to the independent woman who “could turn the world on with her smile,” and would then throw her beret into the air.

But my favorite Mary Tyler Moore moment?

There is no contest.

It was the episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in which Chuckles, the clown, is killed. He had been dressed as a peanut, and a nearsighted elephant “shelled” him.

No one who saw that episode will ever forget it, because it was one of television comedy’s most iconic moments. It is Chuckles’ funeral, and Mary is trying very hard to keep a straight face.

That is, until the priest quotes one of Chuckle’s favorite lines: “A little song, a little dance, a squirt of seltzer down your pants.”

And with that, Mary loses it.

Right about now, I am hoping that Mary Tyler Moore and Chuckles are laughing in heaven.

Especially in the days after the women’s marches in various cities of our nation.

They were saying, in essence: No, we will never be Pickles. We will never be invisible. We will never be silent.

They were throwing their metaphorical berets into the air.

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