Tony Shalhoub says that he is reminded of his own Lebanese father as he’s playing Abe Weissman, the father of Mrs. Maisel. Smiling, he also recalls a college friend’s Jewish father, a hard-working baker named Abe Babyatsky, who sent cakes and rugelach from his Miami Beach bakery to serve at Shalhoub’s wedding.
“I hold Abe Babyatsky in my head,” the Emmy- and Tony Award- winning actor says.
Marin Hinkle, who was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Abe’s wife Rose, says that she is not Jewish, but has had a Jewish mother-in-law for 25 years. In playing Rose, she thinks of her and “her mother before her and other moms” who knew how to craft holiday celebrations with beautiful tables “full of talk of ideas and dreams and politics.”
Shalhoub and Hinkle, along with other actors in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” spoke to NJJN in anticipation of the third season, which premieres Friday on Amazon.
The writing and directing team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have recreated a very appealing 1950s Jewish milieu with fabulous costumes and sets — and, for the few who haven’t been watching the show that won 16 Emmys — featuring a young Upper West Side mother, Mrs. Maisel, Miriam to her parents and otherwise Midge. When her marriage collapses, she heads to downtown clubs where she performs stand-up comedy — and is naturally very good at it, spinning stories of her life. Her well-to-do parents aren’t too pleased. In the first two seasons, Mrs. Maisel charges gracefully ahead in her new career, acquiring a streetwise agent, a new boyfriend, new material for her routine everywhere; there are scenes in synagogue, a Rosh HaShanah dinner, the Weissmans’ sprawling Riverside Drive apartment, a Catskills resort, and Manhattan streetscapes. And then there are the in-laws, who remain a large and loud presence.
Several Jewish moments in this season may startle: A gentleman, a Western oilman, takes off his cowboy hat to reveal a kipa underneath, as worn by others at his table. There are the usual bris jokes, stuffed cabbage, a fight about which way to put up a mezuzah and (what’s more Jewish than) the bustling lobby of Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel.
Season after season, “Mrs. Maisel” continues to be, arguably, the most Jewish show on television. It’s not so much that the characters fight about a mezuzah, but the producers don’t feel a need to explain what a mezuzah is. The characters are confident American Jews, at ease in their Judaism and around other Jews.
Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan, is part Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk’s Upper West Side young Jewish heroine (the film starring Natalie Wood was set in 1958). Jane Lynch, who also won an Emmy for her role on the show as comedian Sophie Lennon, compares Midge’s optimism, good will, pluckiness, and resilience to Mary Tyler Moore, from her days on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Other members of the cast are back, including Alex Borstein as Midge’s manager Susie Myerson, Michael Zegan as Midge’s estranged husband Joel Maisel, Kevin Pollak as Joel’s father Moishe Maisel, and Caroline Aaron as Shirley Maisel. Luke Kirby returns to his role as Lenny Bruce, for which he won an Emmy earlier this year, and LeRoy McClain returns as Shy Baldwin — the headlining pop singer who has invited Midge to open for him on his tour. Sterling K. Brown, Liza Weil, and others are joining for Season 3.
In a poster for the new season, Midge is seen next to a vintage TWA airliner: Her career is about to take off.
Life also shifts for the other characters: Abe, after leaving his job at Bell Labs and his position at Columbia University in the last season, is figuring out his next steps outside of the university (and their university-owned apartment); Rose gains some independence; Joel gets to pursue his own dream; Shirley and Moishe move to their dream house; and Sophie Lennon rethinks her career.
Shalhoub explains that Abe is disenchanted with his career, “going through a kind of midlife crisis, trying to get back to the man he was as a young man. In his 20s, he was running with Jewish intellectuals, maybe communists, trying to make a difference, fighting for justice. That’s the man he needs to reinvigorate. And he’s willing to risk everything.”
Abe’s new activism is the only hint in the show of coming cultural shifts as the 1960s arrive.
In the first show of the new season, Midge does a USO performance, trying out her routine on a large audience of army guys, on the same stage that Bob Hope has played. Dressed in red, white, and blue, she tells the troops, “I could never be brave enough to wear the same outfit every day.” At the end of the show, she joins other performers on stage to sing “White Christmas” and doesn’t know the words. No matter, she’s a hit, and her manager Susie is figuring out how to negotiate and enjoying the feel of cash.
Along with Baldwin and entourage, Midge travels to Las Vegas and Miami. A bit homesick, she makes her trademark brisket in a casino kitchen for Baldwin’s cast.
“You see the world,” a new friend in the band tells Midge, as they speak about being on the road, away from their kids. “The audiences, when they’re great, are really great, and you’re not having to go to your grave not having done anything interesting.”
Borstein explains that this season, wise-cracking Susie is “learning to soften, to let Midge in, and to develop thicker skin. She gets in her own way a lot, and she learns about what she is capable of.” Midge and Susie grow from opposites who spar and laugh a lot into a loyal team, still opposites.
As to what Borstein, the comic actor, and Susie Myerson, the funny manager, have in common, Borstein says it’s easier to speak of the differences. She’s not a loner like Myerson, for one, and while Myerson had a rough upbringing, Borstein was raised by loving parents. The daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she says that her grandmother, who survived and then thrived, sewing wigs, selling shoes, and unapologetically going after what she needed, is the basis of much of the work she does.
For the interview, Borstein is dressed in silk, looking very different from Myerson, who is rarely seen without her newsboy cap. She is also about to launch a new business, selling sleeves than can be attached to dresses.
Zegan, who plays Joel — and looks more like his character than any of the others — says he was raised on Jewish humor, and that when he first saw the pilot, “I understood this world. It hit home for me.” He says that his own Jewish mother is a little overbearing “but nothing compared to Shirley Maisel.”
While Rose Weissman and Shirley Maisel are opposite as Jewish mothers — one peppers her speech with French and the other with Yiddish, one pushes style and the other pushes food — they are each loyal to family and love their husbands deeply. Hinkle says that in reality, they have become close friends.
Shalhoub, who spent two years alternating between “The Band’s Visit,” first Off Broadway and then Broadway, and “Mrs. Maisel,” lives on the Upper West Side “equidistant from Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass.” Reflecting on the show’s success, he says, “It has a certain brightness and energy. It provides a respite from our current situation. In the end, it’s just about these two families navigating their way through this decade.”
Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.