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Diving Into The Life of an Unlikely Jewish Hero

For the past 30 years, my goal has been to make documentaries about lesser-known Jewish heroes that counter negative stereotypes.

My newest film, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," celebrates the accomplished, and long-forgotten, Gertrude Berg, the creator of the domestic sitcom.

Gertrude Berg’s radio show, "The Rise of the Goldbergs," debuted in 1929 and was an American favorite for seventeen years. Her television show, "The Goldbergs," was equally beloved.

In 1950, Gertrude Berg won the first best actress Emmy Award in history and "The Goldbergs" was nominated for Best Kinescope Show.

She would wake up at six in the morning, write her shows, and then go off to the studio to produce. Without missing a beat she seamlessly performed Molly to perfection.

She wrote the most positive portrayal of a Jewish mother and her family during the decades that severely threatened American and European Jewry. She crafted a warm maternal figure, in spite of her own mother’s mental illness. Berg created the “perfect mother” she never experienced in her own life.

Berg became an important public figure at a time when positive images of Jews, especially mothers, were rarely shown in public. The “Oprah" of her day, Berg was a media trailblazer with a cookbook, advice column, and clothing line in addition to popular radio and television serials. Her creation of a specifically ethnic, but far from atypical, American life in "The Goldbergs" carries through to this day.

You didn’t have to be Jewish to love Molly. She was admired by millions of all backgrounds as they sat with families and friends around their radios and televisions following "The Goldbergs."

As a trailblazer in the male dominated entertainment world, she invented product placement; audiences bought whatever products she suggested. She wrote compelling scenes and hilarious lines, especially her trademark malapropisms that audiences remember and recite to this day.

Berg is the most important woman in show business that many don’t know about because her enormous contributions to show business have been forgotten – until now. This summer the U.S. Postal Service is issuing stamps commemorating the early TV shows

Unbelievably"The Goldbergs" are ignored.

Berg stood up to the destructive Blacklist, pursuing all avenues to save Philip Loeb’s career. The show ran into trouble when Berg’s co-star Loeb was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist. The show’s sponsors threatened to pull out, but Berg took a strong stand, long refusing to fire him.

Her efforts proved fruitless. In January 1952, a distraught Berg settled with Loeb, who left the show. The Blacklist deprived Americans of many creative talents as it destroyed lives. The demise of Loeb as Jake Goldberg was the worst television story to come out of this witch hunt. The detrimental effect of the Blacklist on Gertrude Berg’s reputation is equally shocking.

While the show recovered, "The Goldbergs" would never be the same, especially after the sad passing of Philip Loeb in 1955 by suicide, memorialized by Loeb’s good friend Zero Mostel in the 1976 film, "The Front."  After the show’s cancellation in 1956, Berg continued to be successful on both television and stage.

Despite the difficulties of the McCarthy Era, she was the highest paid guest star in television, appearing on "The Milton Berle Show," "The Perry Como Show," and "The Steve Allen Show" multiple times, as well as giving an in depth interview on "Person to Person" with Edward R. Murrow. She won a Best Actress Tony in 1959 for her performance opposite Cedric Hardwicke in "A Majority of One on Broadway."

Among those interviewed for the film are actor Ed Asner, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, TV producers Gary David Goldberg and Norman Lear, CBS anchor Andrea Roane, and NPR commentator Susan Stamberg. Those who recall the show will recognize familiar faces from The Goldbergs, including Berg’s talent discoveries, Anne Bancroft and Steve McQueen.

Researching my own family roots in 1979 inspired me to become a filmmaker. I am dedicated to making films that span the years prior to and during World War II, since they so scarred my own family. My Polish-born mother passed as a Catholic working at a labor camp within Germany. Her parents and sister perished in Auschwitz, and only her brother survived the death camps.

Upon liberation by Americans my mother met my Lithuanian-born father, a US soldier, in Berlin. My father's mother had been shot by the Nazis. They married, and upon birth I was anointed the first American-Jewish child.

We came to America in 1950 and settled in Detroit. My father, who immigrated to America in the late 1920s, made me aware of our country’s hardships during the Depression and the social discrimination against Jews and other minorities.

As a teenager I fantasized about fighting Nazis. In 1979, I felt an urge to make a film about Jewish resistance against the Nazis to answer the unfair question, “why didn’t Jews resist?” I produced and co-wrote "Partisans of Vilna" to show that Jews had fought, despite the moral dilemmas.

It was released in theaters in 1986, and on DVD 20 years later. I formed a nonprofit foundation, naming it Ciesla after my maternal grandparents’ last name to keep the name alive.

I chose Hank Greenberg, my father’s baseball hero, as the subject of "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." Every Yom Kippur our father would tell us how Greenberg went to synagogue instead of the stadium.

I believed Greenberg was part of Kol Nidre service. I was sick of seeing only nebbishy Jewish males on the screen. Due to the difficulty in raising funds, it took 13 long years to make.

What I realize now is that although both Greenberg and Gertrude Berg’s careers spanned the years when our country faced the enormous challenges of the Great Depression and World War II, they both displayed great courage in performing as positive Jews in spite of the negative atmosphere swirling around them. Most of all, they were heroes to all Americans. It’s also greatly satisfying to now tell a woman’s story.

Aviva Kempner is the co-director of "Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting" documentary. Jessie Atkin is the communications coordinator for the documentary.