‘Wonderful Mrs. Maisel’ star Caroline Aaron has made a career out of playing East Coast Jews.
(JTA) — When cast as Midge Maisel’s stepmother in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” veteran actress Caroline Aaron had no idea a series about a very special installment of mid-twentieth-century Jewish life would strike a chord around the world.
But his popularity went far beyond Jews and Jewish neighbors. Like Fiddler on the Roof, the show has found audiences even in countries where Jewish culture is virtually non-existent.
“After the second season, we went to Milan, to do international press, and there were journalists from all over the world – from China, India and all European countries, and I thought to myself, what could possibly be interesting?” Aaron said during a recent Zoom conference hosted by The Braid, a theater for Jewish women in Southern California. “But on this show, for people around the world – and even if they were interviewing us – I had to interview them, just to find out about this show that had enchanted an audience without cultural references.”
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And what did she learn?
“I think above all that the family is a universal. I think no matter how it manifests, it resonates deeply with everyone,” Aaron said.
She added that a journalist in Sweden told her that “’we’ve never seen a show with a confident young woman’…. Here is a young woman who is in possession of her ambition, her dreams and who has meaning.'”
Aaron’s talk at The Braid served in part as a preview for the fourth season of “Mrs. Maisel,” which begins airing Friday after a nearly three-year hiatus. actress in films by major Jewish directors, her upbringing in the South and her thoughts on the criticism that “Mrs. Maisel” cast too many non-Jewish actors as Jews.
Over a 40-year career, Aaron has appeared in several films by major Jewish directors such as Mike Nichols (“Heartburn”, “Working Girl”, “Primary Colors” and “What Planet Are You From?”), Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle” and “Lucky Numbers”) and Woody Allen (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”, “Alice” and “Deconstructing Harry”). On television, Aaron has appeared in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Transparent” , and has played Shirley Maisel since 2017. Along with the rest of the “Maisel” cast, Aaron won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy Series, in 2018 and 2019.
She has also done notably theatrical works oriented towards Judaism. She starred in a one-woman, two-character play about a Holocaust survivor called “Call Waiting”, which also later starred in the film version. In 2016, she appeared in “Stories from the Fringe,” a play composed of the voices of more than a dozen female rabbis and performed at Braid, then known as the Jewish Women’s Theater.
In the Zoom conference, Aaron defended the cast of “Mrs. Maisel,” which includes Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel, Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as his parents, and Luke Kirby as the legendary Jewish comedian. Lenny Bruce None of them are Jewish.
“I’m very concerned that we’re limiting the art of acting to ‘you have to be it to play it,'” Aaron said during the conference. “When all of this started to dust off, I wanted to write to every parent in the country who writes a check for a performing arts program, to tear up their check…I think acting in its most Pure is walking around in someone else’s shoes And ultimately, isn’t that the definition of empathy?
When people ask Aaron if Brosnahan is Jewish, Aaron’s retort is that “if you ask, then she does her job and she does it well.” She added that it also goes the other way.
“I don’t want to be confined to just playing Jewish women,” Aaron said. “I want to play all kinds of women. And I think acting is an art form like any other art form.
Shalhoub is Lebanese-American, but has played many ethnicities throughout his career, including Italian-American and Jewish characters. Casting, she suggested, also serves a dramatic purpose. Midge’s ex-husband’s family are played by Jewish actors (with Aaron and Kevin Pollak as parents, and Michael Zeglen as Joel, the ex.) She added that while it might not have planned that way, the casting serves as something of a meta-commentary on the two families: Midge’s family, the Weissmans, are notably more assimilated than the Maisels.
She also praised the show’s writing and said that while the scenes of Jewish characters “living at the top of their lungs” often seem improvised, the show is scripted “to the comma”. She contrasted this with her turn at the start of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” series, in which “not a word is written”.
Aaron has played New York Jewish characters throughout her career (she played Woody Allen’s sister in two different movies), but she’s actually from Richmond, Virginia, and as she made clear in Braid’s speech, her southern Jewish heritage is very important to her. “I didn’t even know, when I was growing up, [the stereotype of the] A New York Jewish mother or Jewish daughter. I had no idea where it came from, because it wasn’t around me.
Born Caroline Abady, she took her father’s first name as her surname early in her career because her older sister, Josephine Abady, was already a well-known theater director and Aaron wanted to stand out. After that, Aaron said, she went to her agent, who told her “now everyone is going to know you’re Jewish.”
Aaron’s mother, Nina Friedman Abady, born in Georgia and raised in Alabama, was widowed at a relatively young age. She later became a professor at a historically black college and a civil rights activist. The Nina F. Abady Festival Park in Richmond is named after her.
His mother’s example inspired Aaron to write ‘The Mother Lode,’ which was performed last month as part of ‘Sweat Tea and the Southern Jew,’ a Braid production featuring stories of Southern Jews . It took place in person at locations in the Los Angeles area and streamed live on Zoom.
“I had something special with my mom,” Aaron said. “And I still treasure it to this day.” PJC