Meet the other Mrs Maisel!
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Meet the other Mrs Maisel!

We speak to Midge's mother-in-law about the joy of Amazon's most popular 'Jewish' TV show and the magic of Chanukah

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

With screen husband Kevin Pollack
With screen husband Kevin Pollack

Last Friday was special. Not in the way this Friday might be, but it was thrilling for the fans of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel as Midge returned. That they chose the Sabbath –noch –  to premiere season three of the fabulously flamboyant series about a 1950s New York Jewish housewife-turned-comedian is chutzpah – but they’ve earned it!

With enough awards to fill Sophie Lennon’s town house (fan joke), the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, has swathed funny in fuschia across the TV landscape and laden it with references to kishkas , kugel and even the Mi Sheberach prayer. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is a very, very Jewish show and it makes no apology for the excess of yiddishkeit. Passover, Yom Kippur and even Tisha B’Av have all featured, and Chanukah has also got a mention, notably in the Catskills (during a game of ‘Simon Says’, when the directive “spin like a dreidel” was heard.

But for genuine Festival of Lights insight from the Maisel camp, you need the other Mrs Maisel. I’m talking about Shirley, mother of Joel Maisel, Midge’s estranged husband.

Caroline Aaron, right, as a child in Virginia

“Yes, I’m Mrs Maisel, too, just not the marvellous one in the title,” jokes Caroline Aaron, who plays the brazen balaboosta and Mahjong maven devoted to her grandchildren. Shirley is the sort of woman who brings her own chicken soup  to Friday night dinner and wears a mink coat and sun hat while spieling.

But Shirley is marvellous because she has has been brought to life by an actress who has headlined on Broadway and made more than 100 films, five of which were with Woody Allen. Cast as Woody’s sister in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry, Caroline’s resume presents a dilemma for an Allen admirer and Maisel enthusiast with lots of questions.

But we start with Chanukah. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, it’s hard to imagine a less likely starting point for the woman who now embodies Shirley Maisel, as there were few Jews in the capital of the Confederacy. With a Jewish mother from Selma, Alabama, and a Lebanese Jewish father, Caroline’s family was part of a group that were forbidden to live in the best residential neighbourhoods or join country clubs. As she recalls: “When I got married in 1980, my mother had to ask a friend to pick up our wedding cake. She had ordered it from the best pastry chef in Richmond, who happened to work at The Country Club of Virginia. The club was restricted. No Jews or blacks could enter the property.”

Caroline on the phone

But there are kinder memories about Chanukah. “Because there was no Jewish community, my mother wisely allowed us to celebrate Christmas as well, which she made an American holiday. She didn’t want us to hate being Jewish when all the other kids were getting presents. We had no Chanukah presents, but we didn’t mind, as lighting  the candles was the focus.”

Caroline still has a printout of the Chanukah prayer from her childhood synagogue. “I saved it and have not seen anything like it since,” she says. “Each candle on the menorah symbolises something different .The first night the prayer is for one God, the second for family and the third for faith. I don’t remember the others, but there’s a great prayer for the shamesh – ‘One candle may kindle many others,  and yet lose none of its own light, so  Judaism has kindled the light of truth in many lands and still shines brightly through the ages.’ Isn’t that a great prayer? You can light candles without losing your own light. What a powerful metaphor.”

Caroline Aaron

Caroline delivers the prayer with the gravitas of a veteran performer and it’s a voice you would recognise, were she to say:

“We’ve been talking to – well,let’s just call him Sleepless in Seattle, and we’ll be right back after this break with listener response…”

Just the thought of Dr Marcia Fieldstone broadcasting live from Chicago while chatting to widower Sam (Tom Hanks) in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless classic makes one weepy. “Yes, I’m Dr Fieldstone,” says Caroline. “I actually got an email a few months back from the Golden Globes. They’re giving a Lifetime Achievement award to Tom Hanks in January and asked permission to use my voice.” Of course she said yes and might even be there with The Marvellous Mrs Maisel crew, who are now regulars at award ceremonies.

“You should only see all of the foundation garments and uncomfortable shoes I have to wear for these award nights,” sighs Caroline, a sprightly 67. “But what a wonderful problem to have.”

Equally wonderful are the clothes costume designer Donna Zakowska creates for Shirley and co.

“They are phenomenal aren’t they? Not only is Donna brilliant, but she is an artist in her own right. Everything she makes is so unbelievably authentic and she gets inspiration from books on flowers. If it exists in nature, she will put Midge in a chartreuse coat and bright pink undergarments. Sounds crazy, but then you see it and it is spectacular.”

Caroline with Woody Allen

So isn’t it tempting to go home still dressed in head to toe Fifties floral?. “Yes,” says Caroline, “But they’d go crazy if I did. Everything about the clothes actually makes me miss my mother. Twice a year my mother would get out her winter or summer  clothes collection. She even changed the upholstery. Everyone was a fancy dresser then. People even dressed up to go on planes.”

As season three of Mrs Maisel has only just begun, it feels wrong to ask about a fourth, however… “It’s not yet officially confirmed, but yes,” says Caroline, who reveals London as a mooted next location. “It may just be a rumour,” she adds, but I’m already picturing Midge in Marble Arch.

On to Woody Allen, with whom Caroline also starred in the Broadway comedy Honeymoon Hotel and in Husbands and Wives, a memorable scene with director Jerry Zaks, Sydney Pollack and Nora Ephron.

“That was exciting, to be in a room acting with all of them. I’ve worked with Woody a lot. He tends to use the same people because once you have his language in your heart, you don’t forget it. He is also incredibly shy, which is the reason he doesn’t do award shows. He is also bewildered by the idea of comparing films that are so different.  Just doesn’t understand it.”

With screen husband Kevin Pollack and son Michael Zegen

The backlash against Woody in a Hollywood now entrenched in  MeToo politics  upsets Caroline.

“As I said, I’ve worked with him a lot. He is really kind and I adore him, just adore him. I wrote him a letter when all the trouble started recently. I just wish I were more famous, so I could make a public statement of support, but I’m telling you, I have supreme confidence in his creativity and his character.

Caroline celebrated her 39th wedding anniversary this year to husband James Foreman. “He’s in real estate, but we were both actors when we met. I decided one of us had to have a sensible job.” As Shirley Maisel, Caroline gets a second family: husband Moishe (Kevin Pollak) and son, Joel (Michael Zegen), grandkids, and mad Midge.

“I’ve worked with Kevin before and, although I have a son, Ben, and a daughter, Sydney, Michael now also feels like my son.”

Ben got married this year to Amanda. “This will be her first Chanukah with us and I do love the candle lighting. A menorah is my go-to wedding present, as I never use a list. And if you don’t light it, you still have a candelabra.”

Spoken like a marvellous Maisel.

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