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Aviva Kempner Says 'Yoo-Hoo' To Unsung Heroine

Before Oprah, there was Gertrude.  Before <em>Seinfeld,</em> there were <em>The Goldbergs</em>.  Created by and starring Gertrude Berg, <em>The Goldbergs</em> played a groundbreaking role in the creation of American sitcoms while diversifying entertainment in a time of rampant anti-Semitism.
/ CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Before Oprah, there was Gertrude. Before Seinfeld, there were The Goldbergs. Created by and starring Gertrude Berg, The Goldbergs played a groundbreaking role in the creation of American sitcoms while diversifying entertainment in a time of rampant anti-Semitism.

Everyone knows what a sitcom is, but not a lot of people know who invented it. As filmmaker Aviva Kempner tells Robert Siegel, the sitcom as we know it first came through on the radio as a show called The Goldbergs

"The most popular TV shows ever are Seinfeld, Friends, Honeymooners and Lucille Ball," says Kempner. "They're all about walking in and out of the apartment building. And who invented it? Gertrude Berg on The Goldbergs, and she doesn't get the credit."

In Kempner's new film, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Berg takes center stage as the film tracks the rise of one of America's most underrated creative forces.

Berg was the creator, writer and star of The Goldbergs — a sitcom about a Jewish family in a Bronx apartment. But Berg was more than just a trailblazing show creator. She wrote the radio show for 17 years before moving it to television for an additional six; she had a column, a comic strip, a vaudeville show and even a clothing line.

"She was this amazing woman," says Kempner. "Before Martha Stewart, before Oprah, here was a woman with a media empire."

Berg won the first Emmy for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on The Goldbergs and eventually a Tony.

But in Berg's heyday, things weren't always good, especially for Jews. Kempner says that anti-Semitism was at its highest in America while European Jews faced the Holocaust. Yet somehow, The Goldbergs portrayed a warm, positive and extremely popular Jewish family for the rest of the country.

"[Franklin Delano Roosevelt] supposedly said, 'I didn't get us out of the Depression, the Goldbergs did,' " says Kempner. "Because here you have a warm, lower-middle-class family trying to make it."

Gertrude Berg didn't just make the country feel good, though; she injected plenty of commentary into her work.

"Very early on as Hitler rose in power, she had a very overt Passover scene on radio," says Kempner. "Some months after Kristallnacht, she had a stone being thrown through the window on the radio show, and while no one was addressing the Holocaust on TV, she had an episode where she got letters from her relatives."

Kempner's previous works include The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a documentary on baseball's first Jewish superstar, and The Partisans of Vilna, which focuses on Jewish resistance fighters during the Holocaust.

"My avowed MO is to make films about underknown Jewish heroes," says Kempner. "My grandparents and aunt died at Auschwitz, my mother had to pass as a non-Jew, my uncle survived Auschwitz, so I think it's sort of my life's mission to do Jewish heroes and heroines."

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