Jewish people have many, many opinions (who would have thought?) about the concept of Jewish representation in media — specifically, whether Jewish characters should be portrayed only by Jewish actors. At the center of this discussion is often The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Amazon Prime show about a Jewish 1950s housewife-turned-comedian played by Rachel Brosnahan.
Brosnahan, 29, is not Jewish, but that doesn’t stop her from perfectly doling out sharp one-liners about mezuzahs, disappointing Hanukkah gifts, and the perfect deli order. And there’s good reason for why she so fluently talks to talk: She grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago with an incredibly high percentage of Jews. I know, because I grew up nearby in a town called Buffalo Grove. The entire area is, to put it technically, quite Jewy, and it turns out Brosnahan eventually used this to her advantage when bringing Midge Maisel to life.
In a delightful interview up on Vulture today with Rachel Handler, who went to Highland Park High School with Brosnahan (Handler is a few years older), the two dish about everything from playing “slutty secretaries” in the school production of a student-written play called STUNTS, the moment when Brosnahan’s father realized his daughter might actually be a successful actor, and the “800 bat mitzvahs” they went to in junior high.
Before getting into the bat mitzvahs, Handler asks Brosnahan if she took inspiration from her very Jewish hometown for the role of Midge. Brosnahan says, “Growing up in Highland Park meant having exposure to and a thorough education about Judaism and its culture and community and history — we learned so much about that in school. I’m not sure you have that same level of Jewish education in other parts of the country.” She also says she took direct inspiration from one of her friends’ mothers for that scene in which Midge measures her baby’s head (hey, if we want representation, we need to take the good with the bad).
Brosnahan has previously spoken about her Jewish-adjacent upbringing, telling Variety in 2017, “I spent more time in a temple than any other house of worship. I’ve been to about 150 bar and bat mitzvahs. And so this felt familiar to me in a way lovely way. I have so much love and admiration for the community, the culture, and I love that this show is unabashedly Jewish. There’s some real inside humor in here.”
So yes, back to the bar mitzvahs. We at Alma are obviously very here for this important content. The conversation between Brosnahan and Handler went like so:
The Jewishness of our town means we all went to 800 Bat Mitzvahs. What was the weirdest Bar or Bat Mitzvah theme you remember attending?
The weirdest was somebody who had no theme, like, Forget about it. We’re not making the effort. It was a little bit strange and directionless. What about you?
Hmm. I went to one with a Russian pop star.
What? That’s so weird! I did not have anything that crazy. All of mine were like “Skateboarding.” Or “Under the Sea.” Or “Candyland.”
Do you still have any of the million sweatpants we got as giveaways with the person’s name printed on the butt?
I have so many pairs of Bar Mitzvah sweatpants. They’re really, really comfortable.
Stars, they’re just like us! They went to way too many bar/bat mitzvahs and still sleep in the giveaway sweatpants that are, indeed, incredibly comfy!
Other gems from this interview? During her senior year, Brosnahan played Margot Frank in her school’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank. And while she doesn’t get back to Highland Park very often, she’s “relieved Michael’s is still there.” Michael’s just happens to be an excellent hot dog restaurant where my brother had his bar mitzvah celebration back in 1993.
Is it possible I once ate hot dogs alongside a young Mrs. Maisel? Very. Is it possible I’ll start telling people that fun fact as if it definitely happened? You bet.