These are the topical things that I remember from growing up as a Jewish kid in the 1980s: relatives getting overexcited about a TCBY (This Can’t Be Yogurt) opening up nearby, going to two Michael Jackson-themed Bar Mitzvahs in one year, Dirty Dancing, and a rabbi dressing like Madonna for Purim. I also recall Russians — lots and lots of Russians. Most kids I knew were either born in what was then the USSR, their parents were, or they were passionate about some new charity that collected money to help Soviet Jews escape the oppression of their homeland. In the last decade of the Soviet Union, if you were Jewish and lived in the US, there was probably a lot more Russian in your life than the normal American. Today, most of those kids make way more money than I do. I’m glad they adapted.
That was my Jewish 1980s in a nutshell: Soviet immigrants and frozen yogurt, and even though I know that wasn’t every Jewish kid’s experience, I still don’t know if I truly recognize the undefined year of “1980-something” when the new ABC sitcom The Goldbergs is set. I’ve placed it sometime after 1984, because of the Ghostbusters poster in the show’s second episode and the Hooters restaurant referenced in the first episode.
But I don’t think I even knew any families like the Goldbergs. I mean, of course I knew Goldbergs, just like I knew Weinbergs, Greenbergs, and a hundred Cohens — but I’m not sure I actually knew a family like The Goldbergs. While I’m prepared to see the show undergo the growing pains that come with being a new network sitcom, I’m actually already glad that the Goldbergs don’t resemble the families of my youth, because the last thing the world needs is another bad parody of a generic Jewish family.
Before you get the wrong idea: if you grew up as or around a lot of Jews, the Goldberg clan won’t be entirely exotic to you. See the overbearing mother, played by the excellent — and, as far as I can tell, not-at-all-Jewish — Wendi McLendon-Covey; nerdy Adam Goldberg (Sean Giambrone), namesake of the show’s creator; and Jeff Garlin, the timeless Jewish father, for whom yelling is just the way he talks, whose insults mean “I love you,” and who nonetheless harbors a genuine warmth just beneath his surly surface.
Speaking of Garlin, I’m a big fan of his, and while I’d love to see this show succeed simply to bring him out of Larry David’s shadow and make him a TV star in his own right, I wonder how The Goldbergs will find its identity. Could it become the combination of funny and sweet that most of America loves in its family sitcoms? Perhaps that’s why it’s treading the line between Jewish humor and comedy that’s not too Jewish, where there’s klezmer music playing 24/7 and a mother who swears in Yiddish almost as often as she tries to feed skinny goyim.
Yes, there is something familiar about The Goldbergs. No, it doesn’t remind me of my own weird 1980s Jewish childhood, raised as I was in a community filled with defectors and baby boomer parents with twin affinities for old-time religion and weird New Age yuppie spiritualism. It isn’t the Jewish 1980s I remember, but The Goldbergs‘ great cast gives it all the ingredients it needs to succeed, if it ever manages to develop a fresh take on the ’80s, Jewish family life, or even Jewish family in the ’80s.