A child playing piano.

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

The misunderstanding of Abraham: patriarchal thinking and painful realizations in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

July 26, 2023

Abraham Weissman is a man shaken to his core.

A one-time tenured professor of mathematics at Columbia University and then an employee of Bell Labs, Abe is experiencing a new career as a theater reviewer for The Village Voice. Yet, as the fifth and final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel unfolds, Abe’s sensibilities have turned inside out.

As part of a long lineage of Jewish polymaths, Abe believes, like his father before him and grandfather before him, that the best way to bring out the genius of his family’s intellect is to encourage one’s son to manifest that brilliance on their own. Ignore the boy, he counsels his son-in-law, Joel Maisel. Spend no meaningful time until the son has shown his true inheritance by doing something brilliant, displaying an aptitude that cannot be explained other than the patriarchal heritage, the giftedness passed down from father to son, suddenly making itself known. This is the way, Abe Weissman believes, of how the men, and only the men, of his line manifest their genius.

Hearing the piano down the hall, Abe excitedly goes to see his grandson Ethan at the bench, replicating from memory a tune he has heard Abe play.

But it is not Ethan who has taken up the piano after Abe introduced him to the tune. It is his granddaughter, Esther, playing the piano after overhearing her grandfather spending time with his grandson on the piano.

Abe realizes the error of his family lore and tradition. Following the tradition of the men in his family, he ignored his own granddaughter’s potential. What else, he wonders, had he missed? 

His thoughts turn to his own children. He had expected his grandson to be the prodigy, and he realized not only had he ignored Esther’s capacities, long had Abe ignored Esther’s mother, his own daughter Miriam, aka Midge, whose stand-up career onstage as “the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” would grow into a veritable comedy legend.

At dinner shortly after Esther manifested her giftedness, Abe arrives for dinner with friends and work colleagues. While they banter over wine selection and the menu, they also talk about how they are experiencing rapid change in society, sometimes beyond their comprehension. Abe cannot think of anything else than this epiphany about Esther and its humbling effect on his worldview:

“My daughter was dumped by her husband, out of nowhere…. Instead of collapsing from the weight, she emerged stronger. A new person, so I thought. 

But now I think… perhaps that was who she was all along. I never really took her seriously. My son Noah I took seriously. 

I would take him to Columbia with me every week so he could dream of what he could be. 

I don’t remember if I ever did that for Miriam. I don’t think it ever occurred to me. And as unfathomable as this career choice of hers is, she’s doing it on her own. With no help from me or her mother. Where did this come from? This strength, this fearlessness that… that I never had. That my poor son never had. 

What could she have been if I had helped her and not ignored her, ignored who she really is? 

My daughter is a remarkable person, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that.” (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, season 5, episode 8, “The Princess and the Plea”)

The ideological framework Abe Weissman begins to shed in season five of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ unfortunately is pernicious and alive and well in today’s world.

When he first told his son-in-law about this theory of extraordinary men in his family, Abe brought out a handsomely bound volume, detailing generation after generation of the male Weissmans’ achievements and accomplishments. Now he knows all this lore to be suspect, missing entirely the possibilities of the women who descend from this lineage, including Midge and Esther. And his perpetuation of this belief has led Abe to miss altogether the ability to see and encourage Midge, who is already well on her way to surpassing her parents. 

As part of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s final season, viewers are privy to new insights into the characters by way of flashbacks and flash forwards. In the flashbacks, we see the burgeoning romance of Midge and Joel. In the future scenes (from the 1960s to the first decade of this century), we encounter Esther as a Harvard doctoral program student, talking with her therapist. She is every bit her mother’s daughter, down to the frenetic pace of speaking. (Such witty, brilliant, and snarky female characters are a staple of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s various other TV projects.)

Abe Weissman has spent his life in academia and other pursuits, his access to such heights allowed him as a white man in a patriarchal culture, profession, and yes, even religion. He means well, yet he has come to the realization all of this has come at a cost to the women in his life and his entire lineage. My daughter is a remarkable person, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that” is a painful line. It is an honest moment of self-awareness, even if the other men at dinner did not hear it in the moment. 

Midge keeps gaining ground in her career. She has a successful late-night talk show appearance (despite being introduced namelessly as “our lady writer” from the writing staff). She soars well beyond her sometime mentor Lenny Bruce and cements her name in the legends of stand-up comedy, a profession that still deals with the Jurassic attitude that women by and large “aren’t funny.”

Abe Weissman’s realization of his wrongheaded thinking is refreshing, especially in light of events at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June, complete with disfellowshipping churches in their ranks who have clergywomen pastors. For nearing a half-century, the largest U.S. Baptist group has made its point that women are theologically inferior to men, particularly when it comes to ordained leadership. 

Midge Maisel would have a pointed word about this, one uproariously wise yet unprintable in this fine digital-first family publication. Nonetheless, I despair that our culture, religion, and politics are far from free of this sexism that keeps women from realizing their full personal, professional, economic, and social potential.

Abe finally came to his senses. The ideological framework he begins to shed in season five unfortunately is pernicious and alive and well in today’s world. Such thinking has held back humanity’s fuller potential and undercut the gifts of half of humanity. 

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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