Sisterhood Blog

The Jewish Soul of 'The Golden Girls'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Maude is gone and Dorothy Zbornak is dead. Bea Arthur, who played those brassy, gutsy characters on the sitcoms “Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” died of cancer over the weekend at her home in Los Angeles.

I was a little too young to appreciate “Maude” when it was broadcast in the mid-1970s, but confess a bit of an addiction to “The Golden Girls.”

As a spin-off of “All In The Family,” Maude focused on the social issues of the time — the first several episodes related to Maude’s unexpected pregnancy, at age 47, and her decision to have an abortion.

“The Golden Girls” was less about issues than the relationship between four older women sharing a house in Miami — each of them widowed or divorced. There was a Southern vamp whose story lines revolved around her dating life, a ditsy Midwestern simpleton whose misunderstandings were frequent punch lines, a sharp-tongued, tiny Italian matriarch and her tall, broad-shouldered daughter, played by Bea Arthur.

Arthur’s character, Dorothy Zbornak, had the most nuance to her. Though Dorothy was identified as Italian-American, I never bought it; the way she spoke, the way she dressed, the way she saw the world and especially her humor all struck me as quintessentially Jewish.

She was sharp but warm, did not suffer fools gladly but at the end of the day was understanding and forgiving. She was a liberal-minded, social activism-oriented and woman, a tenacious semi-retired school teacher who made her views known on the occasional political or social theme that floated through an episode.

Her diction and manner of speaking made sense for a girl supposedly from Brooklyn, since the actress was born Bernice Frankel in New York City. Let’s face it, I related to Arthur. We shared the same height (5’9 1/2”), a similar take on the world and, I’ll admit, an affinity for speaking her mind made me enjoy her character the most. Estelle Getty, who played her mother, died last year. Now Bea Arthur is gone, and I’m sad the Golden days are over for good.


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