Sisterhood Blog

Jewish 'Downton Abbey'

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Shirley MacLaine of ‘Downton Abbey’

Last night, British period drama “Downtown Abbey” had its stateside premiere of the third season — to the accompaniment of thousands of excited tweets. And at least for this “Masterpiece Classic” fangirl, one of the highlights of the first episode was the arrival of Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson, the gilded American counterpart and foil to Maggie Smith’s zinger-slinging Dowager Countess. The genteel enmity between them was prefigured when Violet, the Dowager Countess, says before the American Levinson’s arrival, “When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” It was an absolute joy watching the two legendary actresses spar high-handedly over the relative merits of British tradition v. American inventiveness.

But even though Levinson’s bold outsider ways, her wry expressiveness and even her refusal to eat crab (as communicated by her maid) may have indicated otherwise in the premiere, it seems she is not a Jewish character. Not strictly, anyway. Many of us were convinced that — thanks to her husband’s name, “Isidore Levinson,” and his fortune as a Cincinnatti dry goods manufacturer — there was strong evidence for Martha’s and her offsprings’s Jewishness.

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Updated: The Jewess of 'Downton Abbey'?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

pbs.org
Lady Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern.

Update:
Shirley Maclaine has just been cast as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s mother — and the Dowager Countess’ rival.

This is delicious news! Still, I’d have rather have seen Barbra or Goldie Hawn, an actual Jewess, play the part of a Jewish American wanna-be-princess, though I doubt Goldie would be able to overcome her tremendous Americanness.

Can’t you just imagine Babs playing one of her smart-yet-slightly ditzy roles, coming into the castle and spilling something on one of the heirloom estate-sized Oriental carpets, and then breaking into song, glorious song?

I loved Maclaine in the big screen version of Jennifer Weiner’s “In Her Shoes,” a movie that didn’t get the credit it deserved. She played the tough-as-nails grandmother character which, come to think of it, may be what got her this new gig.

And after all, Babs wouldn’t likely have gotten past the first round of negotiations because she in all likelihood would refuse to accede to the requirement, for the sake of historical accuracy, that her famous long fingernails go unlaquered.

Tip of the sheitel: Fiona Sharpe


Could Lady Cora Grantham be — gasp — Jewish? According to this piece on Tablet she may indeed be. A reader spied the fact that on PBS’ website for its hit Masterpiece Theater Classic series “Downton Abbey,” Lady Cora is described as the daughter of “Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.”

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