While she doesn’t play the titular “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Alex Borstein, who has played Susie Myerson, Midge’s intrepid agent in five seasons of the hit Amazon Prime show, is undoubtedly marvelous.
She has won three Emmys, two for her work as the newsboy hat and suspenders donning Susie, and one for her voice work as the iconic Lois of “Family Guy.” Like Susie, Borstein has a grunginess to her, peppers her speech with expletives and never shies away from a good raunchy joke — as you can see in her most excellent and incredibly Jewish stand-up special “Corsets and Clown Suits.”
She’s also incredibly menschy. Borstein is being honored next week by the Jewish nonprofit Project Kesher, which helps empower women in the Ukraine, Russia and Israel, for her work with Ukrainian refugees and her organization, Mission Ukrainian Moms, which helps Ukrainian refugees integrate into their new communities. The event is titled “Step Out of Line, Ladies,” a rallying cry borrowed from Borstein’s 2019 Emmy speech in which she talked about how her Jewish grandmother “stepped out of line” during the Holocaust, which ultimately helped save her life.
Borstein knows that it’s her Jewish values, like tikkun olam, or healing the world, that make this kind of work part of her DNA. “When people ask me why I do it, I’m like, it’s not a choice — you got to do it. I gotta get up and make the kids lunches for school, and then you gotta take on larger problems in the world, because it’s our responsibility.”
The mother of two helped start Mission Ukrainian Moms with a close friend she met while studying Spanish in Barcelona, where she lived for nearly five years. “She knew that I came from a family that was forced to flee, and being the first generation American and the daughter of immigrants, she knew it was something that was important to me. So I said yes immediately.”
Borstein, who comes from a lineage of badass Jewish women, feels a deep connection to the moms she works with. “They don’t want a handout, they don’t want donations. They want to be able to work, and they want their children to see them working.”
Her own kids, Borstein says, “certainly see all of the work that I do,” when it comes to Ukrainian refugee relief, and she’s even putting them to work on some upcoming projects, like helping to sell the products made by these women.
Like Borstein, I too am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, but there was often silence and shame around their stories. That wasn’t the case for Borstein’s parents. “My father was a therapist; my mother, later in life, went back to school and also became a therapist. We talked to a lot.” Maybe too much, she concedes.
Borstein’s mother would go to her school and speak about her experience as a survivor. She shared with the school a letter her great-grandparents sent to the family, snuck out of Auschwitz on a paper bag, to “help people see how real it was and how close it was, just one generation away.”
“It was written in Hungarian, and it was just very much ‘we are here, we are OK and we’re excited for the baby,'” Borstein explains, the baby being her mother. The letter ended with her great-grandparents saying they will see her grandmother and the baby soon. They never did.
“It’s actually tragic, what happened to that letter,” Borstein recounts. Her mother brought it to a Kinko’s to make copies of it, and accidentally left it in one of the machines. “We never saw it again,” Borstein shares, her voice pained. (If, decades ago, you found a letter on a paper bag in the photocopier of a Kinko’s in Highland Park, Illinois, please reach out.)
Borstein’s father was born in the U.S. and his parents, who immigrated from Russia and Poland, spoke Yiddish at home. Her mother spoke Hungarian, yet like many immigrants, “was so set on wanting to assimilate” that she didn’t share much of the language with her daughter. “They had such dark feelings about what a lot of the Hungarians did to them.”
Still, Borstein clings to her very basic Hungarian, which you can even hear in her new comedy special. “I went to a Jewish day school, so I’ve got a good little base of Hebrew. My kids didn’t get that. I’m a little bit sorry about it,” she professes.
Judaism does more than inform her activism, though — it’s also helped her find her vocation. “My desire to perform was born from Jewish traditions,” Borstein says, recalling Passover was where she first learned to read from a script. Reciting the Four Questions, she fell in love with roleplaying and performance.
And her bat mitzvah was her first leading role. She recalls her father coached her through her Torah portion and Haftarah.
#tbt touching my Dad's Torah at my Bat Mitzvah #Jewish #beigelace #floralcrown? pic.twitter.com/dCrxkLE6Lc
— Alex Borstein (@AlexBorstein) March 27, 2014
Borstein’s oldest child had his bar mitzvah last year, in her friend’s back yard. They rented an ark and a Torah. It was the family’s first gathering since COVID stared, which made the coming-of-age ceremony all the more special. She kvells over her son’s recitations, saying they were beautiful and deeply moving. Borstein’s father served as bar mitzvah tutor yet again.
Borstein’s daughter’s bat mitzvah is coming up in a year, and she’s considering making the event a double coming-of age-ceremony — her mom, Judy, never had a bat mitzvah. Unlike Borstein, her daughter has no thirst for the spotlight. “It could be nice,” she explains. “She’d probably be so relieved to share the stage with someone else.”
Borstein is trying to pass the Jewish traditions that she was imbued with down to her kids, including the value of Jewish comfort food. Filming “Maisel” kept her away from her kids for long periods of time, so she explains, “The first thing I would always do when I got back is make matzah ball soup.” She says it’s their “family elixir.”
Obviously, in the name of journalistic integrity, I had to ask Borstein what consistency her matzah balls take on (the age old sinker vs. floater debate). “The center has a nice density, but they’re fluffy enough to float.”
“That’s how I would also describe myself,” Borstein jokes. “I’ve got a dense center and fluffy exterior.”
But it’s challah that’s her number one Jewish comfort food. “I could eat an entire loaf of challah just sitting in front of a TV. I’d rather do that than popcorn at a movie.”
We are all going to need a lot of challah and matzah ball soup at the end of this month when, after more than half a decade of gracing our screens, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will be airing its series finale on May 26.
Borstein is as devastated as the rest of us. “It doesn’t feel good,” she tells me, about saying goodbye to the critically acclaimed show. “I feel accomplished and proud. But it’s also just really hard to say goodbye to the people and the quality,” she says. “The chances of me getting a gig like this again, getting to play a character like that again, with people who write as well as they do and direct as well as they do, are pretty slim.”
“It’s like a great love of your life passing away,” she says, “but I do feel the old adage of ‘it’s better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all.'”
For Borstein, playing Susie is “such a fucking blessing.” Borstein loves the challenge of the role, and its comedic physicality. She treasures the late night giggle-fits with co-star Rachel Brosnahan. The show’s final season is all about the wondrous relationship between Susie and Midge, and Borstein feels lucky to have been cast opposite Brosnahan. “We’re just two ingredients that worked perfectly [together],” she says, “and then Amy [Sherman-Palladino] adds the salt and the flavor was just perfect.”
I ask her about criticism of Brosnahan’s casting as Midge, considering she’s not Jewish. “I don’t care about that kind of stuff,” Borstein says, “unless someone’s doing a terrible depiction of a Jewish character, laying on a heavy stereotype and doing this on the backs of Jewish people; then I get pissed. But I also know, having been a producer in a room and watching actor after actor come in to audition for things, sometimes someone comes in and they just are the character. Rachel Brosnahan is Miriam Maisel. And that’s it.”
“I know it’s controversial,” she acknowledges. “Some people feel differently. I think it’s just for me, it’s a case by case basis. It really has to be.”
For the first five seasons of the show, there was also criticism of Susie’s character being coded as queer but never really confirming that identity. In this latest season, we get to meet Susie’s former, maybe only, lover: Hedy, played by Nina Arianda.
Borstein doesn’t think Susie would’ve ever wanted to be a queer icon, even if to me she feels like a beautifully drawn Jewish one. “Every day that she left the house, she was being political, just by being,” Borstein says. “Just by wanting to achieve things as a woman in the 1950s. She didn’t feel like her destiny was to preach about sexuality and preach about equal rights. It was about, ‘I’m going to go out there and I’m going to take what I think is mine.'”
“I think it’s always nice to have people represented in a million different ways on the screen. And I like that she helps represent a certain group of people, but it’s also not what she’s about.”
“It takes a village, and that’s what this show really has been about,” Borstein says. She’s awed by characters like Alfie Fuller’s Dinah, who plays Susie’s assistant, and May, played by Stephanie Hsu, who is “this incredible Asian American presence in a 1950s story.”
So many of the women in the show have grown over the course of the series, from Rose Wiseman (Marine Hinkler), Midge’s mother, a housewife turned intrepid matchmaker, to Shirley Maisel (Caroline Aaron), Midge’s mother-in-law who creates her own happiness at the end of season five, to Susie herself, who “has changed and grown so much and is the strong, bullish figure that won’t take no for an answer.”
“Jewish women get lumped into a stereotype many times, but look at how many different types of Jewish women there are,” Borstein marvels of the show.
In her new comedy special, Borstein proves that Jewish women can be loud, funny — and have a pretty filthy mouth. When asked what her parents, who were in the crowd, thought of her set, she says, “I’m not a spring chicken, I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 to 30 years. They are definitely used to my mouth.”
“But there were things in the show that still surprised them. There’s a piece called dick slap — I think my father was mortified.”
Borstein likens her parents’ approach to her work to an old Jewish joke about two women going to a restaurant. After the meal, one complains, “My God, the food was so terrible,” and the other one says, “I know, and such small portions.”
“That really best describes how my parents feel about me on stage: They can’t believe what I’m saying, they’re mortified, and yet they want me to have six more hours to say it.”
Just when I thought I couldn’t love Alex Borstein more, she bids me farewell by giving me a new Jewish rallying cry: “Like a good Jewish girl, I’m going to run to Costco.”