A Brighter Side to “Jewish Mothering”: A Review of “The Guilt Trip”
The Guilt Trip begins by introducing Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen), a thirty— something inventor about to embark on a road trip to sell his innovative organic cleaning product. Andy makes a quick stop at his mom’s (Barbara Streisand) house, and spontaneously invites her to come along for the ride. Their journey cross-country turns into an exploration of the ties that bind (Jewish) mother and son.
According to Wikipedia, the stereotype of Jewish mother “generally involves a nagging, loud, highly-talkative, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, who persists in interfering in her children's lives long after they have become adults and who is excellent at making her children feel guilty for actions which may have caused her to suffer.”
Stereotypes, shmereotypes. Sure, they exist for a reason. A genuine cultural observation is made and then enlarged. Stereotypes are shorthand for complicated phenomenon, and can transmit lots of information with little description. But stereotypes are at best incomplete informational accounts, and can also be untrue and/or harmful. My own mother, for example, exhibits none of the above Wikipedia mentioned behaviors or traits. There were many years when I yearned for nothing more than my mother to have something to say, to be more involved in my life. Her response when I asked? “I don't like to intrude.” Really.
Still, if my own experiences as a mother and daughter-in-law, and the stories I hear from my friends, account for as reliable a research source as Wikipedia, we Jewesses do indeed have a tendency to engage in some smothering mothering. Do we have the market cornered? Of course not. But Judaism does exalt motherhood—creating life is a mitzvah, a good deed that heals the world—and lets just say we aren’t the first group to be granted special reverence and then let a bit of power go to our heads.
In many ways, the caricature of an overbearing Jewish mother seems outdated. Unlike our immigrant ancestors, we are able to take advantage of all that American education has to offer; we enjoy a long list of our own successes and achieve multiple and varied statuses beyond that of wife or mother. Since we no longer define ourselves according to our children’s achievements, we feel less pressure to ensure that they perform according to our exacting standards and make their life’s choices in harmony with our own dreams and desires. Right? Ah. Perhaps the stereotype is not so outdated after all.
I have very high hopes for my son. And my daughter. Very high hopes. Sure, those wishes and dreams differ from the previous generation. But is telling our children they should ”find their true passions,” or “be happy” really any less demanding than (ahem) guiding them towards law or medical school?” It is like each Jewish mother writes her own variation on Rabbi Hillel’s famous words. Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, who will be for me?” The Jewish mother says, “If I don’t love my child with all I have, then who?”
Other posts on Jewish mothers and stereotypes :
If I don't believe in my children, support them to the absolute best of my ability, with my absolute self, who will? And don’t they deserve that from somebody?
I believe in my children. It is a belief so complete and unshakable that like Rogen to Streisand, I’m fairly certain they will one day find it—and me— irrational. Ok, nuts. But when Streisand looks at Rogen, you know that she sees him—everything good in him and everything lacking. She sees all his potential and all his history. And as I watch my still so young children grow, I understand—more and more each day—that regardless of how much I annoy them, or how crazy they think I am, the simple act of bearing witness to another person’s life with the purity and intensity of Jewish motherly love is an amazing gift.
Sure, we cheer for Streisand at the end of the movie when she goes off to pursue her own life, but it is Rogen who has the real journey of discovery in The Guilt Trip. What a lucky guy: His mother thinks he's great, so he's always going to think he's great, if only deep in his core. His mother is loving, so he's always going to be loving. His mother is his edge in every possible way one person can give another person an advantage in this otherwise challenging life.
And so, in the end, this piece is for my mother-in-law. I get it. And I thank you. And p.s., my favorite part of the movie is when Rogen explains to Streisand that he went to UCLA not because of how far it was from NY, but because it had the best organic chemistry program.