The New Jewish Mother?
Last Sunday, I called my mother to wish her a happy Mother’s Day, hoping that she would be doing something more enjoyable than grading papers or power-washing the patio. Indeed, instead of power-washing, she had spent her Mother’s Day morning power-walking. Upon returning, she’d made her way to the garden for some mulching, weeding, marigold-planting, and rigorous vegetable gardening. The weather had been beautiful, and instead of indulging in an air-conditioned restaurant sit-down lunch, my mother had spent the day frolicking outside which, incidentally, was exactly what I had been doing as well.
With my mother still on my mind, I picked up a copy of You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother, by Joyce Antler. In this new book, which has gotten rave reviews, Antler explores the colorful history of the Jewish mother in American life. Tracing the odyssey of this personality through film, novels, radio and television, stand-up comedy, and psychological/historical studies, Antler explains the transformation of the Jewish mother from a “sentimental figure” to a “brassy-voiced, smothering, and shrewish” scourge (in Irving Howe's words). She illuminates how stereotypes of the Jewish mother as worrying, manipulative, self-sacrificing; tenacious, overbearing, nurturing, and loud have long been fodder for comedy acts, giving Jewish mothers a bad rap.
Curiously, I was struck by how little of my own mother is represented in this book. She gardens, she bikes, she skis, she’s not pushy or overbearing, and she doesn’t worry too much. And while she does feel a strong need to feed her children and her guests an over-abundance of delicious and healthy home-cooked food, it’s doubtful that she’d frantically chase me down to Yankee stadium and clumsily sprawl herself across the bleachers just to hand me a paper-bag lunch that I left on the counter; behavior which, as Antler anecdotally recounts, was reported to her by one of her interviewees. And so I wonder: How much of these stereotypes of the Jewish mother reflect today's reality for them to actually resonate with people of my generation? And why have the relationships between Jewish mothers and sons been more dramatized, stereotyped, and mocked than Jewish mothers and daughters?
Refreshingly, Antler uncovers a new counter-narrative to the negative stereotypes of Jewish mothers, leading feminist scholars and stand-up comedians to see the Jewish mother in positive terms, as sources of inspiration for the Jewish community and American culture at large. If you pick up her book, you’ll find that there are so many women and mothers whose boldness and self-definition we can celebrate!
Click here to listen to an interview clip of Joyce and her daughter, Lauren, (a stand-up comedian) as they reflect upon Joyce’s book and Jewish mothers. Also, check out Joyce’s article “The Mother’s Day Gift I Want”