Remembering Anne Meara: Jewish Mother By Choice
Anne Meara was a Jewess with an attitude. She was born in Brooklyn on September 20, 1929, raised as a Catholic, and died as a Jew in Manhattan on May 23, 2015. Meara studied drama and although she never intended to be a comedian, that’s how she will be remembered by most audiences. She had starring, recurring, and cameo roles in a slew of television and movie productions, including Kate McShane, Rhoda, Archie Bunker’s Place, Sex and the City, Will and Grace, The Night at the Museum, Zoolander and many others. What made Meara truly unique was that she exuded her Irish ethnicity while simultaneously taking on the mantle of Jewish wife and mother.
My favorite of her many characters is Mary Elizabeth Doyle, which she performed with her husband Jerry Stiller in front of a live television audience on The Ed Sullivan Show for seven years. Stiller and Meara’s breakthrough skit was one that emphasized the differences between a Jewish man, Hershey Horowitz, and an Irish woman. The acting agency representing them at the time thought that Sullivan would never allow it on the air because most of the country was Protestant; Sullivan gave it his blessing, and they made their first appearance on the show on April 7, 1963.
Long before the era of online dating services, the skit consisted of the dialogue between two people, matched up by a computer dating service, meeting for the first time. The fictional characters live on the same block of East Forty-Second Street, yet as they compare their friends’ names, they discover that they do not know any of the same people. Meara and Stiller’s success played on their ability to put their ethnic differences in sharp contrast with each other. In one skit, for example, they alternate calling each other names: “Matzah Head” / “Shillelagh Shiksa” / “Bensonhurst Blintz” / “Meshugenah Mother McCree” / “Cockamamie Knish.” Their off-stage relationship was a successful intermarriage of six decades.
While Meara and Stiller were hamming it up about their religious and ethnic differences, Meara had actually already converted to Judaism. Although Christian women who married Jewish men in the 1950s were likely to convert prior to marriage and to take their husband’s surname, Meara did neither. She remained Catholic when they wed in 1954 converting before their first child, Amy, was born in 1961. Meara told People magazine in 1977 that she chose Judaism because “I wanted my children to know who they were.” The practice of converting shortly before or sometime after children came into the marital equation reflects a sense that marriage truly begins when a child is born (or adopted). A woman’s decision to become a Jew-by-choice in response to her role as a mother illuminates the relationship between parenthood and intermarriage. The process of becoming a parent serves as an impetus for Christian women to begin reinventing themselves as Jewish women. No longer are they simply married to Jews; they are raising Jews, which inspires introspection and a reevaluation of their religious identities.
Anne Meara’s legacy is that women of other faith backgrounds can make great Jewish mothers. When her son Ben Stiller hosted Saturday Night Live on the evening of Yom Kippur 2011, he joked about feeling “woozy” from fasting, then added, “My father’s Jewish and my mother’s Irish Catholic. According to every Torah, I’m not Jewish; but according to every mirror, I am.” That said, when interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show before his mother’s passing, Ben credited her the most for his Jewish upbringing: “She knows more about Judaism than our entire family combined.” Meara’s responsibility for her children’s Jewish identities illustrates how Christian women who chose Judaism offer fresh perspectives on the interplay between religion and culture, and the nuanced meaning of intermarriage. May her memory be a blessing.