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Confronting the Jewish Mother Stereotype

Collage by Judy Goldstein.

“Mama” was the first word I ever uttered, same as billions of other babies before and after me. I hid behind her legs and pulled on her dress when I was feeling shy. I apologized for leaving tear-drop stains on her shirt, and went back to crying when she said it was okay. I still look to her when a doctor asks me about my symptoms. My mother is more than my parent: she’s my teacher, friend, and confidant. But, I sometimes wonder if my over-reliance on my mother and her guidance subconsciously perpetuates the omnipresent stereotype of The Jewish mother.

Armed with a loud, nasally voice, the Jewish mother is a suffocatingly overbearing ball of anxiety ready to guilt-trip her children at a moment’s notice. She vacations in Florida (but pronounces it “Flah-rida”), her fingers are stacked with chunky gold rings, and the only thing she ever prays for at synagogue is that her daughter marry a doctor, lawyer, or some combination of the two. The Jewish mother trope is ever-present and ever-vivid in the minds of many Jews, especially as the stereotype can be found in a number of popular television shows, movies, and other forms of media.

Beverly Goldberg on The Goldbergs and Susie Essman on Curb Your Enthusiasm are just a few modern-day embodiments of the Jewish mother that can be found on television screens. Susie’s thick New York accent and constant kvetching and Beverly’s persistent use of her catchphrase, “I have failed as a mother!” create a conveniently accessible example of the Jewish mother. While it's clear that these mothers love no one more (or harder) than their children, their strict rules, persistent punishments, and never-ending anxiety are enough to make any viewer overlook their good intentions.

“The most memorable and fully elaborated caricature of the Jewish mother,” is said to be Sophie Portnoy, the mother of the main character in Phillip Roth's controversial Portnoy's Complaint. In the book, Alexander Portnoy rants about his frustrations with his mother, whom he blames for just about everything that’s gone wrong in his life. Throughout his monologue, the aggression with which he talks about his mother is enough for any reader to turn away in disgust. He says that “[a] Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant….” Through Alexander, Roth argues that regardless of any good intentions of keeping her children safe, the Jewish mother’s obsessiveness and constant doting on her children restricts them from ever truly growing up. The contempt that Roth uses to refer to his parents, especially his mother, is representative of the undue resentment that is intertwined in the attitudes of Jewish people towards their mothers.

So, where did this warped perspective of a stereotype even come from? It may be surprising to learn that the Jewish mother’s predecessor, the Yiddishe Mamme, is not an overbearing mess of curly hair and complaint, but a comforting figure who was celebrated in pre-Holocaust European shtetl life. This Jewish mother was a dedicated homemaker, known for her inner strength and confidence, anxiously showering her children with love to protect them from the antisemitism and poverty plaguing the Old World. Jewish-American singer Sophie Tucker’s 1925 hit song “My Yiddishe Momme” describes her own Jewish mother as “a woman with a pure Jewish heart, with eyes reflecting endless devotion.” However, as Jewish families in America sought to leave behind their shtetl ancestors, they brought the Yiddishe Mamme down with them.

While this “endless devotion” may have been endearing in the Old World, Americans viewed the Jewish mothers’ high anxiety levels and love bombing as excessive and out of style. Now, instead of being a fierce protector of her children, the Jewish mother was obnoxious, loud, and domineering. What was once a figure of love and hope melted into a stereotype that became a scapegoat for many Jewish people’s uncertainty and anxieties about acculturation and Americanization.

This stereotype has gone beyond infiltrating pop culture and is now firmly engraved in our own minds. In fact, researching for and writing this piece has helped me uncover some of my own internalized thoughts on the Jewish mother stereotype. I consider myself lucky to have a very close, sturdy relationship with my mom. She’s usually the first person I go to for advice, if I need a shoulder to cry on, or if I need to vent my frustrations. I’m beyond grateful for this dynamic, yet I can’t help but wonder if I’m holding her back. Is my over-reliance on my mother and her eagerness to support me subconsciously preserving the stereotype that has continually shaped our community in a negative light?

From what I’ve seen in my eighteen years of being surrounded by strong, caring Jewish women, the modern-day Jewish mother (at least the one I have) is far more like the Yiddishe Mamme than its predecessor. Sure, I’ll get a bunch of texts and calls from my mom while I’m on a night out to make sure I’m safe. And I can be confident that I’ll never go hungry on a road trip or plane ride. But I know that these messages and actions come from a place of love and care. And if I grow up to be even half as amazing as my Jewish mother, I’ll know I'm doing something right. As Phillip Roth’s own mother once said, “I think all mothers are Jewish mothers.”

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Motherhood, Children
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How to cite this page

Sorkin, Clara. "Confronting the Jewish Mother Stereotype." 12 July 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 1, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/confronting-jewish-mother-stereotype>.