Joyce Antler, the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University, is the author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. Instead of asking questions ourselves, we asked Joyce’s daughter, comedian, Lauren Antler to quiz her mom. Below is what Lauren found out. Be sure to read Joyce’s Passover post and check back everyday this week for more!
Lauren Antler: Jewish mothers get a bad rap for being overprotective, intrusive, controlling, for initiating guilty feelings, for overfeeding (or packing bags of food for your train trip even if you’re 30, for making sure they have your travel itinerary – even if you’re thirty, etc.) Do you think they deserve this bad rap? Do you do any of these things? (Correct answer, “yes.”)
Lauren: Excellent tip, Mom!
I’ve always been intrigued by the women in our family – grandma Sophie, great-grandmas Tillie and Anna. Your mother Sophie never seemed like a “typical” Jewish mother. How does your mothering differ from your own mother’s?
Joyce: We each bring our own personalities to the job of mothering. But we also respond to differing social climates. My mother didn’t go to college, neither did my grandmothers, and I never considered them working women with “real” jobs. As did so many women of her generation, my mother merely “helped out” –managing my father’s office. Her mother, Tillie, wound up cooking all day and running a small boarding house in the Catskills after her husband impulsively bought some property there. My other grandmother, Anna, had been in the 1909 garment workers’ strike and got arrested for hitting a policeman! I knew her only as a mother and grandmother, so it was a revelation when I learned that she had been such a firebrand. She, too, was more than a “typical” mother.
At some point in their lives, each of these women turned her primary attention to raising her family. Grandma Anna was the most interventive– I suppose her children would say dominant (but not domineering). My mother and her mother, Tillie, were quiet, soft-spoken, and laid-back. All were more complex and interesting than their children–and the culture–gave them credit for. Each is a hero to me.
Lauren: Are you working on a book about Jewish grandmothers? Because that’s the only reason I can explain why a feminist would start nudging her daughter about having grandkids. It must be a book project right?
Joyce: Your father and I would be only too happy to baby-sit. However, we’re old-fashioned feminists: we’d prefer that you get married first.
And thanks for the idea of a Jewish grandmothers book! What a great project!
Lauren: Speaking of grandkids, though I embrace my future Jewish-motherhood, I worry about doing some of the JM mothery things – like worrying too much. What are some tell-tale signs that one is heading down that road?
Joyce: Don’t worry about over-worrying. When you’re a parent, it comes with the territory. As I say about the Jewish mothers in my book, “worrying”–even “nagging”–is simply another term for love. Jewish mothers don’t deserve the bad rap that you mentioned: in most cases, their parenting was skillful and empowering, designed to mold children who were successful, caring, responsible human beings. They wanted them to be independent, not passive ciphers.
Lauren: What are some lessons you’ve learned as a mother? What would you pass on to Rachel and me when we become mothers? And by pass on, I mean actually give us — we’ll need clothes, books, a changing table, silver rattles, a college fund….
Joyce: One of the things I share with the Jewish mothers in my book is my hope that my kids will grow up to be confident, self-aware, independent, and self-reliant. But don’t worry–you can count on the changing table!
Lauren: When I was little, you would sometimes worry out loud that you were not home in your apron with a tray of cookies waiting to welcome me. Was this something Grandma Sophie did? Do you feel that your career got in the way of your motherhood?
Joyce: Or vice-versa! A perfect motherhood is impossible, whether a mother works full time or not. Grandmother Sophie didn’t have cookies waiting for me when I came home–she was too busy. But she did give me the gift of her unconditional love.
Mothers will always struggle to balance the various parts of their lives. Strains are inevitable, as are regrets–like not being able to come to all of your performances or your sister’s sports events. But being a mother has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life. And that is a key finding of my book. When I asked Jewish mothers to comment on their own parenting, they spoke of pride, satisfaction, and pleasure.
They also had enormous regard for their own mothers. Despite the inevitable struggle to establish their own lives, they respected their mothers’ values and admired their accomplishments.
Lauren: I’ve always been impressed with how you, as a mother, have been able to mesh feminism with femininity–cooking great dinners each night while reminding us to fight the patriarchy!
What’s important about what you’ve done with this book is that you’ve turned the stereotype of the JM on its head– asking us to reconsider the myth and the behavior, though this time seeing the over protectiveness, etc., as both strength and love.
Please note the image above, from left to right, is Rachel, Joyce and Lauren Antler. Stephen Antler took the photograph.