note: This article first appeared at The Women’s Media Center.
by Joyce Antler
Jewish mothers have gotten a bad rap—for being overprotective, overfeeding, intrusive, manipulative, guilt inducing. The list is easily extended. It is almost impossible to remember that the Jewish mother idea, like other stereotypes attached to ethnicity and gender, is a creation of the media–celebrated, or rather, denigrated, in films, television, radio, fiction, drama, and on the nightclub stage. She is not real at all.
Yet real mothers have internalized the negative attributes of the stereotype. For fear of being labeled a Jewish mother, they may stifle characteristics that tie them to an unpleasant image embodying over-intense, harmful concern. Harnessed by the power of the media, the Jewish mother has become the American mother in extremis–a standard by which families of all backgrounds judge maternal behavior.
This has not always been the case. A little over 50 years ago, Molly Goldberg, the beloved character played by Gertrude Berg on radio and television for almost three decades, went off the air. A powerful, pioneering auteur—she also wrote and produced the show’s 10,000 episodes—Berg crafted a character who conveyed a haimishe (homelike) warmth combined with maternal wisdom and ethical values. At a time of significant anti-Semitism in the United States, with Jews largely invisible in the media, The Goldbergs was a cultural phenomenon, effectively representing Jews to a diverse and enthusiastic audience. The immigrant mother she played became a prototype not of maternal villainy, but of strength, nurturance, and care.
Contrast this portrayal with the nagging, whining, guilt-tripping caricatures shown more recently–Sylvia Buchman (Cynthia Harris) on Mad About You; Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor) on The Nanny; Jerry’s mother Helen (Liz Sheridan) and George Costanza’s crypto Jewish mother, (Estelle Harris) on Seinfeld; Conrad’s mother on Conrad Bloom (Linda Lavin); and Vicki Groener’s mother Edie (Joan Rivers) on Suddenly Susan. Even Grace’s mother (Debbie Reynolds) on Will and Grace, a show that prided itself on breaking gender stereotypes, fits snugly into the pushy, interfering, overcritical Jewish mother caricature. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm continues the trend, showcasing the frumpy, foul-mouthed, Susie Greene (Susie Essen), a complete contrast to David’s Gentile wife, the cool, glamorous Cheryl.
Film treatments show a more hopeful trajectory, with the outrageous portrayals of the 1970s and 1980s–in Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa, Ernest Lehman’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks–being replaced by the positive images in such works as Nora Ephron’s This is My Life and Jennifer Westfeldt’s and Heather Juergensen’s Kissing Jessica Stein. In the latter, Tovah Feldshuh as Judy Stein reveals depths of understanding beneath the layers of a Jewish mother’s nagging shtick. Insightful, though outrageously meddlesome, this mother facilitates her daughter’s deepest desires, showing how film formulas can be modified from within to reflect more progressive, feminist, ideas of mothering. Yet despite these positive examples, the disparaging, nagging stereotype certainly lingers in many contemporary films about Jewish families.
In today’s television world, the drastic erasure of both family dramas and sit-coms from prime time leaves little room for diverse and realistic portrayals of Jewish mothers, or of ethnic mothers of any variety for that matter. Reality TV may provide at least some opportunity for interesting portrayals of family life. In the recent but short-lived #1 Single, for example, singer Lisa Loeb portrayed herself as an intelligent, mature, quirky and endearing single Jewish girl, looking for love. She spends time with her Jewish mother and relates to her affectionately and honestly, a rare showing of the dimensions of mother/daughter relationships. Stage and comedy performances, often using one-woman, autobiographical formats, are also vehicles for presenting refreshing images of these complicated interactions, as in Lisa Kron’s play Well and Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for A Jewish Mother. Contemporary fiction, memoirs, and feminist scholarship offer a veritable torrent of thoughtful material about the Jewish mother. But whether popular media can incorporate insights from this new work remains an open question.
The stakes are high. For more than half a century, the media have used Jewish mothers as convenient targets for a humor that, while sometimes affectionate, easily veers into misogyny and anti-Semitism. Scapegoating the Jewish mother as a colossal maternal tyrant represents a failure to understand the complexities of motherhood that ultimately harms all women. Current portrayals of nondenominational helicopter mothers are simply extensions of the destructive Jewish mother stereotype.
How can we open up a more panoramic view of the lived experiences of Jewish mothers, and all mothers? Journalists, writers, filmmakers, and others in our cultural community are responsible for interpreting the maternal role, and the media’s accurate perception of the challenges that mothers face and the parenting strategies they have devised would be a most welcome, and crucially important, Mother’s Day gift for us all. Revising the negative stereotype to present a new face of the Jewish mother may be a place to begin.
Joyce Antler teaches American Studies at Brandeis University and is the author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. Check out some of her past posts on the OUPblog here.