Question: What’s the difference between a rottweiler and a Jewish Mother?
Answer: Eventually, the rottweiler lets go.
She is one of the most iconic stereotypes in popular culture. She has been fodder for writers and comedians for decades, showing up everywhere from the novels of Philip Roth to the films of Woody Allen. She worries, she feeds, she suffers, she pushes, but most of all, the Jewish Mother loves unconditionally.
But is the Jewish Mother still alive in the 21st century? And do we need her?
“Always when you think about the Jewish Mother, there is a stereotype that is rooted in reality, but greatly exaggerated,” said Joyce Antler, author of “You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother,” and a professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University.
“I hope the best part is still alive. We need the Jewish Mother.”
The stereotype of the Jewish Mother arguably goes back to the 1940s, to an anthropological study financed by the American Jewish Committee, in which Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict interviewed 128 Jewish immigrant families living in New York City. The researchers came up with four defining traits of the Jewish Mother: suffering, over-feeding, worrying and loving her children unconditionally. The stereotype created by the research was then picked up by comedians such as Jackie Mason, using the image of the Jewish Mother pulling her children back, not letting them go.
“It’s a phenomenon of American comedy, the in-humor,” Antler said. “The mother gets blamed and loved at the same time.”
While the stereotype has propagated mostly in good fun, there is a “vulgar” representation of the Jewish Mother that Antler would like to see put to rest. She cited, as an example, an eight-part British reality series, “Jewish Mum of the Year,” which aired last fall. In the show, a variety of Jewish Mothers were pitted against each other in competitions such as who could make the best fruit dip for a bar mitzva. The show was slammed by British actress Maureen Lipman in The (London) Telegraph as “disgusting,” and “very damaging, with anti-Semitism being what it is.”
But the occasional offensive portrayals notwithstanding, Antler sees the Jewish Mother as having evolved to be relevant and valuable in today’s world.
“I think it’s way more complicated now, and we have Jewish Mothers very busily engaged in the world,” she said. “The Jewish Mother has always been passionately involved in the community, in addition to raising her children. We need Jewish Mothers to [help] create responsible workplaces and safe food, and to work on gun control. But you also have to be ready to make dinner.
“We need [the Jewish Mother] as a moral compass for her children and her community,” Antler continued. “We need her to interpret the world for her children because the world is getting more complex, and children need a moral guide. That’s the kind of thing that Jewish Mothers — and other mothers — can do best.”
Rachel Blaufeld, founder, writer, and editor behind the blog Back’nGrooveMom, sees the new Jewish Mother as resisting stereotype, but still maintaining some of the defining characteristics that created that stereotype.
“In general, the stereotypical mom has changed and has helped the Jewish mom evolve,” Blaufeld said. “She has gained a broader perspective than just wanting to care for her little tateleh. Jewish women are doing all kinds of things outside the home, and inside the home. In this digital age, with so many different options, we are creating a whole new destiny for ourselves.”
Still, remnants of the old Jewish Mother may remain in the DNA of the new Jewish Mother.
“I still make chicken soup from scratch every time my kid sneezes,” Blaufeld said. “I still check to see if they’re breathing at night. I still have a part of that in me. I say ‘oy’ a lot, and cook lots of Jewish soul food. But [in our family] we have more egalitarian roles.”
While parts of the stereotype may be rooted in reality, Fred Bernstein, author of “The Jewish Mothers’ Hall of Fame,” found that one stereotypical element was wholly absent when he interviewed the real Jewish Mothers of famous Jews: None of them pushed their kids to achieve.
Bernstein interviewed 25 Jewish Mothers, including the mothers of director Steven Spielberg, KISS rocker Gene Simmons, and Rosalyn Yalow, a Nobel medalist in medicine.
“None of the mothers wanted to take credit for their kids’ success,” said Bernstein. “They all said their very talented children basically came out of the womb like that. The prototypical Jewish Mother I interviewed was Spielberg’s mother; she just saw her role as getting out of the way.
“The stereotype is that they push,” he continued, “but the reality is that they facilitate.”
Bernstein recalled meeting Simmons’ mother, Florence, in 1980.
“Gene Simmons’ mother was one of the most amazing Jewish Mothers I’ve ever met,” he said. “She was loving, and supportive. She was a Holocaust survivor. Whatever her son did was OK by her. She even kept scrapbooks of Polaroid photos of every woman he ever slept with. She was such an amazing character.”
What Bernstein found in his research was that it was the attribute of being wholly supportive that defined the Jewish Mother.
“They were enablers, not pushers,” he said. “The best thing they could do was not squash their children’s talents.”
Bernstein sees the old stereotype of the Jewish Mother as slipping away.
“I have two young children who are not even familiar with the stereotype of the Jewish Mother,” he said. “I think it is largely lost in our culture. It has largely disappeared along with other stereotypes.
“There is a little bit of a loss, because the image added so much to our culture,” he added. “It was a rich source for writers, comedians, screenwriters.
“The Jewish Mother stereotype has been replaced by the [Asian] Tiger Mother. The Tiger Mother is, in effect, the new Jewish Mother.”
Although the stereotype is fading, the Jewish Mother, in all her variations, has certainly left her mark.
“She has been loving and has created all these wonderful offspring that have changed the world,” said Brandeis’ Antler. “Let’s give credit where it’s due. And with Mother’s Day coming, we should celebrate the Jewish Mother.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)