Jew­ish Moth­ers Nev­er Die

Natal­ie David-Weill; Mol­ly Gro­gan, trans.
  • Review
By – November 24, 2014

Fol­low­ing a car acci­dent she hard­ly remem­bers, Rebec­ca Rosen­thal finds her­self in Heav­en in the com­pa­ny of Amalia Freud, Jeanne Proust, Pauline Ein­stein, Min­nie Marx, Louise Cohen, Mina Kacew, and Net­tie Konigs­berg — the moth­ers of some of the great­est Jew­ish minds, writ­ers, and come­di­ans of the past two cen­turies. With a library ful­ly stocked with their sons’ com­plete works, these women spend their eter­nal days boast­ing and bick­er­ing togeth­er, recount­ing their mor­tal life­times, and play­ing Musi­cal Chairs and The Most Suc­cess­ful Son (the crowd favorite). 

The newest addi­tion to the mor­ti­cious ret­inue holds the advan­tage of being a French pro­fes­sor (like David-Weill) at the Sor­bonne. Rebec­ca can rec­og­nize her new com­pan­ions by their por­traits — even nam­ing the artists com­mis­sioned to paint them — and writ­ten depic­tions in their sons’ memoirs. 

She can recite ver­ba­tim the adver­tise­ment for the sale of Mar­cel Proust’s great-uncle’s home in Auteuil. 

The dis­tress over her death and per­ma­nent depar­ture from her adult child, Nathan, is soon assuaged by Rebecca’s inter­est in the prodi­gal off­spring of her com­pa­ny and the real­iza­tion that her place among them must prove her chron­i­cal­ly unam­bi­tious son des­tined for great­ness. Thrilled to find a will­ing audi­ence in the new arrival, the moth­ers eager­ly regale Rebec­ca with their mem­o­ries, hold­ing her in con­tempt at the slight­est hint of crit­i­cism or cri­tique about their par­ent­ing. They have been shar­ing their small cor­ner of Heav­en long enough to sus­tain irrevo­cable dis­putes — most­ly over their children’s genius — and resurg­ing irri­ta­tions between one anoth­er, but they remain where they are for their shared plea­sure in lib­er­ty from mar­i­tal respon­si­bil­i­ties and the del­i­cate con­tent­ment of peer female com­pan­ion­ship, bound by their roles as Jew­ish moth­ers: a syn­onym for being lov­ing, devot­ed, hero­ic, pos­ses­sive, demand­ing, para­noid, anx­ious, unbear­able, nosy, and always obsessed with one’s chil­dren, from their food to their safety.” 

Jew­ish Moth­ers Nev­er Die runs a bit skimpy on plot, heavy on dia­logue, and rich in dis­cus­sion of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture and film. The nov­el reads like a run­ning so-and-so meet in Heav­en” joke, reit­er­at­ed on a dif­fer­ent theme with each chap­ter: light, enjoy­able, and clev­er­ly staged.

Relat­ed content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions