“What’s the difference between a rottweiler and a Jewish mother? Eventually the rottweiler lets go.” Joyce Antler’s fascinating book, You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother, elucidates the social forces that have contributed to the malevolent stereotyping of the Jewish mother. Jewish humor, honed in the stand-up comedy acts in the Jewish Catskills and in the mass media, served to make Jewish mother stereotypes ubiquitous.
Antler carefully traces how these Jewish mother images have changed over time and reflect the critical issues faced by the Jewish community, especially those dealing with tensions regarding acculturation and modernization, parent-child struggles over autonomy, and gender role imbalances. In the mid-1920’s, the immigrants’ ambitions portrayed “my yiddishe mama” as a “source of strength and nurturance,” not very different from the biblical “woman of valor.” This was followed by the “manipulative but kindhearted” Molly Goldberg who was the “quintessential” Jewish mother. In the 50’s, Jews faced the turbulence associated with entering mainstream America and the tenacity and protectiveness of the Jewish mother gets inverted. Jewish popular culture begins to portray the Jewish mother as a backward, crass, and manipulative puppeteer. The ambivalence of the Jewish community with new-found affluence and success in the 1960’s generates a new set of images, that of the JAP (Jewish American Princess). In these jokes, Jewish women are depicted as spoiled, materialistic, self-serving, and shallow. The Jewish mother imagery begins to change with the women’s liberation movement when Jewish feminist writers, such as Robin Morgan and Shulamith Firestone, seek to positively connect daughters and mothers in their writings. Finally, it is the work of Jewish feminist academic scholars, such as Joyce Antler and Paula Hyman, that debunk the ugly stereotypes and document their pernicious effects on Jewish life.
Today’s Jewish humor and literature reflect the latest cultural changes. Pernicious misogynistic and anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish women are no longer acceptable to most Jews. It is also true that it is no longer accurate to portray the Jewish group as a culturally homogenous population. Antler reports that one recent study found “at least 20 percent of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African American, Asian, Latino, mixed race, and Sephardic Jews.” This includes Jews by choice, adopted members, and children of intermarriage between people of color and Ashkenazi Jews. Jamaica Kincaid, the Caribbean-born author, is a Jewish mother. She converted after marrying a secular Jew and has served as president of the synagogue in her Vermont town. Lesbian Jewish mothers is another group that cannot be subsumed within previous stereotypes. Jewish comedy and literature are beginning to reflect these changes. Popular comedian Judy Gold, a Jewish lesbian mother of two, provides a much more nuanced and sympathetic view of Jewish mothers in her stand-up comedy acts. New books, such as Ima on the Bima by Mindy Avea Portnoy, serve to depict positive views of careerist Jewish mothers, including those who become rabbis. Joyce Antler identifies another interesting pattern, which serves to highlight the positive consequences of Jewish mothering. In this age when over fifty percent of American Jewish marriages include a non-Jewish partner, it is the families in which the mother is Jewish that the children are most likely to be raised as Jews and to feel connected to their Jewish identity.
Cultural images of Jewish mothers and women have changed for the better. You Never Call! You Never Write! helps the reader understand how and why these changes have taken place. The highly readable quality of the writing will delight both the scholar and the average reader including those who are Jewish mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons.
Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.