You Nev­er Call! You Nev­er Write!: A His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Mother

  • Review
By – March 30, 2012

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.


Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions