Mothering Heights: An Interview with the author of a cultural history of Jewish mothers

Joyce AntlerAn interview with the author of a cultural history of Jewish mothers Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis niversity. A member of the MFH board from 1988 to 1994, she served as Chair from 1991 to 1992. She is the author or editor of nine books, the most recent of which is You Never Call! You NeverWrite! A History of the Jewish Mother, published by Oxford in 2007. Ellen K. Rothman, who is leaving the Foundation after 11 years as Associate Director to become Deputy Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, interviewed Antler via e-mail.

Ellen K. Rothman: When did you first get the idea of writing a history of the Jewish mother?

Joyce Antler: Before this book, I had written about Jewish women as social and political activists (The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America) and about their treatment in popular culture (Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture). After my mother’s death, which occurred at about the time these works were published, I came to think even more about the ways in which our mothers’ legacies had become buried under the weight of cultural myths. I wanted to dig under those myths and see how they related to the true stories, the true experiences,of women like my mother, who did not at all fit the stereotype of the Jewish Mother.

EKR: Neither did mine. My father is the one who is more likely to say “You never call. You never write” (or e-mail, as the case may be). I was very aware growing up, and maybe you were, too, that my mother didn’t fit what I thought of as the stereotype of the Jewish mother, but you point out that the stereotype in fact has two sides.

JA: Yes, there are conflicting views of the Jewish mother. On the negative side, she’s seen as a colossal figure—manipulative, demanding, whiny, overprotective, and guilt-producing. It’s easy to imagine her hovering over her children, holding the spoon and urging them to take one more bite.Although it gets less play in the popular culture, there is an alternative stereotype: the Jewish mother as the emblem of unstinting love, support, and nurturance.

EKR: So I guess my mother fits the stereotype after all. I shouldn’t be surprised.

JA: The dominant, negative stereotype doesn’t fit the way Jewish wome see their own mothers—or how they see themselves as mothers. In fact, historically the Jewish mother’s goal was to make her children self-reliant, not to infantilize them. And she succeeded. Whenever we acknowledge Jews’ great success in America, we should credit the Jewish mother and the many ways in which she modeled strength and resiliency for her children. EKR: Was there something peculiarly American about the Jewish mother stereotype?

JA: After World War II, a team of social scientists working under Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict conducted a comparative culture study. In their exploration of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, the researchers identified a “stereotype” of the Jewish mother that consisted of suffering, worrying and overfeeding, combined with “unconditional love.” They exaggerated the “nagging” aspects of the stereotype, but in any case, these researchers were among several who claimed to find its roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. My book explains how the specific conditions of American life— immigration, suburbanization, even feminism— transformed earlier images and created specifically American models.

EKR: Your book begins in the 1920s. Was there a stereotype of the Jewish mother before then? Is it a byproduct of immigration?

book coverJA: There have always been notions of Jewish mothers in our culture, but the mass immigration of the early twentieth century created tensions that disrupted traditional gender notions and family dynamics. These anxieties were often written onto the Jewish mother, so that in the 1920s and early 1930s you get dual images of the Jewish mother—nurturant and encouraging, like the mothers in Sophie Tucker’s song “My Yiddish Mama” or in the first sound film, The Jazz Singer —or materialistic and manipulative, as in the film Younger Generation. In all of these cultural representations, the Jewish mothers were left behind as their children assimilated.

EKR: You write that stereotypes of “old-style Jewish mothers” persist, even as “cultural patterns on which they are based are becoming anachronistic.” Why do you think this is?

JA: Despite the seeming rigidity of the stereotype, it is constantly being transformed by new cultural norms. Yet the core components remain, and they continue to strike a chord among audiences. Perhaps this is because some of its attributes accord with perceived realities. Another reason for the durability of the stereotype is that while it incorporates fantasies and anxieties crucial to the story of Jewish acculturation, it also responds to the universal experiences of mothering and being mothered. And let’s not forget that Jews themselves have been especially prolific in conveying the stereotype through many different forms of popular culture. Plus, the social and behavioral sciences—even the humanities!—have played a part.

EKR: Do you have something specific in mind, a work of literature, for example?

JA: Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Awake and Sing! is often credited with presenting the first truly negative representation of a Jewish mother (although I think his character, Bessie Berger, had many positive traits). There were many other male authors who created Jewish mother characters; think of Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman. We should also mention writers like Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen who gave us very different portraits. Mothering was a central artistic concern in the work of both women, and they provide innovative, positive models of Jewish matriarchs.

EKR: What surprised you most while you were researching the book?

JA: The persistence, versatility, and ubiquity of the stereotype. It’s unquestionably the dominant stereotype about Jews of either gender, and it has been perpetuated over the generations not only by comedians and writers but by psychiatrists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians—and by women as well as men. To understand its permutations is to understand a great deal about Jewish life in America—and about the phenomenon of mother-blame.

EKR: Is it because the Jewish mother embodies so much good and bad that the stereotype remains socially acceptable and an unquestioned part of the popular culture?

JA: That is one reason: the Jewish mother was born of this dialectic between blaming the mother and admiring her, between mother-love that overpowers and crushes and that which nurtures.

EKR: Can you think of other stereotypes in American culture that have had this kind of staying power? JA: Stereotypes are central to all comedy, and every culture uses them. Many jokes concern parents, since we laugh about what we know best. But the Jewish mother stereotype is different, because it came to stand in for all American mothers of a certain kind: the overprotective mother, the “maternal tyrant” in extremis. The image gained power precisely because it came to represent this universal type.

EKR: You conclude from an analysis of several oral history projects that “they present a view of Jewish motherhood almost entirely at variance with stereotypical images.” Why do you think this is? How would you characterize the way the women interviewed described themselves and their mothers?

JA: Remarkably few observers have asked Jewish mothers directly about their experiences. I draw on a study of Jewish and Italian immigrants done in the 1980s and more recent studies conducted in Baltimore and Seattle by the Jewish Women’s Archive and one I conducted myself of older women in Florida. When you ask Jewish mothers how they remember their own mothers and how they see themselves as mothers, their answers are almost uniformly positive: they see Jewish mothers as enablers who raised their children with moderate, flexible methods, passing on their own morals and values. They are proud of their offspring— and of themselves as parents—and they see this role as one of the most fulfilling in their lives.

EKR: You argue that comedy has been a main culprit in transmitting stereotypes of Jewish mothers, and you suggest that a new generation of comics is reinventing the Jewish mother. How so? JA: While comics like Judy Gold, Amy Borkowsky, Wendy Leibman, Cory Kahaney, and Jackie Hoffman poke fun at the Jewish mother for nagging and intrusiveness—and they make good use of the “You Never Call!” mantra—they do it with empathy as well as humor. The Jewish mother in Sarah Silverman’s routine is not traditional in any way.

EKR: How does it feel to have your daughter Lauren doing stand up comedy about her Jewish mother?

JA: My comedian daughter’s Jewish mother is a feminist Jewish mother, which is a great new twist on the old routine.

EKR: Did she grow up hearing you deconstruct Jewish mother jokes around the dinner table?

JA: My two daughters have sometimes accused me of not having a sense of humor. In truth, comedy has an honored place in our family. (Lauren is a sixth-generation badkhen–the East European wedding singer who improvised witty rhymes on the spot.) Dinner time at our home was filled with jokes and laughter.

EKR: Do you have a favorite feminist Jewish mother joke?

JA: I like the one I quote in the Epilogue to my book, from Lauren Antler: A Jewish mother would call and say, “Honey, have you looked outside? It’s snowing. You might want to put on a jacket. You know what, on second thought maybe a snowsuit; I’m gonna revise that, you’re gonna need a shield. On third thought, don’t go outside at all … you could die!” But a Jewish feminist mother would call and say, “Honey, have you looked outside It’s snowing. I hope you don’t think that’s a reason to stay inside and take a break from fighting the patriarchy. Because the misogyny happens out there whether it’s raining or sleeting or snowing or whatever. And what? Are you going to wait for a man to shovel the snow? I don’t think so. Let’s get serious . . . and put on a coat.”

EKR: We can’t do an interview about the history of the Jewish mother without mentioning Portnoy’s Complaint. Even before Philip Roth created what one writer called “the caricature to end all caricatures of the Jewish mother,” Dan Greenburg’s 1964 bestseller How to be a Jewish Mother used the claim that any mother could be a Jewish mother to appeal to a wide readership. How do you account for the fact that so many non-Jews refer to themselves and their own mothers as Jewish mothers?

JA: The Jewish mother has become such a familiar icon that her oversized traits stand in easily for those of other mothers. Many non-Jewish readers have told me that they never knew that they had “Jewish mothers.”

EKR: Are Jewish mothers becoming more like other mothers, or vice versa?

JA: Because of high rates of intermarriage, conversion, adoption, and singleparenting, contemporary Jewish mothers come from many different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. The category “Jewish mother” has itself become remarkably diverse.

Secondly, today’s “helicopter" mother who hovers over her children and is on call 24/7—self-sacrificing, overprotective, deeply identified with her child’s success and embedded in every aspect of her children’s lives—resembles the fabled Jewish mother caricature more than ever before.

EKR: But isn’t she a stereotype, too? JA: I think that the notion of a “helicopter” mother is denigrating; it requires mothers to defend themselves against accusations that they are pathologically involved with their children.

EKR: You were a founding board member and you chair the Academic Council of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which was established by Gail Reimer, former Associate Director of MFH, in 1995. JWA hosts a blog, “Jewesses with Attitude,” where young Jewish women “tell it like it is.” What would you think of a blog for Jewish mothers?

JA: There are plenty of blogs by and for mothers. But a Jewish mothers’ blog, where mothers could talk back to the jokesters who ridicule them and share their own stories and smarts would be terrific!

EKR: I looked and couldn’t find one. I wonder if it’s because women hesitate to self-identify as Jewish mothers? What do you think?

JA: Very often Jewish mothers internalize the negative attributes of the stereotype, judging themselves by its worst traits. If we acknowledge the positive stories, the positive characters, that define who the Jewish mother was, we can embrace and enjoy the label.

EKR: I know you’ve done that. I hope your book will help other women follow suit.


©2007 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities Fall 2007