May 10, 2007
The new Jewish mother
Many women are carving out new territory, but some are embracing qualities they once eschewed in their own mom
Janet Fuchs was taught to focus on her career when she was growing up -- so she did. She studied immunology and thought she'd be the next Jonas Salk. Now she's a full-time mom.
Meet the New Jewish mother: Educated, independent and hard working, she wants the best for her children. She also wants to be different. Different from the stereotype of the Jewish mother -- no longer the long-suffering martyr who loves her children so much that she smothers them with nagging, with guilt and, of course, with food. That version was sometimes materialistic, always overbearing and, as the joke goes, like a rottweiler, never let go.
We all know this mother, because for the most part, this is the mother that has been repeatedly portrayed in music, books, film and on television for the last half century -- from "Portnoy's Complaint" ("Alex, why are you getting like this, give me some clue? Tell me please what horrible things we have done to you all our lives that this should be our reward?") to "The Nanny," as well as in all the good old Jewish mother jokes (A bum walks up to a Jewish mother on the street and says, "Lady, I haven't eaten in three days." "Force yourself," she replies). And in the minds of most Americans -- and purveyors of American culture around the world -- she still is the Jewish mother.
But maybe, really, she isn't any more.
A new Jewish mother is emerging in the 21st century among women who have learned the lessons of their mothers and grandmothers, yet are carving out territory of their own -- in many different versions.
The Jewish mother has always figured strongly in pop culture, but she wasn't bad in the beginning, said Joyce Antler, author of the new book, "You Never Call, You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother" (Oxford University Press, 2007), and a professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University.
"In the 1920s, it was the familiar, sentimental Yiddishe mama that Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson and Henry Roth portrayed," that is, the supportive mother. But by World War II, the Jewish mother became "villainous," Antler said in an interview.
All the fears Jews had about assimilation got taken out on the mother, Antler believes. "She becomes the scapegoat for materialistic, acquisitive values. The other aspect is the manipulative, interfering, guilt-producing, overprotective woman, the mother who doesn't let her children alone."
In the 1960s, with the civil rights movement and the advent of feminism, Jewish women began taking a new look at their mothers. Today, with intermarriage, conversion, adoption and diversity, "demography gives us a new face of the Jewish mother," Antler said.
There are political mothers, community mothers, working mothers and, of course, stay-at-home mothers who focus their attention on their children. "The Jewish mother is still evolving," she said.
For Jewish women who consciously, conscientiously, try to not behave like mothers past -- like their own mothers -- breaking the pattern isn't always easy. Drazin, for example, described her mother as self-sacrificing. ("She would give the best parts of the chicken to us children and be content with eating the less-desirable parts.)
When Drazin's own children were young, she was in graduate school and then worked full-time. She tried to embody the "positive traits of a Jewish mother -- taking time to listen to a child's needs and respond lovingly and caringly." She even sometimes indulged her children, cooking their favorite meals when they were sick, volunteering in their schools, making their Purim costumes -- but she said she did so without self-sacrificing behavior and without being overly protective.
But these days, Drazin's son and his wife are practicing something called "attachment parenting" with their son. This involves breast feeding until the child is a toddler, co-sleeping and putting the parents' needs -- especially the mother's -- second to child's, so the thinking goes, the child will become a secure, independent individual.
"Is this a new version of the Jewish mother? Maybe," Drazin said.
Or maybe the overattached Jewish mother of yesteryear has become the New Age parent of today.
In this era of overzealous parenting, some babies don't encounter another human being other than their parents for the first six months for fear of germs. And children are registered for preschool before they are born, so they will be on the right academic track. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference between old-fashioned and new-era mothers.
And it's also hard to differentiate the Jewish mother from the ethnic mother, as portrayed by the media. Anyone who has watched "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" can see that the Jewish mother and the ethnic mother come from the same mold. Loud, opinionated, overbearing and always, no matter the country of origin, pushing food.
On "Everybody Loves Raymond," the mother was played by a Jew (Doris Roberts), who was created by a Jew and an Italian, but is meant to be Italian. On "The Sopranos," the guilt-inducing martyr of a mother is also ... Italian.
"The Jewish mother can be any mother in extremis; what's different is how the Jewish mother came to stand in for the mother," said Antler. "I don't think our popular culture represents other mothers in such ways. You don't find the cruelties, to such an extent. When Jewish mothers are portrayed as themselves, you almost always get the exaggerated type. She's either portrayed in an excessive fashion or not at all."
If it's true that all mothers -- or at least all middle-class American mothers -- are Jewish mothers, it's probably true that for many Jewish mothers today their struggles are not about whether they should be a "Jewish mother" but the typical struggle of middle-class women: To work or not to work? The feminism of the '60s, '70s and '80s taught women they could have it all, but many mothers in the '80s, '90s and even today are discovering that having it all isn't truly possible, and they have to make choices.