Jewish Journal

Oy vey! You should read what they’re writing about them—in books yet

by Sandee Brawarsky

Posted on May. 10, 2007 at 8:00 pm

I have the kind of Jewish mother who could both make gefilte fish from scratch and play 18 holes of golf in one day. Every day throughout my high school years, my mother would hand me lunch in a paper bag as I rushed out the door and left most of the breakfast she had prepared on the kitchen table.

Now, when she visits, my eighty-something mother will clean our toaster inside out if we don't stop her. She's still the best person around to shop with for just about anything.

But while I've always been a daughter --an adoring one, in fact -- this is the first time that I've written a column about books for Mother's Day while being interrupted to go over 5th-grade spelling words and help illustrate a 7th-grade poster. As I write late into the night, tomorrow night's dinner is cooking and three young children are sleeping upstairs in the new home I share with them and their father, a widower.

We got married just a few months ago, and we are all finding our way toward forging a family. Yes, I see my mother in my household routines, and I am ever aware of her example and increasingly awestruck by her talents.

So I read this season's selection of books with perhaps a different eye and an increased curiosity. There are serious books about Jewish mothers, lighthearted books, how-to volumes and memoirs and some manage to cross categories. Some offer knowing advice, others observations and jokes. The best are those that are open, honest and wise, not preachy or sentimental.

The title of Joyce Antler's new book not only grabs attention but conveys the tone of the book. "You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother" is scholarly and lively, full of rich anecdotes drawn from popular culture, sociological and historical studies and life experience.

Antler, a professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University and author of several books, including "The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America," examines the origins of negative stereotypes associated with the Jewish mother. She shows how images like being domineering, manipulative and overprotective have endured, and how they've been depicted in books, film and particularly on television, even as Jewish mothers have represented so much more than that.

"I wanted to understand the misunderstood Jewish mother, " Antler said in an interview, noting her goal of coming up with a portrait that's more diverse and pluralistic, recognizing the great strengths of Jewish women over these last decades in America, who've helped their families get acculturated and achieve great success. She said that the images get re-invented every generation or so.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother book cover Hers is the most serious and engaging of new books, as she shifts her analytical eye from early television and radio's Molly Goldberg and the jokes of George Jessel ("Isn't it nice to have your own phone?" he asks his mother. "What? Nobody calls you? Even before you had the phone, nobody called you either?") to Tovah Feldshuh in "Kissing Jessica Stein" and the humor of Sarah Silverman.

Antler also interviews Jewish mothers and includes their voices, speaking directly of their lives. One 97-year-old Sephardic mother of five who was born in Turkey spoke of having "a paradise in my home."

Antler, who has been teaching at Brandeis for 28 years, is the proud Jewish mother of two daughters, and she's admittedly quite involved in their lives.

"I've come to embrace the label, more so than I ever did before," she said. One daughter is a stand-up comic who enjoys making fun in her monologue of having a feminist Jewish mother -- a mother who encourages her not to wait for a man to shovel the snow for her but to put on a warm coat and get out there.

When you show up empty-handed on the first day of your young child's softball practice, and the rest of the mothers all seem to be bearing bags of doughnuts for the coach, you realize that they know something that you don't. "What the Other Mothers Know," by Michelle Gendelman, Ilene Graff and Donna Rosenstein (Harper), is a smart, practical, funny and hip guide.

The Los Angeles-based authors, who describe themselves as not professionals like Dr. Spock or Dr. Phil but "three Dr. Moms, hands-on working parents" who have to budget their time and money, share advice that's generous in spirit, especially geared to first-time moms.

There's nothing of the competitive attitude that marks the so-called "mommy wars," as they offer their version of a maternal E-Z Pass, culled from those with older kids and good memories. First-timers will learn about what other mothers seem to already know about preschool enrollment, finding good baby sitters and getting around the rules of school uniforms.

Yiddishe Mamas book cover When I saw Judy Gold's show, "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother," off-Broadway, I laughed and cried and called my sister as soon as I left the theater and told her that she had to get tickets. Gold's new book, "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" (Voice), written with playwright Kate Moira Ryan, is based on the show and organized into 25 chapters of questions, ranging from "What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?" to "What's the hardest thing you've ever had to do as a mother?"

Gold's monologue -- here presented as narrative -- is based on her own adventures growing up in suburban New Jersey and now as the mother of two sons, along with the voices of 50 Jewish mothers she and Ryan interviewed around the country over a five-year period.

"I am not the typical Jewish mother I make fun of in my act," she writes. "I've always wanted to be the 'young and fun' kind of mom and not some secondary character in a Philip Roth novel. For most of my adult life, I have struggled with the conflicts of being Jewish as well as being gay and being a comedian as well as a mother. Honestly, what Jewish mother do you know who spends her evening in smoky clubs full of drunk people, shouting obscenities over the sound of a blender, and the next day drops off her kids at Hebrew school?"Her own mother might be the more stereotypical Jewish mother -- "Without me, you'd have no act," she would tell her daughter, who describes how her mother kept track of Judy and her siblings every minute as they were growing up. Ultimately, she finds the source of her mother's fear. And readers witness how her mother shifts from denying her daughter's sexual orientation to accepting it, maybe not bragging over the fact that her daughter has two beautiful boys with unknown donor fathers, but being quite the loving, doting, encouraging grandmother.

In her show, she seemed to inhabit the other women's beings as she presented their wide-ranging stories; she would identify them by profession and denomination, as she does here. She unfolds their tales of naming their children and recalling advice from their mothers; in their voices, she discusses intermarriage, guilt and God. In an epilogue, she advises readers to set up their own "25 Questions" coffee and rugelach parties and interview their mothers and grandmothers.

"Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother," by Marnie Winston-Macauley (Andrews McNeel), celebrates Jewish mothers, including stories and quotes from well-known Jewish mothers.

Winston-Macauley, who writes the advice column, "Ask Sadie," and describes herself as a Jewish mother of a son and five stepchildren, refutes the stereotypes and has a good time with them, too. Her book is wide-ranging in looking at the experience of Jewish mothers, their accomplishments, identity and the jokes about them.

"The Portable Jewish Mother: A Hearty Serving of Oy Vey," by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D. (Adams Media), dishes out all the Jewish mother stereotypes, yet is appreciative, sometimes funny. The book is filled with lists of surprising facts, quizzes, quotes, recipes, brief stories and a "Jewish Mother Face-Off," identifying Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paula Abdul as Jewish mothers, Mia Farrow as not.

Rozakis is a professor of English and humanities at Farmingdale State University in New York, the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style" and "Comma Sutra" and "the Jewish mother of two beautiful, successful kids."

"Waiting for Daisy: Five Fertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother," by Peggy Orenstein (Bloomsbury), is a memoir of longing, following the author's six-year trail -- beginning at age 35 -- through what she feels are all possible means to achieve her dream of motherhood. Many who are hoping to become Jewish mothers will identify with Orenstein's struggle and admire her relentless and resourceful nature -- and her blessed good fortune.

Along the way to finally giving birth to her beautiful daughter, Daisy, Orenstein, the author of "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap," goes through varied fertility treatments, visits an old boyfriend who has 15 kids, does research in Hiroshima that leads to a possible adoption, stuffs good luck charms under her mattress and stands on her head a lot to improve chances of conception.

I'm with Roth's mother (quoted by Antler) who, when asked for the umpteenth time after "Portnoy's Complaint" was published whether the character of Sophie Portnoy was based on her, said, "All mothers are Jewish mothers."

I'd even venture to say that all women, or many women, are Jewish mothers, whether they have children or not. It's natural to be concerned about the safety and comfort of others, and yes, to want to nourish and feed them and make sure they're wearing sweaters when it's cold.

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