Jewish Journal

The new Jewish mother

Many women are carving out new territory, but some are embracing qualities they once eschewed in their own mom

by Amy Klein

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

Rae Drazin never wanted to be a "stereotypical" Jewish mother who "overindulges her children, is self-sacrificing and overly protective." So Drazin worked full-time while she raised three children. She participated in their lives, but also made a point of encouraging them to be independent. "I didn't practice self-sacrificing behavior and tried very hard not to be overly protective."

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. Fuchs grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Los Angeles. "No one talked about anything besides degrees, then some sort of graduate school -- law school, medical school." Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, although she didn't want to be and emphasized a career for her daughter.

"I don't know how she thought I could get an M.D. and take care of my children," she said. "I wanted to get married , and I wanted to have children, and I wanted my Ph.D. I didn't think, 'Gee, what would I do with these children' I wanted to have? Eventually you have to make a decision."

Fuchs said she is fortunate that hers was made for her -- her research as an immunologist didn't pan out, and she didn't want to be a second-rate scientist, so she quit. "When I left science, my oldest was 15 months, and I remember the other women were all so overwrought about leaving their kids."

She is happy as a full-time mom -- and in the Modern Orthodox circles she runs in, she doesn't feel a need to defend her decision. Still, when she's out with her husband -- a doctor -- he is quick to point out that she has a Ph.D. "So they know I had another option, and I didn't have to stay home."

Does Fuchs worry about being a stereotypical Jewish mother?

"I worry about that I'm pushing my kids too hard and [whether] I am getting them on the right track. I don't think it's a Jewish thing at all. It's an upper-middle class worry. I don't think that being Jewish informs me in that way."

As far as her own daughters go, Fuchs is not quite sure what message she wants to pass on, although it's probably not the message she got growing up.

"I think we sell women the wrong message: By the time you finish your Ph.D., then you have to get married and have kids and then you have fertility problems," she said. "On the one hand, you don't want them to get married at 17, on the other hand, it's not good for girls to get married at 32."

But Fuchs' concerns are hardly Jewish. They touch on the fundamental issues of feminism -- the balancing act between career and home -- all issues taken up by all modern women.

Consider the "mommy wars" written about endlessly in newspapers, blogs and books, where committed stay-at-home moms battle stalwart working moms, or in Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide," (Putnam, 2005) which discusses whether feminism is dead and if women today are returning to age-old stereotypical mothers, like the '50s mom, undoing years of feminist struggles.

Many women, however, are embracing the qualities that they once eschewed in their own mothers. "I think there are a lot of good things about Jewish mothers," said Lori Gottlieb, a National Public Radio commentator and author who, among other things, wrote an essay in the book, "The Modern Jewish Girls' Guide to Guilt" (Dutton, 2005) about her mother, titled, "My Private Caller" ("One day I'll be dead, and then you'll be sorry you didn't take my calls," she quotes her mother as having said.) Now that Gottleib has her own child, her views are changing.

"I think there are some wonderful things about true types of Jewish mothers, good things -- adoration of our kids, an overwhelming sense of love -- we get carried away, and maybe that's a bad thing, especially when they're older. But I think our children feel loved, and that's not a bad thing. There are worse things in the world than having too much love showered on you."

Yes, like being abandoned, beaten and abused, yelled at, ignored or sent to military school -- but are methods like attachment parenting a good thing? Is it good for children to have overprotective mothers, whose primary focus is always their children?

Antler said the key is learning from the Jewish mothers of the past.

"I think what we call the hovering mother, the helicopter mother, bears some resemblance to the overinvolved Jewish mother of the past," Antler said. But there is a difference. The 24/7 hovering mother never feels like anything she does is good enough, and she always feels guilty about it.

"I think she could learn something from the Jewish mothers of the past," Antler said. "I don't think they did feel guilty. They did go to school with their children, but they didn't feel guilty about it," she said. It was just something they had to do.

"We are all Jewish mothers," Antler said.

How we perceive today's mothers stems, in large part, from how they are portrayed by the media. Ten years ago, a group of Hollywood women founded the MorningStar Commission "to look at the impact of these stereotypes on Jewish women," said Joan Hyler, a Hollywood producer.

"Negative stereotypes have a permanent and damaging impact -- be they sexist, racist or anti-Semitic. The influence of negative stereotypes contributes to a culture of xenophobia, hatred and isolation," she said.

The group hopes to influence better portrayals of Jewish women in the media, so that instead of Fran Drescher's nanny, you might have more like Debra Messing's Grace Adler, "a proud Jewish girl glamorously bouncing down the marriage aisle with her prize -- a gorgeous Jewish doctor!"There have been some minor improvements in the media, like the hippy Dharma, in "Dharma and Greg," or Barbra Streisand's oversexed mother in "Meet the Fockers." Actresses like Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman are openly proud to be Jewish, Hyler said, also pointing to characters, even minor ones, who break the stereotypes, like "Everwood" introducing a Jewish family and an elegant Jewish mother, or the young daughter in the hit series, "Brothers and Sisters," who longs to know her Jewish identity beyond being just "secular humanist."

Antler points to Tova Feldshuh, who plays a Jewish mother character in "Kissing Jessica Stein," a movie about a Jewish girl's flirtation with being a lesbian (and honored for it by the MorningStar Commission).

"Judy Stein [the mother] is immediately presented as a manipulative, overprotective Jewish mother - however, she's revealed in the film to be a caring, nurturing woman who understands her daughter's needs," Antler said. "The mother is a caricature, but then you get inside the character, and you can see the real positive traits of the Jewish mother. That kind of character can be copied in any medium."

The new Jewish mother indeed exists, Antler said. "and I think it needs the next generation of writers and performers to describe and put this into our cultural vocabulary. Let's see her. That's what we're waiting for. That's what I look forward to."

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