May 9, 2002
Jewish Mother Jokes
Mother's Day is not exactly a Jewish holiday, but it does provide an occasion to consider whether anything new can be noted in that old war-horse, the Jewish mother joke. Surprisingly, I do note several new wrinkles that help explain why even now this Borscht-belt holdover is not going away fast.
The Jewish mother joke is on stage in New York in the form of an off-Broadway production of Trish Vradenburg's play "Surviving Grace." Here we find the recognizable Jewish mother -- pushy, hysterical, meddling, obsessed with her daughter's unmarried status. But now she's been updated and, noticeably, sentimentalized. No longer the mere butt of jokes from Philip Roth or Woody Allen, she's both the butt of jokes to warm an analyst's heart, but also an Alzheimer's patient.
It's the Alzheimer's plot that gives the play its sour, updated yet feminist taste. Mother takes care of daughter, daughter, ultimately, takes care of mother. This theme explains why, despite a spate of negative reviews, the play sells to respectable houses. If she sticks around long enough, even the Jewish mother can get respect, though she might need senility to gain it. In "Grace," thanks to modern medical experiment, Mom gets to be a) insulted by her daughter b) abandoned by her husband c) loved before entering the grave. She even revives early enough to attend her daughter's wedding.
Who among us does not wish we'd treated our mothers with more compassion? The Jewish mother joke, circa 2002, comes complete with both insults and reconciliation. After decades of insults alone, the Jewish woman here is receiving an emotional send-off. Not exactly funny, but too often real.
As the audience ages, we're destined to see more plays like "Grace." As the next progression in the American Jewish community, it makes sense, too. As Professor Joyce Antler of Brandeis University outlined in a talk May 5 at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Jewish mother has gone from youthful immigrant respect (Molly Goldberg) to middle-class derision ("Portnoy's Complaint") to the current belated object of harmonizing. So long as she's still funny.
Another Jewish mother engendering both barbs and love is Tovah Feldshuh in the movie "Kissing Jessica Stein." Feldshuh starts off no less the boisterous cliché of Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor on "The Nanny"), pointing out loudly every available man in the packed synagogue to her single daughter Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt). But then, surprise: Feldshuh reaches across stereotype to endorse her daughter's happiness, however non-conforming it might seem. Take this Mom, please, straight to your heart.
We can't expect American audiences to drop the Jewish mother, since we've built her into popular culture for more than 50 years. She's too adept at pointing out the flaws and foibles Americans want to articulate.
The highlight of Dr. Antler's TV clips was the funniest extended Jewish mother joke I've heard in a long while: the "Frasier" rerun, "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz."
Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), is mistaken as a Jew by a new friend, Helen Moskowitz, while he buys a pair of candlesticks. Helen suggests Frasier date her daughter, Faye. Frasier agrees, and invites the two Moskowitz women to his "Jewish" home, preparing brisket and kugel and hiding his Christmas tree in the closet.
Tensions run high between Helen and Faye, who quickly air the family laundry. Inevitably the predictable mother-daughter eruption occurs, while Frasier and his father, Martin, look on in astonishment.
But if the outburst is cliché filled with the same insults, tears, hugs and kisses as is on view in "Surviving Grace," the payoff is far better.
As soon as the Moskowitzes leave, Frasier and Martin have an unprecedented blow-up of their own. They go after each other with the same red-hot tongs of Jewish media families through the ages, a knowing tribute to such icons of the grand Jewish family explosion: the Seinfelds, Portnoys and Rhoda Morgenstern. These non-Jewish men yell and scream, trying to attain the catharsis the Moskowitzes had made so appealing.
"They'd be done by now," Martin says to Frasier, when their own spat has run its course.
Like it or not, the Jewish mother joke has become part of the American family joke. It works on "Frasier" because it is respectful, with none of the freezer burn that comics have applied to ethnic women through the recent ages. What has so often been a circus act -- Jewish women portrayed as shrill, unstable, and aggressive -- is transformed by the universal power of humor and love.
So there you have it. Like it or not, we're stuck with the Jewish mother joke, providing updated commentary on values that many Americans hold dear.