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Jewish mother stereotype

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The Jewish mother or wife stereotype is a common stereotype and stock character used by Jewish comedians and authors, usually when discussing their mothers, whether fictionally or not. The stereotype generally involves a nagging, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, one who persists in interfering in her children's lives long after they have become adults.[1] Lisa Aronson Fontes describes the stereotype as one of "endless caretaking and boundless self-sacrifice" by a mother who demonstrates her love by "constant overfeeding and unremitting solicitude about every aspect of her children's and husband's welfare[s]".[2]

Origins in Jewish immigration to the United States

A possible origin of this stereotype is anthropologist Margaret Mead's research into the European shtetl, financed by the American Jewish Committee. Although her interviews at Columbia University, with 128 European-born Jews, disclosed a wide variety of family structures and experiences, the publications resulting from this study and the many citations in the popular media resulted in the Jewish mother stereotype: a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering she professes to have experienced on their behalf. The Jewish mother stereotype, then, has origins in the American Jewish community, with predecessors coming from Eastern Europe. In Israel, where the geographical background of Jews is more diverse, the same stereotypical mother is known as the Polish mother.[3]

Comedian Jackie Mason describes stereotypical Jewish mothers as parents who have become so expert in the art of needling their children that they have honorary degrees in "Jewish Acupuncture".[4] Rappoport observes that jokes about the stereotype have less basis in anti-Semitism than they have in gender stereotyping.[5] Helmreich agrees, observing that the attributes of a Jewish mother—overprotection, pushiness, aggression, and guilt-inducement—could equally well be ascribed to mothers of other ethnicities, from Italians through blacks to Puerto Ricans.[6]

The association of this otherwise gender stereotype with Jewish mothers in particular, is, according to Helmreich, because of the importance that is traditionally placed by Judaism on the home and the family, and on the role of the mother within that family. Judaism, as exemplified by the Talmud (e.g. the Woman of Valor) and elsewhere, ennobles motherhood, and associates mothers with virtue. This ennoblement was further increased by poverty and hardship of Eastern European Jews immigating into the United States (during the period 1881–1924, when one of the largest waves of such immigation occurred), where the requirements of hard work by the parents were passed on to children via guilt: "We work so hard so that you can be happy." Other aspects of the stereotype are rooted in those immigrant Jewish parents' drive for their children to succeed, resulting in a push for perfection and a continual dissatisfaction with anything less: "So you got a 98? Who got the 100?" Hartman observes that the root of the stereotype is in the self-sacrifice of first-generation immigrants, unable to take full advantage of American education themselves, and the consequent transference of their aspirations, to success and social status, from themselves to their children. A Jewish mother obtains vicarious social status from the achievements of her children, where she is unable to achieve such status herself.[6][7]

Development of the stereotype in 20th century popular culture

One of the earliest Jewish mother figures in American popular culture was Molly Goldberg, portrayed by Gertrude Berg, in the situation comedy The Goldbergs on radio in the 1929-1949 and television from 1949-1955. Molly was sensible, warm-hearted, and a moral guide.[8] But the stereotype as it came to be understood in the 20th century was exemplified by other literary figures. These include Rose Morgenstern from Herman Wouk's 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, Mrs Patimkin from Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, and Sophie Ginsky Portnoy from Portnoy's Complaint also by Roth.[9][10] Sylvia Barack Fishman's characterization of Marjorie Morningstar and Sophie Portnoy is that they are each "a forceful Jewish woman who tries to control her life and the events around her", who is "intelligent, articulate, and aggressive", who does not passively accept life but tries to shape events, friends, and families, to match their visions of an ideal world.[11]

The Jewish mother became one of two stock female Jewish characters in literature in the 20th century, the other being the Jewish-American princess. The focus of the stereotype was different to its precursors, too. Jewish writers had previously employed a stereotype of an overbearing matron, but its focus had always been not the woman, but the ineffectual man whom she dominated, out of necessity. The focus of the Jewish mother stereotype that arose was based in a shift in economic circumstances of American Jews during the 20th century. American Jews were no longer struggling first generation immigrants, living in impoverished neighborhoods. The "soldier woman" work ethos of Jewish women, and the levels of anxiety and dramatization of their lives, was seen as unduly excessive for lifestyles that had (for middle-class Jews) become far more secure and suburban by the middle of the century. Jewish literature came to focus upon the differences between Jewish women and what Jews saw as being the various idealized views of American women, the "blonde bombshell", the "sex kitten", or the sweet docile "apple-pie" blonde who always supported her man. In contrast, Jewish writers viewed the still articulate and intelligent Jewish woman as being, by comparison, pushy, unrefined, and unattractive.[11][12]

While the Jewish-American princess stereotype was aimed at Jewish daughters, the Jewish mother stereotype was aimed at Jewish mothers. Fishman describes its use by male Jewish writers as "a grotesque mirror image of the proverbial Woman of Valor". A Jewish mother was a woman who had her own ideas about life, who attempted to conquer her sons and her husband, and who used food, hygiene, and guilt as her weapons. Like Helmreich, Fishman observes that while it began as a universal gender stereotype, exemplified by Erik Erikson's critique of "Momism" in 1950 and Philip Wylie's blast, in his 1942 Generation of Vipers, against "dear old Mom" tying all of male America to her apron strings, it quickly became highly associated with Jewish mothers in particular, in part because the idea became a staple of Jewish American fiction.[11]

Reception in the middle 20th century

This stereotype enjoyed a mixed reception. In her 1967 essay "In Defense of the Jewish Mother", Zena Smith Blau defended the stereotype, asserting that the ends, of inculcating virtues that resulted in success, justified the means, of control through love and guilt. Being tied to mamma kept Jewish boys away from "[g]entile friends, particularly those from poor, immigrant families with rural origins in which parents did not value education".[10][12]

Betty Friedan, in contrast to Blau, rejected the stereotype. In her view, a stifling Jewish mother didn't create a nice Jewish boy, but rather a homosexual son. Brodkin observes that this view was not confined to the Jewish mother stereotype, and that a more general climate of "mother bashing" obtained in the 1950s. One did not have to be Jewish necessarily in order to be a "Jewish mother", and Jewish mother jokes were enjoyed by the population at large, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.[12]

One example of the stereotype, as it had developed by the 1970s, was the character of Ida Morgenstern, mother of Rhoda Morgenstern, who first appeared in a recurring role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later as a regular on its spinoff Rhoda. While Rhoda herself was not the Jewish-American princess daughter, the character resisting the pull of that particular stereotype, Ida was a canonical example of the overbearing Jewish mother. The character of Ida was a problem for critics. Albert Auster observed that although "thoroughly assimilated, there was about her [Rhoda], as well as her mother and sister, reminders of some of the negative traits ascribed to Jews".[13]

Decline in the late 20th century and the "Jewish grandmother"

Lebow observes that in the late 20th century and 21st century the stereotype of the Jewish mother has "gone missing" from movies. She observes that there appears to have been no conscious effort on the part of screenwriters or film-makers to rewrite or change the stereotype, in pursuance of some revisionist agenda, but that it has simply fallen back a generation. It has become irrelevant to filmmakers, as the political pressures of assimilation, and of 1950s and 1960s culture, that brought it about have receded. The Jewish mother has transformed in the Jewish grandmother, or bubbe. While still unschooled, food-obsessed, doting, loving, anxious, and a working-class balabusta (good home-maker), the Jewish grandmother is more mellow than her Jewish mother antecedent.[14]


  1. Rachel Josefowitz. Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories: Acts of Love and Courage. ISBN 0789010992. 
  2. Lisa Aronson Fontes (1995). Sexual abuse in nine North American cultures. SAGE. pp. 135. ISBN 0803954352. 
  3. The Jewish Mother, Slate, June 13, 2007
  4. Benjamin Blech (2003). Taking stock. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn. pp. 26. ISBN 0814407870. 
  5. Leon Rappoport (2005). Punchlines. Praeger Publishers. pp. 113. ISBN 0275987647. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 William B. Helmreich (1984). The things they say behind your back: stereotypes and the myths behind them (2nd ed.). Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0878559531. 
  7. Moshe Hartman (1996). Gender Equality and American Jews. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0791430529. 
  8. Andrew R. Heinze (2004). Jews and the American Soul. Princeton University Press. pp. 304–308. ISBN 0691117551. 
  9. Jill E. Twark (2007). Humor, satire, and identity: eastern German literature in the 1990s. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 90. ISBN 3110195992. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Chaim Isaac Waxman (1983). America's Jews in transition. Temple University Press. pp. 37. ISBN 0877223297. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sylvia Barack Fishman (1992). "Introduction: The Faces of Women". Follow my footprints. UPNE. pp. 1–2,30–32,35. ISBN 0874515831. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Karen Brodkin (1999). How Jews Became White Folks and what that Says about Race in America (4th ed.). Rutgers University Press. pp. 146,164,168–169. ISBN 081352590X. 
  13. Vincent Brook (2003). Something ain't kosher here. Rutgers University Press. pp. 57. ISBN 0813532116. 
  14. Alisa Lebow (2008). "Reframing the Jewish Family". First Person Jewish. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 41,49–51. ISBN 0816643555. 

Further reading

  • Alan Dundes (1997). "The J.A.P. and the J.A.M. in American Jokelore". in Joseph Boskin. The humor prism in 20th-century America. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814325971. 
  • How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Very Lovely Training Manual by Dan Greenburg; published by Price, Stern, Sloan; distributed by Pocket Books [New York (1964)] ASIN: B0007EN0II
  • Joyce Antler (2007). You never call! you never write!: a history of the Jewish mother. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0195147871. 
  • Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, Ellen Cole, and Susan Steinberg-Oren (2000). Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories: Acts of Love and Courage. Haworth Press. ISBN 0789010992. 
  • Myrna Hunt (Autumn–Winter 2003). "TV Jewish Mothers: The Creation of a Multiethnic Antiheroine". Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education 7 (2): 70–94. 
  • Roberta Mock (May 1999). Clive Barker and Simon Trussler. ed. "Female Jewish Comedians: Grotesque Mimesis and Transgressing Stereotypes". New Theatre Quarterly (58): 100 et seq.. 
  • Zena Smith Blau (1967). "In Defense of the Jewish Mother.". Midstream 13 (2): 42–49. 
  • The Jewish Mother, Slate slideshow, June 13, 2007
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Jewish mother stereotype. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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