Thursday, 31 May 2007

Jewish Mother, RIP

Q: Why do Jewish Mothers make great parole officers?
A: They never let anyone finish a sentence.

Why aren’t Jewish Mother jokes funny any more? A book by Professor Joyce Antler, You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother, attempts to explain why one of the most dominating icons of 20th-century American popular culture has died.

In the current issue of the Jewish daily The Forward its arts and culture editor Alana Newhouse reviews this well-researched and insightful analysis of the stereotype in popular culture and others among a new crop of books about the Jewish Mother:

Known in some circles as a figure of generosity and deep warmth, in others as the skilled practitioner of toxic enmeshment, the Jewish Mother was acknowledged, here and abroad, as the symbol of over-involvement in children’s lives. She was also known for her chicken soup.

The Jewish Mother is survived by her neurotic yet high-achieving, dependent though viciously ungrateful, sexually repressed yet rapacious, impossible-to-satisfy son and her primped and posed, nose-jobbed and outfitted, long-suffering-yet-somehow-exactly-like-her daughter (both well-fed); innumerable books, radio serials, television shows, movies, songs, articles, nightmares not to mention more jokes than Egypt had locusts; the field of American stand-up comedy, born of those locusts; Guilt, her lifelong companion; the word “Feh”; thousands of appreciative psychoanalysts; and several acquaintances from her stint at The Dayenu Home for Aging Stereotypes, including Sassy, Overweight Black Mom and Finger-Snapping Gay Best Friend.

…The Jewish American Mother, like all caricatures, derived from certain real-life phenomena. She emerged at the beginning of the last century, when millions of Jews uprooted themselves from Eastern Europe and set out to create new lives, and lifestyles, in America. Most had spent decades living under the constant threat of pogroms, terrifying attacks in which rioters set upon homes, synagogues, even whole towns with murderous rage. (That Fiddler? He was on the roof for a reason.) They were traumatized, and many — women in particular—brought with them to this country a deep-seated protectiveness for the well-being of their family members.

…But the Jewish Mother’s career recently hit a rough patch from which she seemed unable to recover… Many real-life American women today are actually parenting like the stereotype, earning denigration as hover mothers, helicopters, smother mothers and more. The stereotype isn’t a stereotype any more: We’re all Jewish mothers now.

So that’s one reason why jokes about them are no longer funny. For more explanation, you should read the rest of this warm and witty essay. The paragraph about Philip Roth’s Portnoy is a particular joy.

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