Over at Sidebar, Moi questions the tradition of Jewish mother jokes*:
But what gives with all the sexist stereotypes? Loud obnoxious opinionated women--overbearing mothers full of guilt trips--boastful women. And, where are the corresponding stereotypes about Jewish men?
It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I first heard anyone opine that Jewish mother jokes are sexist and offensive. It startled me to hear it because I grew up hearing Jewish mother jokes, generally told with both relish and affection by relatives on the Jewish side of my family. While I always thought the stereotypical Jewish mother was a loveable although irritating personality, the stereotype might not be so charming if you happen to be the target of the jokes. The Jewish Mother of jokedom is:
From Haikus for Jews by David M. Bader:
Lovely nose ring --
Excuse me while I put my
head in the oven.
Pushes her children
Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?
Hey! Get back indoors!
Whatever you were doing
could put an eye out.
Refuses to Let go
Testing the warm milk
on her wrist, she beams -- nice, but
her son is forty.
Excessively Proud of her Children
A Jewish mother was seen running along the beach screaming, "Help! Help! My son, the doctor, is drowning!"
Insists on Love and Respect from her Children
"Oedipus schmoedipus! A boy shouldn't love his mother?"
My mother, who has great comic timing, used to re-tell a lot of Jewish mother jokes. Although she is not Jewish, the way she told the jokes evinced a great sympathy for the mother's point of view. I never really saw the Jewish Mother as a ridiculous figure, because my mother always seemed to admire her and empathize with her. The Jewish Mother may be annoying but she is powerful, at least within her family. She comes out on top and generally gets what she wants. She dominates, even if in a neurotic way. (I am thinking of Woody Allen's short film "Oedipus Wrecks" from New York Stories, in which the mother turns into a giant head in the sky looking down over Manhattan and able to observe and comment on her son's every move.)
I always thought of the Jewish Mother as a forceful, ambitious, opinionated, intelligent personality -- all good things, but directed in unhealthy ways due the lack of other available outlets for these qualities. For example, the Jewish Mother's ambition had to be expressed through her sons because she herself did not have the same opportunities. The children were the natural objects of the Jewish Mother's forcefulness and dominance because mothers generally did not have other available expressions of power.
Dr. Paula Hyman offers another interpretation:
Eastern European Jewish culture did foster an intense style of mothering, which was reinforced by the physical and psychological insecurity of life in the shtetl [the small-town or village community of Jews in Eastern Europe] and later in the immigrant ghettos. Not only was it a style of mothering appropriate to its surroundings, it also served to equip the children for survival, even for success, in an environment that was often hostile.
Hyman notes that the mother was reverenced in Eastern European Jewish culture before immigration to America and western Europe. It was only once immigrant children, anxious to assimilate, saw the contrast between this "intense mothering style" and non-Jewish American family life that Jewish comedians began poking fun at the Jewish Mother.
This makes sense to me. My Jewish grandmother grew up in poverty in turn-of-the century Manhattan and was the daughter of immigrants who had fled Eastern Europe. By all accounts, she was excessively concerned with my father's health and safety when he was a boy, even going so far as to fret about him crossing the street by himself when he was fourteen and, as he puts it, "already shaving, for God's sake." But when you and your family have known great insecurity it makes sense to fear the worst for your offspring and to do everything in your power to protect them from hostile outside forces. This goes down the generations too. Sometimes, my dad slips out of authoritarian-father mode into what I think of as his "anima," a stereotypical Jewish Mother. He used to freak out if I showed the slightest sign of getting a cold or if I went swimming too soon after having lunch or if I started looking "too skinny." But it's not so silly when you recognize the historical roots of where this protectiveness may originate.
As Paula E. Kirman puts it: "As well, in a world where it is only recent that Jews are not paraiahs in society, a person who lived in more dangerous times may feel more protective of her flock . . . The stereotypical Yiddishe Mama is probably a species that will not remain beyond another generation, as the face and makeup of Jewish families change and we are more used to living amongst non-Jews. But her mark upon Jewish literature, popular culture, and our lives, will ensure that the legend of the Jewish mother will remain a part of the Jewish consciousness."
*Bonus -- See the Sidebar post linked above for some Gentile jokes, too!
NOTE: Also see this article about comedian Judy Gold, who interviewed fifty real Jewish mothers, of diverse backgrounds, and turned what she learned into a one-woman comedy show expressed from the women's point of view.