In How Jews Become White Folks And What that Says About Race in America, the author (can't remember the name offhand) addresses this a little bit in terms of gender/femininity and race. And it's not just stereotypes about Jewish women - stereotypes about Jewish men as effeminate go along with stereotypes about Jewish women as overbearing, domineering - qualities that are seen as acceptable masculine qualities. Basically, Jewish people have an ambiguous relationship to whiteness (I'm speaking mostly of Ashkenazi Jews), and these stereotypes highlight Jews not meeting the gendered standard of whitenss.
This comment is a little garbled. Clearly, I need more coffee before I tackle this subject!


My Italian boyfriend objects to your characterization of these jokes as "Jewish."

His personal favorite is:
What are the 3 ways that we know that Jesus was Italian?
1. Only an Italian woman could think that her son was God.
2. Only an Italian man could believe that his mother was a virgin.
3. Only an Italian man could live with his family until he was 30.


I don't know too much about Jewish culture, but I know Italians make their children the center of their lives. My mother immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was a teenager and I observed early on that her parenting style was quite different than most of my friend's mothers. My mother always made it clear to my brother and I that we were the most important creatures on earth. We were always the smartest, the best looking, the most talented, etc, etc. We sure did not have any self-esteem problems ! She catered to our every whim and was very protective. She always had to know where we were and was very concerned about keeping us out of any perceived danger. Honestly, I spent more time around her and the rest of my family growing up than I did around peers. I always say Italians like to keep their children close to the vest. They seem to incorporate their children into an "adult" world at a very young age. I never resented this kind of parental attention. I liked spending time with my mother and thought it was sweet that she seemed to care so much.
Also, food was a big part of our lives. If I did not eat absolutely everything on my plate my mother and grandparents would endlessly fret about how I must be sick and, ofcourse, my grandmother would insist on making me some soup to get me well again even if I insisted over and over that I was fine !


In an interesting response to the "Jewish Mother" of the Diaspora, the New Jewish Mother in the Zionist ethos (which was all about creatng the New Jew - a strong, healthy, physically active warrior and Man of the Earth....) is supposed to be brave, competent (manage to adequately feed her children and care for her family in a time of war), and silently proud and brave as her sons (and sometimes daughters) march off to fight for The Land (and often fail to return).

She is also supposed to be a working mother (!!!), playing her part in the Building of The Land - albeit in a traditionally feminine capacity such as teacher/nurse/kibbutz secretary etc.

i've actually long had the impression that "jewish mothers/families", "italian mothers/families", and "arab mothers/families"* are very similar in terms of the things you describe here. there is also the "big loud obnoxious family gathering" sort of thing. and then i saw "my big fat greek wedding" and that seemed to be similar, too.

it's interesting that you mention the "powerful" character of the stereotypical jewish mother, as well as the limited outlets for ambition and consequent living-through-children. arab women are often thought of as lacking power within the family -- and not incorrectly, i guess -- but, in the family, they are also in the same sort of complex position that you described of "the jewish mother", and also speaking of "my big fat greek wedding" i think that movie says some interesting things about what the family's women can and can't do, in terms of family power.

idunno, sorry this is so poorly set out. i have no idea if all these ethnicities' mother-issues are really that similar, or if it's just the indiscriminate borrowing of stereotypes on the part of american culture, or if there is some common effect that immigration has had on these families (in this, i am thinking especially of the "neurotic" stuff). just some vague thoughts.

*(my experience of "arab families" being this way is less about stereotypes in american culture and much more about my own middle eastern family and others i've known.)


>>>it's interesting that you mention the "powerful" character of the stereotypical jewish mother, as well as the limited outlets for ambition and consequent living-through-children. arab women are often thought of as lacking power within the family -- and not incorrectly, i guess -- but, in the family, they are also in the same sort of complex position that you described of "the jewish mother", and also speaking of "my big fat greek wedding" i think that movie says some interesting things about what the family's women can and can't do, in terms of family power<<<

I'm not sure about other cultures but from my own personal experience I don't think Italian mothers do what they do because of some thirst for power. Perhaps my mother's family is a little more modern than some traditional Italian families but I have never seen the women in my family have some desperate need to live vicariously through their children. The women on my Italian side (myself included) have some serious feminist tendencies and are not docile doormats who don't have their own lives. However, through the centuries Italians have developed a genuine distrust of outsiders. We live for our families and find it difficult to trust those outside of our inner circle. Children are particularly precious to Italians. Through children parents continue the cycle of providing the constant companionship and unconditional love their own parents gave to them. Family is the true essence of our being. Italians keep their children close throughout their lives and depend on them exclusively in their later years.

The Happy Feminist

My father is half-Italian and half-Jewish, so I have Italian-American family too. My sense is that old-fashioned Italian mothers (at least stereotypically) are much more likely to think there children (especially their sons) can do no wrong, whereas the stereotypical Jewish mother is much more critical and harder to please.

But yeah, a lot of these traits span ethnicities. My Norwegian grandmother is the one who keeps insisting that we all eat vast quantities of food. (Weirdly, each of my grandparents is a different ethnicity.)


I'm Hispanic, with maternal ancestors dating back to Italy and Spain, and, we recently found out thanks to the wonders of geneology, our Spanish ancestors were also, yes, Jewish (and then the Inquisition happened; this explains, my mom says, why her grandmother refused to eat lobster, kept holy fast days, and prayed to the Kabbalah despite being a church-going Catholic her entire life). And, yes, my mother, grandmother, and other female relatives do fit a lot of stereotypes (I had a friend who laughed really hard at the part in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the mother says "Are you hungry? No? Okay I'll fix you something" because just a few days before my grandmother had, in fact, fed her a three-course meal as my friend kept explaining she wasn't hungry). My grandmother in particular hates the idea of my taking a subway, ever, by myself (I'm almost nineteen), or going outside when it's cold, and they constantly ask me if I'me ating enough. This does get annoying but I never thought of it overall as a bad thing.

Also, for balance, a potentially offensive joke that is partly a Jewish mother joke, but really a Jewish father joke (no stereotypes about Jewish men? There are stereotypes about EVERYONE):

A Jewish boy is trying out for a role in a play. His mother is almost as nervous for the audition as he is, and helps him prepare his lines for the week leading up to it. The morning the cast list goes up, they are both bundles of nerves. That afternoon the boy races in the door from school: "Mama, Mama, I got into the play!" She beams: "Oh that's wonderful, honey, you're a brilliant actor, you're going to be a star, etc. etc. What part do you have?" The boy says, "Mama, I'm playing the father!" She smiles and pats his head and says, "Well, that's good for your first role, dear, but next time, you tell them to give you a speaking part."


I am not so sure if I can do no wrong in my mother's eyes, but I do know that Italians spoil and indulge their sons and daughters well into adulthood. My brother is 39 and I am 33 and our mother still coddles us as much as ever. Always worrying about us, always buying us gifts, etc., etc. And ,ofcourse, always making sure we have enough to eat and making sure it tastes just the way we like it. If she even senses we don't think her latest dish is up to par she will offer to make it again ! I swear! But, my 32 year old cousin, Sara, who lives in Bologna, absolutely takes the cake in the "coddled" department. An only child she must be the most spoiled person on earth. Her parents bought her apartment, don't require her to work and buy all of her expensive designer clothing. Her parents have indulged her from every corner since birth and the funny thing is they love doing it !
I must say, though, I am not as familiar with "old world" Italian mothers. My mother grew up in Northern Italy which is admittedly much more modern than the more traditional South. (Though, I have heard through family members that Southern Italy is alot more modernized now than most people believe). Most people in my family are not religious and have pretty modern ideas about most things. My grandfather was born in 1909 and was originally from Calabria but by the time he met my grandmother, who was from the northern Italian city of Faenza, in Africa during WWII he had long ago given up the old world mentality of rural Southern Italy. Once they settled in Bologna my grandfather had completely assimilated into the North. Despite both being Italian my grandfather (being from the South) and my grandmother (being from the North) culturally grew up worlds apart. However, two things they had in common was their utter devotion to family and fine appreciation of good food. My grandparents had a powerful bond with their children as my mother does with her children. Look those of us with Italian mothers may be a little spoiled,but, hey, whoever thinks the root of their problems is that their parents loved them too much ?!?!


Cassandra--I'd argue that that joke is also a Jewish mother stereotype--that Jewish women are so overbearing that their men can't get a word in edgewise.

Seems to me that most Jewish jokes are that way. Rarely if ever are the men the brunt of the joke--at least in terms of negative stereotypes.

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