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  • You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother
  • Yael Maurer
Joyce Antler, You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 321 pp.

This book’s catchy title is a strong invitation to any reader, Jewish or non Jewish. It alludes to the overwhelming amount of Jewish Mother jokes and comedy routines, thus signaling a possibly comic intent. The second part of the title, however, suggests an academic analysis of the popular cultural staple. And indeed, the book proves to be a careful and meticulously researched study of the history of representations of Jewish mothers and daughters — from Sophie Tucker’s “Yiddishe Mama” of the 1920s to Sara Silverman’s contemporary Jewish-mother routine. Joyce Antler examines the stereotypical representations of the Jewish Mother in order to gauge how this image “allowed each generation to manipulate the Jewish mother image to suit its particular needs” (3). She follows this image in its transformation from the sainted and sacrificing “Yiddishe Mama” to the near-monstrous nagging, overbearing, and guilt inducing figure, a stereotype come to life.

The book may thus appeal to a wide readership — in and out of academia. It offers a survey of the cultural significance of the image of the Jewish mother in such diverse fields as film, television, literature, anthropology, and theater, [End Page 348] mainly in the Jewish-American setting. Antler’s careful documentation of the trajectory of this topos recalls many interesting figures and cultural moments. One such figure is Molly Goldberg, a pioneering Jewish woman who wrote, produced, and starred in a very successful TV sitcom in the 1940s and 1950s. Antler dedicates a chapter to Goldberg’s television persona and her private life, demonstrating that Molly Goldberg, both on and off stage, was far more liberal than one would be likely to imagine.

Antler’s attempts to rescue the Jewish Mother from negative stereotypical representations may be associated with her wish to rewrite her own story as a feminist and a “new” Jewish mother who, while not being “conventional,” may well represent “yet another reinvention of Jewish mother traits chronicled in so many generations of performances, writings and reports” (258). This agenda of “reinvention” colors the book’s gallery of mother figures — it is a passionate attempt at reclaiming the Jewish mother’s lost honor and reestablishing her central role as a cultural icon of a more positive kind. In this endeavor, it would seem, Antler may be offering a corrective to what she sees as the malicious, largely male constructions of the female (m)other and offering in its stead a Jewish and feminist model which would wed Jewish tradition to (post)modern American motherhood. However, Antler may be missing some of the more vexed and complicated implications of a stereotype that, even according to her reading of “new” and more positive representations, is still very much with us to this day.

In the book’s very personal epilogue, Antler shares her stand-up comedian daughter’s “Jewish Mother” routine with the readers, as a way of demonstrating anew “the remarkable cultural resiliency of this enduring cultural type” (258). The comedy routine centers on the difference between the Jewish Mother and the Jewish feminist mother. Antler’s daughter, Lauren, jokes that while a Jewish mother would call her daughter and caution her against going out in cold weather, the Jewish feminist mother would call and say that despite the bad weather, she does not have to stay indoors. On the contrary, she has to go out and “fight the patriarchy.” The routine ends with the line: “Let’s get serious ... and put on a coat” (258). Antler celebrates this representation as a new and very welcome “cultural type.” She concludes her book with this celebratory sentiment: “As I watch my daughter on stage telling her stories of coming of age as a DJF [daughter of a Jewish feminist — YM], I am proud that even though she pokes fun at her mother . . . she has in fact taken on the mantle of feminism” (258). Antler sees the act’s final line as “an acknowledgment that you can dress with...