- You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother
"Why has the Jewish mother been the figure that so may people love to hate for so long?" (p. 2), Joyce Antler asks in the opening pages of her eminently readable history of the Jewish mother. Tracing popular images of Jewish mothers in America and the reflections of American Jewish women themselves about mothering from the 1920s to the present, Antler demonstrates that in fact the Jewish mother has not been universally hated in America. Rather, a very particular now familiar image of the Jewish mother as "[a]gressive and manipulative, living vicariously through her children, especially sons" (p. 8) gained ascendancy only after World War II and was only one among a range of depictions of Jewish mothers circulating in American popular and literary culture during the twentieth century. This ascendant negative stereotype contrasts with the diverse mothering experiences of American Jewish women across the generations. American Jews' use of comedy to mitigate ambivalences surrounding assimilation, as well as gender and generational tensions within Jewish communities and individual families, Antler shows, propelled this specific stereotype to its dominant position, where in the hands of Jewish comics, actors, writers, feminists, and post-feminists, among others, the image continued to morph and serve as a site where several generations of American Jews worked out their anxieties about what it means to be Jewish in America. In the process, Antler forwards a convincing argument that the Jewish mother stereotype was universalized, becoming a symbol for anxieties about American mothers more generally. Antler's meticulous effort to historicize the meaning of Jewish motherhood is an important contribution to American Jewish and women's history. Perhaps most importantly, her study goes a long way toward combating the pernicious misogyny often embedded in Jewish mother jokes and baiting.
Beginning with the conflicting but essentially positive Yiddishe Mama depiction popularized by Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, and Hollywood producers during the 1920s and 1930s, each chapter in turn traces the complex evolution of Jewish mother images. Critical actors in the transformation of this more positive representation into the familiar nagging Jewish mother of the late twentieth century were male "Borscht Belt" comics and male literary figures of the 1950s and 1960s. Before Jewish audiences at Catskill resorts, male comics refined Jewish mother jokes as an expression of the tensions surrounding assimilation and modernity. When these jokes passed into mainstream media, they lost their insider status, as well as the nostalgia that to some degree [End Page 190] tempered insult. Male literary works such as Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint, Bruce Jay Friedman's A Mother's Kisses, and Dan Greenburg's How to Be a Jewish Mother fully "turned the Jewish mother from a mere lighthearted joke into a veritable 'comic monster'" (p. 124), overshadowing Jewish women's alternate vision of themselves as potential nurturers to the world. Male-directed Hollywood films of the 1970s and 1980s further solidified the negative portrayal of Jewish mothers as overbearing.
Antler also points to the ways that women, especially Jewish feminists and post-feminists, alternatively contributed to and challenged these stereotypes. One chapter, for example, discusses how feminist anthropologists in the 1940s and 1950s, including some Jewish anthropologists, ignored counterevidence and their own emphasis on cultural heterogeneity to forward a flattened and static description of Jewish mothers in America as nagging and intrusive. Another chapter compares the positive, albeit ethnically ambiguous, portrayal of a strong Jewish mother in the female-produced Roseanne to the several negative Jewish mother characters that populated television airwaves during the 1980s and 1990s. Still another chapter considers Jewish daughters' efforts during the 1980s and 1990s to connect positively with their mothers and grandmothers through the recovery of Holocaust narratives and domestic traditions. Antler's chapter on radical feminists' treatises on motherhood during the 1960s and 1970s is one of the most interesting. Here she analyzes a phenomenon that many have noted but have rarely delved into with much depth...