- Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination ed. by Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek and Simon J. Bronner
Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination
Liverpool: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2017.
Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination, the fifth volume in the Jewish Cultural Studies series of The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, takes a broad approach to Jewish motherhood and its study. The contributors approach their subjects from an impressive array of disciplinary backgrounds—history, literature, rabbinics, biblical studies, folklore, religion, Jewish thought and more—and they explore topics, time periods and geographic areas well beyond what one might expect.
Indeed, as the editors point out in their Acknowledgments, "not one essay proposal focused on the stereotypical yiddishe mama or explored how the Jewish mother, who became the butt of Jewish comedians' jokes in the twentieth century, also became a 'recognizable commodity' in mainstream America, unfortunately used to embody the 'monstrous qualities of all American mothers,' in [Joyce] Antler's words" (p. vii). Instead, the seventeen essays examine images and realities of motherhood from the biblical to the contemporary period, each bringing to light new and often uncharted areas.
"Oddly," the editors go on to note, "the 'iconic' status of mothers in Jewish family life has had little impact on scholarship" (pp. 4–5). Beyond certain cultural tropes (like the overbearing Jewish mother), there has been little scholarly engagement with Jewish mothers. Of course, as the editors acknowledge, they are indebted in particular to the field of Women's Studies for drawing attention to the often neglected roles of women in society. However, in narrowing the focus to mothers, they hope "to 'mark' them and break from a long tradition of placing all women into one larger category when speaking about Jewish culture" (p. 5).
Even as ambitious and thoughtful a volume as this one could not hope to cover every context of Jewish motherhood. While introducing far more material than any one reader could master, the essays thus also leave many others areas unexplored. The division of the book into five thematic sections is an attempt to focus attention [End Page 219] on commonalities among the essays and on overarching themes in the study of Jewish motherhood.
The first section, "Idealized Mothers," includes essays about images of mothers in recent children's literature, nineteenth-century Hungarian Jewish prayer books, Afghani Jewish folk culture, and early modern Ottoman Jewish society. Notably, all the sources, whether produced only by men, like the Hungarian and Ottoman examples, or by more diverse and representative groups, like the children's books and foodways, present mothers in a fairly static and simplistic way. Emily Sigalow's examination of three decades of award-winning books for children is critical of this trend; as she writes, the choice of authors to present Jewish woman as domestic and pious perpetuates "a system of religious relations in which Jewish fathers are higher in status, more powerful, and more authoritative than Jewish mothers" (p. 24). Ruth Lamdan, by contrast, demonstrates that Ottoman rabbis in the post-expulsion generations, although they may have had relatively little to say about women more generally, were able to portray their own mothers' diversity of activities and sources of power with surprising nuance.
Krisztina Frauhammer's essay examines the influences of modernity and gender on the evolution of rhetoric around mothering in Neolog prayer books. The changes wrought by modernity also figure in Tsila Zan-Bar Tsur's very interesting exploration of the complex linguistic and symbolic correlations between motherhood and bread in traditional Afghani Jewish culture—now severed by relocation to Israel.
In the second section, "Constructions and Contestations of Mothers," literary sources provide a basis for investigating mother-child relationships. That an author's complicated relationship with her/his own mother may play out in their cultural productions is suggested both by Carole Balin and Wendy Zierler, in their study of early twentieth-century Hebrew author Hava Shapiro, and by Jodi Eichler-Levine, in her analysis of Maurice Sendak's oeuvre. Josh Lambert explores a radical feminist response to popular twentieth-century stereotypes of Jewish motherhood...