H ow many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? According to the old joke, the answer is none. “Don’t worry about me,” she says “I’ll just sit here in the dark.”
The Jewish mother stereotype is one we are all familiar with — all that guilt, smothering, and ambition for her children, allied to the compulsion to feed them. Its origins are unclear but it seems to have grown up in the United States during the middle of the 20th century as a generation of young Jews started to compare and contrast their own immigrant parents with that other stereotype — the Waspish, blonde cookies-and-apple-pie mom.
It found expression in books, notably Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and by the 1980s had made it into mainstream British culture in the form of Maureen Lipman’s Beattie, in the famous TV commercials.
Most recently, three of them appeared together in one BBC show — Simon Amstell’s sitcom Grandma’s House.
Unlike many Jewish stereotypes, the Jewish mother is not an entirely negative one. True, the controlling instinct is unlikely to be helpful to children attempting to make their own way in the world, but there is admiration for the fact that the classic JM wants only the best for her offspring.
However, today in Britain, the JM is not a shtetl-raised immigrant, desperately striving for her children to seize opportunities she never had. So does the stereotype still have any truth in it?
Wendy Farron, a children’s counsellor from Barnet who has 11-year-old twin girls, believes that Jewish mothers are still sometimes different in their outlook from their non-Jewish counterparts. “We are descended from immigrants and we still have that mentality. That’s why we’re ambitious for our children and possibly more materialistic than others.”
However, she is suspicious of the stereotype, which she compares to the British mother-in-law caricature. “Part of the reason this image might have grown up is simply the fact that there have been many more male comedians than female ones. Why is there no Jewish father stereotype? I think there is an element of misogynism in it.”
The Jewish Mother, who writes an anonymous blog on matters maternal, feels that the stereotype is true, but is changing. “Jewish mothers are applying their OCD, their attention to detail and delicate touch to entrepreneurship. It’s amazing. I receive enquiries regularly from mothers who have started gift companies, packaged confectionary and set up interior design firms.”
Things might be changing, but, says the Jewish Mother, there is an older generation that, in many ways, still holds true to the stereotype. “The Jewish grandmas are there to point out what the Jewish mothers are doing wrong. Whenever I cook my fabulous Friday night dinners, my mother tests me on every little thing. Where did you buy this? How long did you put it in the oven for?”
Jane Myers, who lives in Palmers Green, north London, with her husband and three children, believes that the neurotic JM still exists but that her focus has shifted. “We still worry, but they are different worries these days. We worry about what’s happening on Facebook and social networking sites.”
However, she believes that the Jewish mother is a dying breed, and agrees that if you want these old-fashioned characterisitics, you need to find a few Jewish grandmothers. But she does admit to controlling behaviour in one respect. “I’m sending my son to a Jewish school because I want him to be protected. His friends will be Jewish and the social life will be Jewish, so at least I can control things up to the point when he leaves school. Other than that I don’t see myself as a typical Jewish mother. My husband and kids might say that I nag a bit but I would characterise that as being encouraging. My mother, on the other hand, is a proper Jewish mother.”
But would her mother, Eveleen Habib from Golders Green, who has four children, agree with her daughter? “I know I smother my children and I do try not to,” she says. “But there is something in the stereotype, particularly the smothering and controlling parts of it.”
She adds that while these traits may be Jewish ones, they are not uniquely so. “I work with a Muslim girl and when I hear her talking about her own mother it sounds so similar. I think that most loving parents want to make things right for their children.”
Anna Philips, who lives with her husband and two children, in Sheen, south-west London, also feels that she has these characteristics but does not put them down to being Jewish.
“I grew up in South Africa, and my own mother was relaxed and trusting. I worry more about my children than she did about me. But the lifestyle was different there — we were running about outdoors and my parents didn’t need to keep track of us the whole time. It might be that living in London brings out more of those Jewish mother instincts because there is so much more to worry about when you are living in the big city.”
Although the anglicisation of the Jewish community might have led to some softening of Jewish mother instincts, there are still some classically Jewish mothers around. Wendy Farron can think of one particularly good example. “I know the mother of a grown- up man in his 20s who still peels the skin off her son’s viennas. What chance does the poor guy have?