A mother was walking along the seashore with her son when a huge wave hit them and swept the boy out into the ocean. The mother wept and prayed to God to save her son and send him back to her. Suddenly, another wave crashed on to the beach and the boy was sent hurtling to his mother’s feet, safe and well. The mother looked up to the sky and said: “He had a hat…”
What is it about Jewish mothers? Experts in one-upmanship, they kill with kindness (and large amounts of salty and fatty food) and nothing is ever quite good enough.
But this is a stereotype, right? An exaggeration used for jokes, stories, sitcoms. Can these caricatures really be based in truth? Well…yes, it seems they can.
I decided to conduct some exhaustive research (OK, a straw poll of friends, both Jewish and not) to find out more.
“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase ‘Jewish mother’?” I asked.
“Maureen Lipman”, they replied as one, citing as examples one (or more) of many guises from disappointed matriarch in Barmitzvah Boy to bespectacled Beattie, obsessed by “ologies”, in the 1980s telecom ads.
Of course, when pressed further, they expanded — and yet it was the same descriptive words that kept coming up, time and time again.
Overbearing. Neurotic. Feeder. Worrier. Overprotective. Controlling. Ambitious.
Not exactly the best press for any materfamilias who might be reading this, but at least everyone agreed that all these qualities sprang largely from a desire to see her children make the best of their lives — and which parent (of any faith) would not agree with that?
So what is it that makes the stereotypical Jewish mother?
“When we tell the story of us as a nation, a people, it’s a story of persecution, of adversity over tragedy, and that is definitely part of it. It seeps into the psyche; we take it on as part of ourselves” says Rabbi Miriam Berger of Finchley Reform Synagogue.
Her theory is shared by Dr Graham Music, consultant psychotherapist at London’s Tavistock Clinic.
“The stereotypes of Jewish mothers often suggest unhappy states of mind commonly seen in persecuted communities. The mother whose son phones and she insists: “I have not eaten for five days” … “and why, Mama?” … “Well, I did not want to have my mouth full in case you should call’… suggests someone feeling undervalued and using whatever tricks she can to make the child feel guilt, to bind him to her. This is not a mother who expects good things, including being loved unequivocally. This is the persecuted mother who expects everything to go wrong, the hard-done-by one with a cunning peasant logic.
“I think this is the legacy of the shtetl, persecution and major traumatic migrations and a first generation who struggled often to take their place in society.”
Which makes perfect sense —bright women, at a time when they were not expected or encouraged to channel their energies into university studies or careers — needed an outlet for their drive and ambition. And what better project than their progeny?
If you have been denied the opportunity for “ologies” of your own, then at least derive vicarious pleasure from the “ologie” of your offspring. If your own desires have been thwarted, fulfil them through your sons and your daughters. It’s basic logic — although clogging their arteries with constant helpings of cholent, chopped liver and chicken soup is possibly not the way to see them to a long and bright future. What is it with the feeding? “My six-year-old is bemused by the fact that my grandparents congratulate him on every mouthful of food he puts in his mouth, like it’s a major achievement to eat,” says Rabbi Berger. “Mind you I’m not immune from this either. When he has a school trip and has to take a packed lunch, I’m the mother who sends him with cucumber maki, God forbid he should have a sandwich! Though, in general, the part about the Jewish mother constantly cooking to show love through food has changed in that it’s now a characteristic of a Jewish grandma. It’s gone up a generation”
Broadcaster Vanessa Feltz agrees. “The Jewish mother used to effectively be at home, cooking to feed the world. Now she is at work and doesn’t have time to do all the things that created the stereotype.
“She’s more likely to be telling her children to stay slim and healthy than force-feeding them kneidlach. She is not around enough to be so intrusive, has much less time to be platzing about her children.”
It does indeed seem to be the case that the anecdotes centre on the mothers, even grandmothers of the women now in their 30s, 40s and 50s, many of whom are every bit as academically successful as their own children (if not more so).
“Absolutely,” Music confirms. “The stereotype is not the autonomous Jewish woman of today, who can be an independent-minded, bright, multi-talented woman who can hold down a high-flying career, run a business, write books, raise children with aplomb, have a successful marriage and secular friendship groups.”
“In the modern Jewish woman, I think power and authority is more often translated into real-world success and so there is less need to put others down, to make others feel bad to bolster a struggling ego or to project their own bad feelings into others. Of course, that still happens but there is a big shift.
“The echoes and residues of the old stereotypes might remain but we see a lot of Jewish women who are loving, devoted but reflective mothers, and who are innovative, bright, psychologically minded, and have lost most, if not all, of that edge that was so clear in previous generations.”
This doesn’t mean that the Jewish mother of today will not fight for her children or resist the powerful urge to kvell, to feed (still with the food!) but she is now likely to have a confidence that confounds the old stereotype with all its insecurities.
Again, that’s not to say those insecurities have entirely gone away.
Though, as Rabbi Berger points out: “Now I have a child in a non-Jewish school, I can see that we definitely don’t hold a monopoly on neurosis. Perhaps we are just more verbal about it.”
Perhaps we are— though as Beattie herself would say: it’s good to talk.