Rosa Doherty

Why You People made me think more about Jewish motherhood

Watching Netflix's You People made me think about my role as a Jewish mother

February 16, 2023 09:30

I’ve often been told that it is my Jewish duty to “be fruitful and multiply.” And intrusive though this can feel,  I’ve never received this message in a way that has offended me.

After all, I get it. I’ve always been aware that women have a special status in Judaism. Our children  have irrevocable Jewish status. Having a daughter last year meant that I  know that if she has children one day, they will be Jewish, and that’s something I feel oddly content with. 

The matrilineal rule helped ground my own Jewish  identity. “We’re Jew-ish” I would explain about my mixed Irish Catholic, Jewish heritage when I was younger. People would ask which parent was Jewish, and when they discovered it was my mother I always received an instant welcome into the fold.

It wasn’t until I discussed You People -   Netflix’s  latest fail  - with friends that I started to think about my status as a Jewish mother in the context of mixed relationships.

In the film, a Jewish man played by Jonah Hill meets a black woman, portrayed by Lauren London. It’s a film made for cringing. The antisemitism went unchecked and the stereotyping of both black and Jewish characters was so awful that I’m convinced it had to have been deliberate.

However. What You People tried to do underneath all that failure was to show the very real identity struggles that can arise from bringing two cultures together. It made me question my own hypocrisy as a mother of children with mixed background. 

As a Jewish mother married to a non-Jewish partner,  I realise my anxieties about my son’s identity are different than they are about my daughters. 

“It is silly and hypocritical” I explained to my friend's partner, “but I would like my son to have children who are Jewish through their mother. I want him to have a Jewish partner.”

He understood. “You want them to know who they are,” he said, “and that is OK.”

But is it? I’m not Orthodox or typically conservative in my thinking so it is at odds with who I think I am, to admit to feeling worried that my son potentially might marry someone who wasn’t Jewish and that this would signify a loss of heritage for his children. 

 Deep down I know that it needn’t be the case. The wider progressive community is increasingly open and welcoming to Jews of patrilineal descent, as they should be.

Interestingly, during this discussion about culture and identity with a multicultural group of friends my husband contributed “I don’t care who they marry as long as they are happy.” 

 And of course, I agree. But it was a friendly reply from my friend's partner which put his comment into context. “That sounds like a lovely thing to say for someone whose identity has never been threatened or had any experience of oppression.” 

"You're probably right," my husband laughed.

And for me that summed up my dilemma. Of course we all want our children to be happy. But I also want them to pass on their heritage with pride given that in this lifetime there are people still alive who witnessed their entire families be murdered because of that same heritage.

The gift of being from a mixed faith and culture family is the colour it adds to your life. When it works, there is comedy and beauty that comes from understanding each other, and teaching a new generation about ancient traditions.  It’s about explaining and accepting things that might not make sense to you. It is celebrating multiple festivals and life cycles, it is the joy of discovering different food and languages.

What You People missed the chance to do was to capture that beauty that goes alongside the external and internal conflict and contradictions that can come from mixed faith and race families.

Talking about it with my friends made me realise how rare it is to see a Jewish family, or people, ever written about in a way that isn't completely one-dimensional.  A world in which every Jewish mother is overbearing and smothering.

In the UK we are just a tiny percentage of the population but the community is as far from one dimension as you can get.  We are a glorious broad spectrum of customs and lifestyles and beliefs.

And if anyone could be bothered to be inspired by the rich tapestry of it, they could make a great film. Netflix? Do you hear me?

February 16, 2023 09:30

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