Despite its somewhat flippant title, this book is a scholarly effort to chronicle the perceptions - and misperceptions - of the American Jewish mother through the years.
By MORTON I. TEICHERou Never Call! You Never Write!
By Joyce Antler
Oxford University Press
304 Pages; $23
Despite its somewhat flippant title, this book is a scholarly effort to chronicle the perceptions - and misperceptions - of the American Jewish mother through the years. Author Joyce Antler brings impressive credentials to the task she has set for herself. A noted Jewish feminist, she has written a number of books about women who have received awards and recognition.
She holds a chair at Brandeis University in American Jewish history and is also professor of women's studies. Antler's doctorate and master's degrees are from State University of New York, Stony Brook.
Data for the analysis come primarily from jokes, songs, radio, TV, films, plays, and novels. Only one chapter relies on conventional academic findings. Antler's perceptive presentation emphasizes the problems in Jewish mother-and-son relationships where the mother is depicted as demanding and self-sacrificing. She is seen as a denying influence who nags and intrudes. Today, some Jewish female comedians extend the portrait to the association between interfering Jewish mothers and their assertive daughters. The persistence of this negative image and its accuracy is thoroughly explored by Antler, who questions its authenticity. She argues that the picture of the Jewish mother as oppressive and dictatorial fails to take into account her genuine concern for her children.
According to Antler, stereotypes about the Jewish mother have persisted because of what she calls "the Jewish comic tradition." The Jewish mother is the butt of humor despite the diversity of contemporary Jewish mothers and their loving concern for their children.
Lampooning and satirizing the Jewish mother fails to recognize the inevitable tug "between the parent who cannot let go and the child who wants freedom." Antler points out that early songs by Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker presented a positive image of the Jewish mother. This view was furthered by the popular radio and TV sitcom about Molly Goldberg that also depicted the Jewish mother constructively. By contrast, Herman Wouk, in his novel, Marjorie Morningstar, has his character, Noel Airman, call Jewish mothers dull, self-righteous, eager and suspicious. This image was intensified by Borscht Circuit comedians who ridiculed overfeeding mothers and their henpecked husbands. Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus, other novels and television shows reinforced this mocking description of the Jewish mother. Antler eventually concludes on a hopeful note, anticipating that Jewish feminist mothers and their daughters will break down the old categorizations as stale and insipid.
The book is marred by Antler's propensity to provide titillating tidbits that do not help to further her analysis. For example, she cogently criticizes the book Life Is With People by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, a generally well-regarded portrait of shtetl life in Eastern Europe.
Antler is certainly within her rights to challenge the book's picture of the Jewish mother in the shtetl. However, she goes way overboard by giving negative personal information about Zborowski that has no connection to his book. Similarly, in describing the World War II anthropological project led by Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, of which Life Is With People is a product, Antler gratuitously discredits them with an extraneous accusation.
Finally, why does Antler have to spoil her excellent chapter on Molly Goldberg by telling us about the unrelated problems of one of the actors who played the role of Molly's husband?
These peccadilloes indicate that, despite Antler's erudition, she has failed to learn the Jewish concept of lashon hara - evil tongue. Her uncalled-for slander detracts from what is otherwise an informative and witty account of how the image of the Jewish mother has developed and changed.
The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
var cont = `Sign up for The Jerusalem Post Premium Plus for just $5
Upgrade your reading experience with an ad-free environment and exclusive content