Margaret Mead’s Jewish Mother

Unexpected science helps explain cause of enduring stereotype.

jewish mother cartoon 521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
jewish mother cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Who knew that Margaret Mead, the legendary anthropologist, is credited with nothing less than having created the Jewish Mother more than 60 years ago? It’s a stereotype that has endured the test of time.
If you’re lucky enough to own an iPhone, you can now buy a Jewish Mother App that promises “over 100 hysterical, guilt-ridden phrases.”
Recently, here in the UK, American comics Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo, who scored a smash hit at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival playing Ronna and Beverly, typical Jewish Mother characters, have had their own talk show series commissioned by Sky Television.
It all came about in the late 1940s when Mead was involved in a project financed by the American Jewish Committee that studied 128 Jewish immigrant families living in New York City. One of the main findings was that the mother in these families was, “intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering, and engendering guilt in her children through the suffering she professed to undertake for their sakes.”
Apparently, Mead said Jewish mothers were “nagging, whining and malingering,” and even went on to state that the “model Jewish Mother is the womb.”
While Mead herself never used the phrase “Jewish Mother stereotype” – some reporter noticed the study and coined the term – at the time, the findings were accepted as scientifically valid and thus very authoritative.
Now when it comes to stereotypes, and this one in particular, I had presumed they owed their existence to folklore and word of mouth; the swapping and sharing of experiences that, over time, create something akin to a character, but crucially a character in a story that we all know isn’t real. They’re idealized.
No one is actually like that, but a lot of people will have a number of characteristics that approximate to those of the creation.
However, if a stereotype turns out not to be a myth but based on a scientific study, that could open a massive can of worms.
What other stereotypes might have a basis in accepted, provable truth? Jews are not very good at sport? Jewish men are rubbish at D.I.Y? And, even, Jews are tight with money? Therein lies the problem. While it might seem harmless enough to accept certain stereotypes – though to be fair many feminists might regard the Jewish Mother character as somewhat less than helpful – we can’t really complain then about the negative ones.
According to Dr. Dena Freeman, lecturer in Anthropology at University College London, and previously of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Mead and her colleagues were part of the Culture and Personality school of Anthropology that was prevalent in America at the time.
The central idea of this school was that the structure of a culture can be likened to the structure of a personality – indeed, it shapes the personality of its individuals and is an unchanging, bounded whole.
During World War II, this notion was very appealing to the US military, who fathomed that if they could understand the people they were fighting, they would, presumably, have a better idea of how to defeat them. Consequently, Mead and others of her ilk studied America’s enemies, such as the Japanese and Italians, and produced books that led to the way a lot of Americans understood people from other cultures and their national characteristics. It is in this tradition that the shtetl study was undertaken.
The good news, however, is that the Culture and Personality school of anthropology has long since been discredited.
Nowadays, anthropology doesn’t deal with culture in the same way. It is more interested in social structure, economics, family organization and such like, and though there are still differences between American and British anthropological schools, neither would consider the term “stereotype” as acceptable or indeed scientifically valid.
And for what it’s worth, Dr. Freeman went on to add that she didn’t consider her mother to be a typical Jewish Mother, though she did feed her plenty of chicken soup while reciting the constant refrain, “Eat, eat.”
Over in psychology, there is an equally reassuring standpoint from Dr. Fiona Starr, clinical child psychologist and principal lecturer at Middlesex University.
Her view is that so-called cultural stereotypes might be socially constructed. She feels that a shared understanding of how to be, say, a Jewish Mother, comes about through culture and history, and with that there is a pressure to conform such that any deviation is seen as unacceptable. Nonetheless, the reality is that this social construct is not embedded in a personality and can shift and change over time.
So, the message seems clear: stereotypes don’t exist as unchanging, permanent characteristics of cultural groups.
And yet, here we are in 2012, over 60 years since the shtetl study and it would seem that the Jewish mother stereotype is stronger than ever.
So, if stereotypes do indeed change, they’re certainly taking their time about it.
Perhaps I can move things along a bit by leaving the last word to Dr. Starr, who as well as being a lecturer and psychologist, is also the mother of three boys.
“Personally, I’m fighting the stereotype. I try to minimize anxiety levels and not to be overprotective and over-indulgent. They get enough of that from my husband,” she says.
Roll on the Jewish Father stereotype.