Polish women jokes no laughing matter for Poland's diplomat to Israel

There is not a person in Israel that does not know a few Ima Polania (Polish mother) jokes.

Katarzyna Rybka-Iwańska, first secretary at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Katarzyna Rybka-Iwańska, first secretary at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It took less than a week after landing in Israel for her new job as first secretary in the Tel Aviv Polish Embassy for Katarzyna Rybka-Iwanska to hear her first joke about Polish women. It was not complimentary. Perhaps it was this one:
What’s the difference between a Polania and a Rottweiler?
The Rottweiler eventually let’s go.
Ouch! Or this one?
A Polania gets on a flight and after half an hour starts shouting, “Doctor, doctor! Emergency!”
A doctor rushes to her side.
“I’d like you to meet my daughter!”
Rybka-Iwanska, 35, a serious, goal-oriented diplomat who is blessed with an easy laugh, was not amused. Nor was she mollified when reassured the barbs are not flung at her, a Catholic Pole, but at Jewish women of Polish descent.
“I was not insulted. Not angry. I just do not find them funny at all,” says Rybka-Iwanska, in charge of communication and public diplomacy at the embassy. “Maybe it’s the cultural difference. It’s not my sense of humor. It’s kind of bizarre to have so many jokes about one particular group of people. I realized early on that it’s deeply entrenched in Israeli culture.”
Entrenched indeed.
There is not a person in Israel that does not know a few Ima Polania (Polish mother) jokes. The term can be used casually in conversation directed at women of all ethnic backgrounds as in: “Don’t be such an Ima Polania,” with the meaning clearly understood.
Don’t be nagging, controlling, manipulative, guilt-inducing, self-sacrificing and over-protective, among other stellar qualities. The Polania is sister to the Jewish mother in jokes told by American Jewish comedians.
A man calls his mother: “Mom, how are you?”
“Not so good,” says the mother. “I’m very weak.”
“Why are you so weak?”
“I haven’t eaten in a month.”
“Why, mom? Why haven’t you eaten in a month?”
“ I didn’t want my mouth full of food in case you should call.”
But Rybka-Iwanska gets the last laugh with her own punchline. To counter the phenomenon and to engage with Israeli audience, she launched her own YouTube channel “Polin B’Ivrit” – Poland in Hebrew – where she posts short videos about Polish “Wonder Women,” heroines in a variety of fields.
“I wanted to present to Israelis the history of Polish women,” she says. “I thought that this is a way to have a conversation with the people of Israel, which is also what my posting is all about, to build relationships, to build connections with the society.”
With her recently acquired Hebrew, flavored with a charming Polish accent, she tells the stories of:
– Irena Szewinska, nee Kirszenstein, one of the world’s foremost athletes for nearly two decades, the only athlete in history to have held the world record in the 100, 200 and 400-meter races.
– Ida Kaminska, the matron of Yiddish theater, who produced more than 70 plays and performed in more than 150. She starred in the 1965 film The Shop on Main Street, which won an Academy Prize for best foreign film.
– Queen Jadwiga, crowned as Polish monarch in Krakow in 1384, who established new hospitals, schools and churches, promoted the use of vernacular in Church services and restored the University in Krakow.
– Sara Schenirer, a pioneer of Orthodox Jewish education for girls who in 1917 established the Bais Yaakov schools in what was then considered a revolutionary approach to female education. Today there are Bais Yaacov schools in many locations worldwide with sizable orthodox communities. US President Joe Biden picked a Bais Yaakov graduate, Anne Neuberger, as his deputy national adviser for cybersecurity.
– Stefania Wilczyńska (Pani Stefa an educator, who chose in August 1942 to accompany the orphans under her care to the Treblinka Death Camp along with the head of the orphanage, Janusz Korczak.
– Wanda Rutkiewicz a mountain climber and computer engineer, the first woman to reach the summit of the deadly K2 mountain on the Pakistan- Chinese border and the third to climb Mount Everest.
The 14 (and counting) podcasts, some with English subtitles, are dedicated to fighter pilots, artists, women in medicine and science. Each episode is preceded by fiery, creative brainstorming session between Rybka-Iwanska and her colleague at the embassy, Yael Rusek. Her latest podcast released in January with English subtitles tells the story of the women who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto.
“We aim to reach 100 biographies of Polish women,” says Rybka-Iwanska who is already thinking about the next step, to turn the stories of her Polish heroines into a book – in Hebrew.
Whenever possible she ties in references to Israel. For example, in a segment about female WWII fighter pilots, she says she was not surprised to learn that Israel’s first female IDF fighter pilot has Polish roots. Roni Zuckerman is the granddaughter of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman.
She films the short podcasts, usually less than 10 minutes, in her living room, in what started as a COVID-19 attempt to switch to digital diplomacy.
“When I realized we can’t organize public events we had to find a new, creative way to do the work,” she says. “Israelis know very well how in a time of crisis to recreate themselves. We were sent here to do a job, and COVID-19 is not an excuse. It’s an incentive to work differently to find new ways to reach people in an innovative way.”
Rybka-Iwanska graduated from the faculty of politics at Warsaw University and worked in Poland’s diplomatic service for eight years in the department of strategy and planning in Warsaw. Israel is her first posting, and she came two years ago here with her family. There were about 150 postings available, but Israel is the only post for which she applied.
As a teenager in a remote small town on Poland’s Russian border she participated in a national contest held by the Golda Tencer Shalom Foundation. Her essay on the Warsaw Ghetto got her into the finals, a trip to Warsaw, a visit to the Presidential Palace, the Jewish Theater and an interest in Jewish history.
 “When Israelis listen to me speaking Hebrew with my strong Polish accent, memories of their mothers and grandparents come back to them,” she says. “I didn’t expect that. It melts my heart.”
SHE BEGINS each podcast with the same introduction, in Hebrew, of course:
“Shalom, I am Katarzyna, I am from Poland and I live in Israel and I am studying Hebrew. In short videos I tell the stories of women from my country.
Because Polish women and Polish mothers are not Brzezinot, they are true Wonder Women.”
The term “Brzezina” requires an explanation.
It’s a female Polish name taken by Israeli actor Moni Moshonov in his role as a Polania in the iconic Israeli comedy show Zehu Ze, something akin to America’s Saturday Night Live. The show ran for 23 seasons and was resurrected last March in time for the COVID-19 lockdowns.
In the iconic skits the three Polaniot,(all played by male actors) regularly play cards, gossip and skewer each other in a Polish accented Hebrew.
“My son doesn’t call me, I’ve forgotten the sound of his voice,” complains Tola in one of the skits. “Luckily, I call him every half hour, but then he complains that I’m suffocating him.”
Her friend, Genia, gives her advice.
“Tell him, ‘son, I know you can’t stand me, but I don’t have many years to live so you won’t have long to suffer, so make an effort and call.’ Then cry and hang up.”
“And that works?”
“He’ll call you in a minute.”
The Ima Polania was not always vilified. In fact, in the early years of the last century she was idolized as a font of unconditional love and kindness.  The song, “My Yiddishe Mama,” recorded by Sophie Tucker in 1928, became a top hit and was covered by artists such as Billie Holiday, Connie Francis, Neil Sedaka, Tom Jones and Charles Aznavour, who sang it in French.
It was the next generation that transformed the Jewish mother from a loving, nurturing figure willing to go through fire for her children to a smothering, overprotective, critical nag. Phillip Roth’s character, Alexander Portnoy, complains to his therapist:
“Spring me from this role I play of the smothered son in the Jewish joke.”
Woody Allen in his 1989 film, New York Stories, has his character, Sheldon Mills, being nagged by his mother, Sadie Millstein, who appears as a giant figure hovering in the New York City skyline talking to strangers about his most embarrassing moments.
Yossi Sarid, deceased Israeli politician, posited a theory in a 2009 Haaretz column about the “Ima Polania.”
“She has become the big mother of us all, without difference in ethnic origin, not just of the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, but also of the Mizrahi Jews and even of complete goyim. Everyone has become her children.”
“The stereotype,” he wrote “is so deeply ingrained in our personal and national experience that it can bear all of our infantile-oedipal complexes. All the insults we inflict on her are small potatoes for her. Just as we embittered her life, so she allows us to make it bitter even after she is gone. Even now she understands and forgives.”
Michal Fishbein laughs about Ima Polania jokes all the way to the bank.
Seven years ago, she started a business called HaPolania with a colorful line of place mats, coasters, magnets, aprons replete with sayings such as:
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” “Eat it. It’s good for you” or “I’ll rest in the grave.”
Many of the one-liners came straight out of her own grandmother’s mouth.
“She pressured me to eat very intensely,” says Fishbein. “My bad childhood with my grandmother is selling very well.”
In fact, online and in more than 50 stores in Israel with a turnover of 1 million shekels a year.
“I get reports from shops of clients looking at the products and laughing.”
The stereotype is not restricted to Polish Jews, Fishbein learned.
“I’ve met Moroccan women, Palestinians, young people, gays from Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in B’nai Brak who recognize the sentences and related to them. That’s what their mother said. It’s amazing how the passive- aggressive style and guilt induction is common to so many cultures all over the world.”
Fishbein easily relates to Rybka-Iwanska’s moto of the Polaniot as Wonder
“They were,” she says. “My grandmother came here when life was hard, worked hard, managed her husband, managed everyone around her. She was very intelligent. Life was hard and she was very hard.”
The jokes are a relatively recent phenomenon, but they’re deep in the Israeli culture, says clinical psychologist Irit Kliener-Paz who wrote an essay about the phenomenon.
How much of what is said in the jokes is true?
“Those jokes catch a truthful aspect and exaggerate it, but the joke won’t be successful if it doesn’t hit a raw nerve. According to the jokes, the Jewish mother has a conflict. She’s very dedicated and gives a lot of herself to her children, maybe too much. She then complains, makes them feel guilty,” says Kleiner-Paz.
Kliener-Paz notes the jokes are sexist.
“The target is the wife and mother – never the man.”
A boy comes home from school and tells his mother he’s been given a part in the school play.
 “Wonderful! What part?” asks his mother.
“I play the part of the Jewish husband,” says the boy.
 “That’s terrible,” says the mom. “Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.”
ZVI RAV NER, former Israeli ambassador to Poland from 2009 until 2014, says he has always disliked the stereotype, “It is a cornerstone in Israeli humor, but I have always thought it quite stupid,” he says in a telephone interview. He lauds Rybka-Iwanska’s efforts.
“Maybe she can help change the image.”
Rybka-Iwanska might yet change something in Israel, but meantime, Israel has changed her.
“Friends from Poland tell us that in the two years we have spent in Israel we have changed. We are more outspoken and less formal,” she says.
Rybka-Iwanska, who happens to be a beautiful blond, recalls the Dumb Blonde jokes of her youth, now considered misogynistic and archaic.
She hopes the same will happen to the Ima Polania joke.
“Until then, when I hear the jokes, I simply roll my eyes and record another video.”■
The videos can be found at https://bit.ly/PolandInHebrew