Jewish Mothers on Television

For the most part, Jewish mothers on television are portrayed in a negative light.


Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Jewish mothers have been shown even more negatively than younger Jewish women. In discussing the TV Jewish mother, New York Times critic John J. O’Connor notes that television seems “curiously partial to neurotically overprotective, brash and often garish mothers of the unmistakably Jewish persuasion.” “Sure, caricature is endemic to prime time,” he acknowledges. “But why do Jewish mothers seem to have a monopoly on its more extreme forms?” O’Connor asks. “In years past, white Anglo-Saxon mothers in shows like Father Knows Best were models of decorum. Today, black mothers…are paragons of warmth and nurturing. But too many Jewish mothers, it seems to this puzzled goy, become props for humor that often teeters on outright ridicule or even occasional cruelty.

joan rivers

Joan Rivers portrayed a
Jewish Mother on Suddenly Susan.
Photo Courtesy of Underbelly Limited.

While the Pearls argue that mothers who are negatively stereotyped as “anti-Semitic caricatures or misogynistic foils” are “more the exception than the rule,” the reverse seems to be true today. Today, the “ridicule” and “occasional cruelty” that O’Connor cites is more typical than not in portraying Jewish mothers on the television screen. The Jewish mother figure is usually a total nuisance in the lives of her children, whether married or single. Although never a central character, as Molly Goldberg was, she impinges on her children in other ways, nagging, whining, annoying.

Almost all TV Jewish mothers fall into this stern-faced, nagging, guilt-tripping caricature. Witness the Sylvias-Sylvia Buchman (Cynthia Harris) on Mad About You and Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor) on The Nanny; Jerry’s mother Helen (Liz Sheridan) and George Costanza’s crypto-Jewish mother (Estelle Harris) on Seinfeld; Conrad’s mother on the short-lived Conrad Bloom (Linda Lavin); Grace’s mother (Debbie Reynolds) on Will & Grace, and Vicki Groener’s mother Edie (Joan Rivers) on Suddenly Susan. Even cartoon character Kyle Broslovski’s mother, Sheila, on the animated show South Park, is drawn as a pushy yenta who calls Kyle “bubbie” and orders him around.

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Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.

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