Reprinted with permission from Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews (William Morrow).
Jewish parents are famous (in some circles, infamous) for anxiously hovering over their children. “A Jewish man with parents alive,” Philip Roth wrote in Portnoy’s Complaint, “is a 15-year-old boy, and will remain a 15-year-old boy until they die.”
A rabbi I know, who grew up in the intensely Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, told me that it was his wife who taught him that one could express love for one’s children by taking pleasure in their personalities. “My parents,” he explained, “expressed their love through excessive nervousness and worrying.” That was also the case with Mel Lazarus, creator of the cartoon strip “Momma.” Reminiscing about his overly attentive mother at a seminar on Jewish humor, Lazarus recalled, “We had very many interesting conversations, about my posture for example.”
Roots of Overinvolvement
The overinvolvement of mothers in their children’s lives might well have several roots. The dominant middle-class ideology of the 1940s and 1950s–and Jews were quintessentially middle class–dictated that a father should work, and that the mother stay home with the children. A large number of highly educated Jewish women found themselves displacing all their intellectual energy, aspirations, and professional ambitions onto their children, particularly their sons. It is doubtful if the current generation of Jewish women, many of whom do have their own professional identities, will hover over their children in quite the same way.
In addition, parental overinvolvement may reflect the deep-seated Jewish fear, instilled by pogroms, the Holocaust, and the precariousness of the Jewish state, that the “next generation” might not survive at all.
Chaim Bermant, an English-Jewish writer, has captured the precise cadence of such parental nervousness. While working as a correspondent during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Bermant was asked by several soldiers to telephone their parents and tell them that they were okay. When he returned from the front, he did so and kept a record of one of the conversations: