Jewish Mothers on Television

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

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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.

Very Stereotypical

How stereotypical are these portraits? Mrs. Seinfeld, a dour, unsmiling character, is "nagging, smothering, and suffering." Mrs. Costanza, says one critic, is "a fingernail scraping against the scattered life of her son George" And worse:

Her love is as soft as a pillow used to smother his dreams and drive…she owns a "mutual fund" of guilt, trading shares for shame and embarrassment. She loves her son so much it hurts everybody. He's bald because his hair couldn't survive the heat of his mother breathing down his neck. Sylvia Buchman, the mother of Paul Reiser in Mad About You, is so obsessively protective of her son that she sends food along when he goes to Jamie's parents for Thanksgiving.

It is implied that when her mild-mannered husband gets a hear t attack, she caused it. The outlandish Sylvia Fine also nags her offspring to death, particularly about landing a man, The running joke is that this Jewish mother stuffs herself rather than her child; she is always obsessing over food and gobbling up whatever goodies lie in her path. Although she was more svelte in the show's final season than in previous years, Sylvia is invariably dressed in glitz, miniskirts, and open blouses that a woman of her age and shape would best avoid.

Is it Offensive?

One of the most offensive caricatures is that of Edie Groener (Joan Rivers), the mother of Vicki (Kathy Griffith) on Suddenly Susan. Pushy, demanding , and manipulative, she is meddlesome to the extreme. Not only does she almost ruin her daughter's wedding day, later she actually precipitates her son-in-law's death by insisting that the couple have sex to give her a grandchild. Loud, whiny, nasal voiced, and dressed in tacky outfits, Edie is an even more extreme caricature than Joan Rivers playing herself as sharp-tongued, aggressive, and blunt, sometimes outrageously SO.

Grace's mother (Debbie Reynolds) has made an occasional appearance on Will & Grace; Grace's Jewish background is glossed over almost completely, playing a very secondary role to the difference between her heterosexual self and her roommate Will, who is gay. But when her mother shows up, Will's friend Jack acknowledges her as a member of the (Jewish) tribe, and it is clear that she is still another pushy, interfering mom, though certainly of more refined background than the Rivers character.

To be sure, the affection between mothers and their offspring sometimes comes through all the meddling, as was the case with Molly Goldberg, Ida Morgenstern, the rough-mannered mother of Rhoda, who demonstrated her love and concern despite her often overbearing manner, and even Sylvia, the nanny's self-indulgent but caring mother. It is also true that non-Jewish mothers can be portrayed as rigid and controlling, yet there seems to be more variety in their portraits than in the case of Jewish mothers, where the balance seems increasingly tipped in one direction. For the most part, television ridicules the Jewish mother, stripping her of much of her humanity.

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Joyce Antler

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