Battling Stereotypes of the Jewish Mother

One woman confronts a stereotype to which she herself might be subject--and learns about protecting her children from stereotypes.

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This essay examines a stereotype of a Jewish mother. While the prevalence of that stereotype may have diminished in the decades since the full version of the essay was published, the "Jewish mother" stereotype continues to exert an influence on the public mind in the English-speaking world. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Family Book, copyright (c) 1981 by Sharon Strassfeld and Kathy Green, eds. (Bantam Books).

When I was growing up, the last thing I wanted was to be a Jewish mother. Not that I planned to be childless. It was just that I feared that as I acquired children I might also acquire the characteristics of the stereotypical Jewish mother--in particular, a domineering personality and a neurotic over-involvement with my children, a kind of obsession with mothering that American culture found alternatively ludicrous and destructive. I resolved my "Jewish mother" problem in a double process: first, by becoming a mother myself and, almost simultaneously, by studying the history of Jewish women and the emergence in the past 30 years of the very stereotype of the Jewish mother that had so appalled me. Confronting that stereotype--as well as other unflattering images of Jews, from the Jewish American princess to the materialistic, vulgar, and stingy Jews of anti-Semitic lore--is an important process for Jewish parents.

Protecting & Teaching Our Children

These stereotypes affect us as parents in several ways. Most obviously, we seek to protect our children from them. But we Jewish parents do have to prepare our children for the possibility of anti-Semitic incidents, as rare as they may be in the circles in which we move. And, at a later stage, our children will have to try to understand why Jews have been, for so much of our history, the victims of hatred and the models for denigrating stereotypes.

In my experience, at least, it has always been possible to neutralize the persecution of the Jews or turn the subject into a teaching device about the dark underside of intergroup relations. Hanukkah and Pesach [Passover], after all, do celebrate Jewish triumphs; and it is the opponents of the Jews who can be dismissed for their brutality and intolerance.

More difficult for parents is the way our own reactions to Jewish stereotypes influence our behavior. It is easy to deal with the Hanukkah and Pesach stories; it is even easy to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. It is far more difficult to come to terms with stereotypes toward which we ourselves feel ambivalent.

The Jewish Mother Comes to America

The "Jewish mother" stereotype is a case in point. It is only in the past generation that the Jewish mother has emerged as a derisive character. In Eastern Europe and in the immigrant centers of America, she was celebrated by her children in song and story. The precipitous decline of her image reflects first and foremost a shift in the criteria for evaluating what makes a good mother.

It is according to middle class, mid-20th-century American standards that the Jewish mother fails to meet the test. At the very least, we must recognize that our acceptance of the stereotype involves a rejection, perhaps unconscious, of traditional Jewish family values in favor of middle-class American norms. Certainly in the case of the authors and comedians who exploited the stereotype, fixation with the faults of the Jewish mother signaled a deep-seated sense of not being fully at home in American society. What better way to compensate (or over-compensate) for this unease than to lay the blame for incomplete assimilation at the feet of their Jewish mothers?

The Jewish mother stereotype arose only in part from the application of American standards to traditional Jewish cultural behavior. It also originated in the social situation of a second generation of Jewish mothers in America. While they patterned their intense life style of mothering after their immigrant mothers, they lived in an environment that made fewer demands on their time than had their mothers' more straitened economic circumstances.

And there were few acceptable outlets for their energy other than concern for home and children. Paradoxically, the "Jewish" intensity of the mother-child bond may thus have been heightened at the very time when many American Jews were most anxious to feel themselves fully American and least Jewish or immigrant in their behavior. Hence, the extreme sensitivity to neurotic aspects of the Jewish mother.

The Truth Behind the Caricature

The popularity of the particular comic stereotype lies in its recognizable kernel of truth. Eastern European Jewish culture did foster an intense style of mothering, which was reinforced by the physical and psychological insecurity of life in the shtetl [the small-town or village community of Jews in Eastern Europe] and later in the immigrant ghettos. Not only was it a style of mothering appropriate to its surroundings, it also served to equip the children for survival, even for success, in an environment that was often hostile.

Whatever the merits of this mothering style, to a generation of women raised on a combination of popular Freudianism and feminist concepts of self-fulfillment, the "Jewish mother" is hardly a model to emulate. On the one hand, she damages her children, denying them the independence necessary for healthy development, at least as defined by our psychologists. On the other hand, apart from her role as mother, she has no sense of worth, at least as defined by contemporary feminism.

Intellectually and emotionally, then, it is hard for us not to accept the partial truth of the stereotype. But it is important to realize that the stereotype is exaggerated and divorced from the cultural context in which our Jewish mothers and grandmothers functioned. In assenting to that exaggeration, we alienate ourselves not only from our past as history but also from our past as a source of cultural continuity.

The stereotype makes us self-conscious: Since we don't want to be "Jewish mothers," we hold ourselves back from the kind of behavior satirized in the caricature. When we find ourselves, despite our best intentions, behaving "just like a Jewish mother," we condemn ourselves for doing so. The stereotype can thus influence our relationship with our children as well as our self-evaluation as parents.

Superwoman: An Alternative Stereotype

Another stereotype that crops up increasingly as the two-career family comes into its own is the "Eshet hayil" stereotype, or, in American terms, the superwoman image. The poem "Eshet Hayil" ([Proverbs 31:10-31], which many traditional men recite to their wives on Friday night before Kiddush) praises the "Woman of Valor" who is a successful businesswoman, nurtures and feeds her family, sews their clothes, gives charity, and dispenses wise advice.

The question for many of us who are participating in a two-career family is how to provide healthy models for the family work distribution. We are in a time of transition in which we are not satisfied with the roles our mothers played and have not yet fully discovered how to do the thing better. All too often when women decide to embark on a career, it simply means that now, instead of being responsible for the housekeeping, laundry, cooking, clothes buying, and general welfare of their families, they are also responsible for their new careers and the housekeeping, laundry, etc.

How does a couple truly share household tasks? How does a couple convey to their child the notion that men and women can share nurturing roles as well as housekeeping responsibilities? How can we avoid, for ourselves, in our own minds, the Eshet hayil stereotype? Certainly, what we don't want to do is trade in the Jewish mother stereotype for the Eshet Hayil stereotype.

Transcending Stereotypes & Learning From Them

Understanding the sources of the stereotype prepares the way for a reexamination of traditional Jewish mothering, for a liberation of the real Jewish mother from the stereotype. To paraphrase a truism in immigrant history, what the child wants to forget, the grandchild is eager to remember. If the Jewish family has been a source of stability in Jewish life as well as the launching pad for Jewish social mobility, the nature of Jewish involvement with children has been at the center of the family.

Only when the stereotype of the Jewish mother is exposed as the caricature that it is can we recognize and integrate into ourselves the positive aspects of the Jewish mother. Her warmth, her involvement with her children, her ability to convey to them that they are marvelous and special, are talents that we would do well to foster in ourselves. These are characteristics that we can develop even if we reject the limitation of the Jewish mother's role to mothering and choose to combine mothering with a career. They "travel well," whatever our social circumstances.

We are fortunate to live at a time when ethnic and cultural differences are celebrated rather than suppressed. If, as Jewish parents, we are, in fact, more exuberant, more aggressively involved with our children than others, we need not despair. The culture of Jewish parenting is still basically a healthy one in which we take pride and which we can present to the world as a model for others to emulate.

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Dr. Paula Hyman

Dr. Paula Hyman is Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Among her published works are Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (University of Washington Press)and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press).