Knockout Narratives Sale
 
 

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to PowellsBooks.news
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

PowellsBooks.Blog

Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.

 

You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother

You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother by Joyce Antler

Reviewed by Eric Zassenhaus
Bitch Magazine

In You Never Call! You Never Write! Joyce Antler traces the origins and history of the Jewish mother from her arrival in New York's Yiddish theaters and early American cinema to her present-day manifestations in the standup routines and television shows where she's become a regular player. Along the way, Antler tells the story of Jewish acculturation and assimilation in modern America, as well as changing notions of motherhood in American feminist discourse.

Tracing the Jewish-mother archetype from the doting and affectionate, if sometimes overprotective, matriarch that Al Jolson croons over in The Jazz Singer and Sophie Tucker mourns in My Yiddishe Mama to the needling, overbearing mothers in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" chapter of the anthology film New York Stories, Antler finds that Jewish motherhood has served as a "convenient scapegoat for postwar Jewish ambivalence toward acculturation."

Early on, as Jewish immigrants flocked to the U.S. from Eastern Europe and social mores -- especially those surrounding masculinity -- shifted radically, the Jewish mother became the figure of power in the Jewish family. Both a powerful reminder of the customs and traditions of the bygone homeland and a representative of an intimidating new social order in America, the Jewish mother became the site of both a nostalgic yearning for another era and a frightened ambivalence toward assimilation.

Antler doesn't limit herself to an examination of the Yiddish mama in mass media, but ventures into anthropological studies of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. She investigates recent attempts to document Jewish women's lives in memoirs and oral histories, and looks at the history of Jewish assimilation into suburban America, exemplified by the resort hotels of New York's Catskills region, where the Jewish-mother joke first became routine.

Throughout, Antler sees the Jewish mother attacked as "[a]ggressive and manipulating, living vicariously through her children�a 'satirical harpy' -- domineering, meddling, suffocating." In the introduction, she writes: "Jewish sons have given us only one kind of Jewish mother, 'the all-engulfing nurturer who devours the very soul with every spoonful of hot chicken soup she gives.'"

In making the case for showing mom just a little more respect, Antler might be a little guilty of exaggerating the violence of the attacks against her. And You Never Write pays scant attention to the context in which the Jewish-mother joke appears: the world of Jewish comedy. There she shares the stage with the schlemiel and schlamazel, the mensch and shiksa. All are outlandish and grotesque caricatures of specifically Jewish insecurities. As many histories of Jewish humor have pointed out (most recently in Lawrence Epstein's The Haunted Smile), the Jewish joke is a particular strategy of cultural defense, seeking to attack what's most vulnerable in the culture before others get to it. Its motto might be something along the lines of "you can't insult me if I do it first." Perhaps in this light, the Jewish mother -- who unfairly bears the brunt of insult as the figure of familial authority -- shares the same table with her nebbishy son, emasculated father, and neurotic daughter.

Antler also looks into some of feminism's founding figures' complex relationships with both their mothers and with Judaism -- Betty Friedan, Alix Kate Shulman, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, Jane Lazarre, and Phyllis Chesler, among others -- and at the treatment of the Jewish mother in a host of TV sitcoms. Particularly fascinating is her look at Roseanne Barr's intentional re-creation of the archetype as a "vehicle for rebellion." Barr, who "identif[ies] comedy as a Jewish tradition, a kind of 'midrash'" (who knew?), modeled her character in Roseanne on her grandmother, the family matriarch and a Lithuanian survivor of the Holocaust. Antler goes on to critique manifestations of the Jewish-mother stereotype in Will & Grace, The Nanny, and, of course, the squawking, henpecking mothers/wives of Seinfeld.

The book concludes by looking at the way the Jewish-mother joke is used by contemporary Jewish female comedians. Antler finds that, among other strategies, many attempt, through exaggeration, to "explode" the stereotype. She points to Sarah Silverman's recent film, Jesus Is Magic, and in particular to " the joke that [Silverman's] 96-year-old grandmother died after an anal rape and that an autopsy was being performed" throughout the film/routine. (That old schtick?)

You Never Write is a remarkable cultural history of a complex and uniquely American stereotype. Although depictions of Jewish mothers have changed drastically since their first appearances on the Yiddish stage, it's comforting to know that you can still score points by laughing at your poor mother. Now go give her a call.

Books mentioned in this post


  1. Portnoy's Complaint Used Trade Paper $7.50

  2. Haunted Smile Used Trade Paper $10.50




2 Responses to "You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother"

  1.  
    RJ Hirsch July 15th, 2007 at 4:27 am

    I read parts of this review--the comments on Roseanne and Seinfeld w puzzlement. While they or at least Seinfeld have stereoptypical NY Jewish facets, both observe CHRISTMAS in the context of the TV shows. On those TV shows, they were NOT depicted as Jewish.
    So however R Barr identifies herself in her life, being Jewish was NOT part of her TV show. Same for Seinfeld. I do NOT recall their being Jewish-- that is, there was enough that I thought they were,but they celebrated CHRISTMAS, so they were just New Yorkers.

    "....... the treatment of the Jewish mother in a host of TV sitcoms. Particularly fascinating is her look at Roseanne Barr's intentional re-creation of the archetype as a "vehicle for rebellion." Barr, who "identif[ies] comedy as a Jewish tradition, a kind of 'midrash'" (who knew?), modeled her character in Roseanne on her grandmother, the family matriarch and a Lithuanian survivor of the Holocaust. Antler goes on to critique manifestations of the Jewish-mother stereotype in Will & Grace, The Nanny, and, of course, the squawking, henpecking mothers/wives of Seinfeld."

  2.  
    Leora Skolkin-Smith July 17th, 2007 at 6:47 am



    I disagree with this. I think, rather, it is crucial and so important to point out how those attacks have been emotionally "violent" to a large degree. If one continues to minimize the damging effects of these "jokes", it feels like one colludes with the dismissive attitude that it's no big deal, what's the fuss? Yet, the hurt has been enormous, atleast for many Jewish women I know.
    Also, the stereotype focuses also only on one American segment of society and, for me anyway, grossly distorts the female who had to become strong for her children within that segment as well. Rarely, is a Jewess portrayed, (again just my opinion) it seems to be me, as sensual, seductive, or even sexual--she's always a manipulative"ball-breaker", who lives through her sons and barely has a sexual life of her own. So many Jewish women writers have done well to challenge this stereotype, yet in popular entertainment, fewer strides have been made, I think. So, yes, a sort of emotional violence is at play here in the stereotyping. Though one can measure these damages to a Jewish girl's development and sense of herself. The Middle Eastern, European, and Sefardic Jewess is rarely, almost never portrayed.

    I think this is an important, wonderful book and I am so glad Ms. Antler wrote it.

Post a comment:

 
Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by Powells.com staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
spacer
spacer
  • back to top

FOLLOW US ON...

     
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.