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Sunday, July 15th, 2007
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You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother

by Joyce Antler

A review by Eric Zassenhaus

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.

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