Jewish Mothers on Television

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

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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.