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.

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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).