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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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.

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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).