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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The stereotype makes us self-conscious: Since we don't want to be "Jewish mothers," we hold ourselves back from the kind of behavior satirized in the caricature. When we find ourselves, despite our best intentions, behaving "just like a Jewish mother," we condemn ourselves for doing so. The stereotype can thus influence our relationship with our children as well as our self-evaluation as parents.

Superwoman: An Alternative Stereotype

Another stereotype that crops up increasingly as the two-career family comes into its own is the "Eshet hayil" stereotype, or, in American terms, the superwoman image. The poem "Eshet Hayil" ([Proverbs 31:10-31], which many traditional men recite to their wives on Friday night before Kiddush) praises the "Woman of Valor" who is a successful businesswoman, nurtures and feeds her family, sews their clothes, gives charity, and dispenses wise advice.

The question for many of us who are participating in a two-career family is how to provide healthy models for the family work distribution. We are in a time of transition in which we are not satisfied with the roles our mothers played and have not yet fully discovered how to do the thing better. All too often when women decide to embark on a career, it simply means that now, instead of being responsible for the housekeeping, laundry, cooking, clothes buying, and general welfare of their families, they are also responsible for their new careers and the housekeeping, laundry, etc.

How does a couple truly share household tasks? How does a couple convey to their child the notion that men and women can share nurturing roles as well as housekeeping responsibilities? How can we avoid, for ourselves, in our own minds, the Eshet hayil stereotype? Certainly, what we don't want to do is trade in the Jewish mother stereotype for the Eshet Hayil stereotype.

Transcending Stereotypes & Learning From Them

Understanding the sources of the stereotype prepares the way for a reexamination of traditional Jewish mothering, for a liberation of the real Jewish mother from the stereotype. To paraphrase a truism in immigrant history, what the child wants to forget, the grandchild is eager to remember. If the Jewish family has been a source of stability in Jewish life as well as the launching pad for Jewish social mobility, the nature of Jewish involvement with children has been at the center of the family.

Only when the stereotype of the Jewish mother is exposed as the caricature that it is can we recognize and integrate into ourselves the positive aspects of the Jewish mother. Her warmth, her involvement with her children, her ability to convey to them that they are marvelous and special, are talents that we would do well to foster in ourselves. These are characteristics that we can develop even if we reject the limitation of the Jewish mother's role to mothering and choose to combine mothering with a career. They "travel well," whatever our social circumstances.

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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).