Friday, July 10, 2009

On Jewish Mothers

My culture and faith has profoundly impacted my written work. I used to be the Editor of the Judaism site for until time constraints forced me to stop. My work remained on the site for a while but has since vanished from the web. I will be posting some of the more resonant articles I wrote here, to keep them real and alive.

Few figures in Judaism are as mocked, feared, and respected as the Jewish Mother. Here are some thought and observations about our Yiddishe Mommas.

On Jewish Mothers

Jewish mothers. Are there any other two words that when juxtaposed, they illicit feelings at once of both reverence and fear. That is, only if you happen to be the child of one of them.

The stereotype of the over-protective, constantly fretting Jewish mother is well-known across cultures and religion -- the woman who does not cut the apron strings even after her children have passed the age of 25. Heck, even after they passed the age of 40, and have children of their own. Do you know the old joke about what the difference is between a Jewish mother and a rottweiler? The rottweiler will eventually let go.

Yes, there are indeed some Jewish mothers who fit the mold, and we all have our stories and experiences either encountering or living with them. I don't know what it is about being Jewish that turns a woman who would probably otherwise be normal into a worrying basketcase. Does being Jewish have anything to do with it? Does being a woman? Woody Allen is Jewish, and certainly is known for portraying characters that are more than slightly neurotic, and he isn't a woman.

Families are important in Judaism. Most of life cycle events and holidays are geared to be celebrated within a family unit. But family is also important in other cultures. Greek and Italian mothers have also been known to watch over their youngsters closely, but still do not have the stigma attached to them that Jewish mothers do.

Could this stereotype be a form of anti-Semitism? Perhaps. But at the same time, it is not exactly a false profile. I can't count how many times I have commiserated with other Jews about my parents, only to see them nodding their heads in empathy. There is such a thing as self-hatred, but one's experiences are their experiences: if we come from a home with a nutty Jewish mother, than that is our experience, and chalking the stereotype up to anti-Semitism is an aside.

So, here are some suggestions about why things are as they are with our maternal bonds. I mentioned earlier that family is important in Judaism. So is food. Food is crammed down our throats at every available moment. Food is linked with Jewish holidays. So when we refuse to eat for no reason other than we are simply not hungry, it is easy for one's mother to get offended or worried that something is wrong ("No mom, I won't waste away if I don't eat my third latke/blintz/cabbage roll/fill in with the ethnic food of your choice.").

As well, in a world where it is only recent that Jews are not pariahs in society, a person who lived in more dangerous times may feel more protective of her flock. I don't see the worry and fretting in my contemporaries -- it is mostly older women who were alive during the time of the Holocaust. Women who may have lived part of their lives in an Eastern European Jewish shtetl, then experiencing the culture shock of North America, and the non-Jewish cultural and religious influences that being part of a more dispersed Jewish community brought into their lives and families.

Basically then, I think the problem is with a certain generation of Jewish women who have their mindset in another time and place. Let me give you a personal example. My mother would not allow me to ride my bicycle unaccompanied, even though I was well into my teens, because she was afraid of me getting caught in traffic. We live in Western Canada. When my grandparents visited one summer from New York, my grandfather (of blessed memory) asked me why I did not go for a bike ride. When I explained to him the reason, he promptly marched inside and in a bewildered tone of voice asked my mother, "What traffic?" Thanks to Grandpa, she relented. But until then, my dear mother's vision of congested roads was still focused on the hectic streets of New York.

With these women, the universal and general become the local and specific. We must eat because children are starving in Africa. We must be home before dark because someone's sister's best friend's aunt's cousin was attacked twenty years before.

The stereotypical Yiddishe Mama is probably a species that will not remain beyond another generation, as the face and makeup of Jewish families change and we are more used to living amongst non-Jews. But her mark upon Jewish literature, popular culture, and our lives, will ensure that the legend of the Jewish mother will remain a part of the Jewish consciousness.

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