Jewish Mothering; Olivia Lichtenstein

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Trudy Gold’s session at Jewish Book Week on Monday February 23rd, provided a nourishing and entertaining journey through the depiction of the Jewish Mother on Screen. From the first talkie, ‘The Jazz Singer’ to Woody Allen’s ‘Radio Days’, via Jack Rosenthal’s ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’, Philip Roth’s Goodbye Colombus and many more. The cinema, Gold revealed to us, paints a picture of the Jewish Mother as the archetype of the over-bearing, neuroses-inducing mother who stifles her offspring with an excess of love, food, anxiety and guilt.

So, asks Gold, who is responsible for creating this monster? Well, it seems we are. Or more precisely, it is the Jewish sons who created Hollywood who bear primary responsibility. Hollywood was the brainchild of East European Jews who tended to have strong mothers; Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, the Warner brothers, the Selznicks. Their desire for assimilation led to a rejection of family. Was the creation of the over-bearing Jewish mother their ultimate revenge? In the early years, the producers rarely touched the Jewish experience in their films; a desire for acceptance, says Gold, meant that they aspired to a white picket-fence America, the kind epitomised by Judy Garland and Shirley Temple.

Have we moved too readily into the stereotype of the Yiddishe Mama? The fact that we find her so identifiable suggests that there is more than a grain of truth in her portrayal. Maureen Lipman as Beattie in the BT adverts of the 1980s epitomises the Jewish Mother and was instantly recognisable. It’s a comic stereotype much beloved of Jewish comedians the world over and as a source of humour has particular potency – American humour is, largely, defined by Jewish humour.

The origins of the Jewish Mother stereotype are understandable and born of the troubled history of our ancestors. We are an immigrant group with a long history of persecution. The physical and psychological insecurity of everyone’s lives in the Shtetl and later in immigrant ghettos meant that mothers had a fierce need to keep their families protected and complete. It’s interesting to note that the characteristics of the Jewish mother could equally be ascribed to the mothers of other close-knit immigrant and ethnic groups: Italians, Asians and Greeks for example. And, if the primary function of the Jewish mother is to keep the family from fragmenting, is she such a bad thing after all?

However, could we not alter this image for the 21st century? As I ate my salt beef sandwich last Monday and waited for Trudy Gold’s session to begin, I found myself seated opposite two exquisitely elegant and groomed women. One of them was probably over 70. I applauded their beauty; their pride in their appearance and their curiosity about life as they eagerly combed through the programme for this year’s Jewish Book Week drawing each other’s attention to the sessions they wanted to attend. Is there not a different type of Jewish Mother we could be offering the world? A mysterious, intelligent and alluring creature who offers her children unconditional love and support in a way that provides them with a solid foundation for their futures? It’s type to explode the stereo-type, entertaining though she is and make a film about a new kind of Jewish Mother.

The former Editor of BBC Television’s flagship documentary ‘Inside Story’, Olivia Lichtenstein, has worked as on programmes as diverse as Russian humour and the Oklahoma bomber. She currently works as a freelance producer, director and journalist. She is the author of Mrs Zhivago of Queen’s Park Her forthcoming novel, Naked Yoga will be published later this year.


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