Truths and myths in the ‘History of the Jewish Mother’

By Pamela H. Sacks

When asked if her daughters consider her a typical Jewish mother, Joyce Antler just laughed. Her elder daughter, Lauren, is a standup comic. Antler recounted how in one routine Lauren called her “a comedy gold mine.”

“I embrace the label of the Jewish mother; it is an emblem of warmth and this is OK,” Antler said in a recent interview. “If we’re all in good humor about it, lots of love goes a long way.”

Antler, it happens, is an expert on the origins of the popular stereotype. A professor of Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University, she has examined the truths and myths in her enlightening and often amusing book, “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother” (Oxford University Press, $15.95).

Antler traces the Jewish mother image from warm and nurturing to meddling, intrusive and overprotective. She examines the ways in which the stereotype has been reinforced in literature and many forms of entertainment, from early TV’s highly popular “Molly Goldberg” to the 1990s show “The Nanny.”

“Molly was a woman of tremendous ethical heft,” Antler said. “She was an exemplar of a mother who was involved in family, neighbors and community, but the basis was caring, goodwill and moral values.”

In “The Nanny,” the lead character, played by Fran Drescher, has a warm relationship with her mother, but she is the quintessential nagging Jewish mother. Although the show received awards from Jewish groups, Antler said it should be viewed as a parody. “The irony meter should be high, but some viewers see it as a slice of real life,” she said.

Antler conducted surveys of hundreds of Brandeis women and found that many of them identified warmly with their mothers. Often, they described mothers who wanted them to believe they could “fly to the moon,” she said.

“This is where the stereotype does not match what people think,” Antler said.

Over time, views of the Jewish mother have changed.

Author Philip Roth offered a typical view in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” In “The Plot Against America,” his much more recent novel, he depicts the mother, who is a central character, as “a woman of strength, fortitude and compassion – a real hero,” Antler said. Feminists who rejected their Jewish mothers 30 years ago are taking another look, as well, she said. And aspects of the stereotype have entered mainstream society. One example is the “helicopter mother,” whose care and concern for her child takes precedence over all else.

Antler notes that stereotypes “have a relationship to how we think and how we act.” She points out that nagging is a form of love. She urges people to embrace the strengths of the image of the Jewish mother and “understand how it has contributed to the success of their children and Jews in America.”

“The point of the book is that even though we poke fun at it, there are people who wish they could have had the typical Jewish mother,” Antler said.

Antler will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Worcester Jewish Community Center, 633 Salisbury St., Worcester. The event is free and open to the public. A dessert reception will follow the presentation and a book signing. Those who plan to go are asked to R.S.V.P. by calling Nancy Greenberg, (508) 756-7109, ext. 232.

During her childhood, Rita Schiano’s parents were often separated. She would see her father when he stopped by the schoolyard at lunchtime or drove her home at the end of the day. Schiano traveled with her father to Las Vegas on several occasions; he always registered at the hotel under an alias.

“I always sensed he was different,” Schiano, an author from Sturbridge, said. “He always had a Cadillac, fancy clothes, diamond rings and thick wads of cash.”

Schiano’s father eventually was murdered. She had never really known a lot about him or the circumstances surrounding his death. Then one day as she was conducting research on the Internet, she hit the wrong key and up came newspaper articles about the killing. The experience set her on a path to discovery, and she ended up writing “Painting the Invisible Man” (Reed Edwards Co., $14.95), a work of contemporary historical fiction that was published last fall.

“It’s written as fiction but based on true events,” Schiano said, adding that about 90 percent of the story is based in fact.

The main character, Anna, is forced to examine the events in her father’s life that led to his murder. The story recounts what life was like for a child growing up on the fringes of the mafia, “how it affects one’s world view,” Schiano said.

“Much like the character in the book, I set out to paint this portrait of my father, who was not very known,” she said. “You end up doing a family portrait.”

The entire process was painful, Schiano said, but was also “totally cathartic.” She emphasized that while the story is a personal journey, it encompasses “universal themes of forgiveness, atonement and redemption.”

Schiano is one of several authors who will be at Barnes & Noble at the Shoppes at Blackstone Valley, off Route 146, Millbury, from 1 to 3 p.m. tomorrow to discuss their books and sign copies.