Throughout our history, the survival of the Jewish people has depended upon the courage of Jewish women. With their unassuming femininity and modest morality – not to mention their wills of steel – they have led us by the power of their personal example for thousands of years.
Ours is literally a matriarchal religion, one passed along through our mothers. The revered biblical matriarchs kept their faith and handed their spiritual traditions over to their treasured sons and daughters – whom they welcomed into an often violent, dangerous world during uncertain times. Wandering the desert, with only God’s promise to uphold them, it was our Jewish foremothers who refused to bow down to the Golden Calf.
We rightly celebrate these noble women throughout the year. During Chanukah, we remember the heroine Yehudit, and on Purim, we recall the inspiring saga of Esther through the story that bears her name.
At every crucial moment in Jewish history, women have come forward to steer our people along the proper path. Today is no exception. In our tumultuous times, it is Jewish women who are teaching their families about what is truly important in life.
A personal note: my wife and I are Chabad shluchim (emissaries), part of a network of 4,000 couples in 73 countries who have left the creature comforts of home and community to open Jewish outreach centers far and wide. Our “territory” is admittedly not as daunting as others; we serve the students of the prestigious Pratt Institute art school in New York City. We’re blessed with fine schools for our children, and a wealth of other resources (and restaurants!) but our mission is still challenging.
My wife juggles the rigors of teaching, counseling, and program planning. As such, she is a role model and an inspiration to our community.
If only my wife and Jewish women like her were able to inspire Hollywood, too.
On the rare occasions when Jewish women are portrayed in movies and television programs at all these days, I simply don’t recognize them. These characters are nothing like my wife and the other smart, funny, powerful Jewish women who’ve played such influential roles in my life.
I have a degree in film history, and my latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, analyses the depiction of Jewish characters across all media. At the Pratt Institute, we offer courses in the evolution of these depictions. So I’m very much aware of the pride Hollywood takes in its courageous production of stereotype-busting movies.
The way the media portray ethnic groups has evolved and improved, and the entertainment industry deserves credit for that. Yet for some reason, as far as Jewish women are concerned, show business tastemakers just shrug and churn out another round of tired clich?s.
Earlier this year, for example, CBS aired the TV movie “Loving Leah,” the romantic tale of a secular Jewish doctor who marries his Chabad sister-in-law, Leah, after the death of his brother, the rabbi.
Now, the program itself was pleasant if ultimately forgettable. But when Susie Essman, who portrayed Leah’s overbearing mother, appeared on ABC’s popular morning show “The View” to promote the movie, she made a less than favorable impression.
Sadly, Essman spent much of her time on “The View” berating the real-life chassidic women she’d met during filming.
“The View” co-host Joy Behar asked Essman, “So what did you learn about the chassidic religion?”
Essman replied, “They’re not very good dressers . Have you seen what these women look like half the time?”
I was shocked and offended by those cruel comments. It was particularly jarring to hear Susie Essman, of all people, stereotyping Jewish women. After all, she’s made a lucrative career portraying a shrill, status-conscious Jewish woman on the HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” As the foul-mouthed wife of Larry David’s agent and best friend, Essman’s character is just a two-dimensional caricature: a sharp-tongued scold who always looks frumpy in spite of (or, more accurately, because of) her garish, overpriced designer ensembles. If that isn’t a cruel stereotype, then what is?
Meanwhile, Larry’s gentile wife Cheryl is beautiful, blonde, chic and supportive. It’s a familiar trope in Jewish comedy, in which Jewish girls are often portrayed as consolation prizes next to the characters’ gentile trophy wives.
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As mentioned above, Hollywood has never been kind to Jewish female characters. For the most part, they are depicted as shallow, spoiled young women you love to hate (commonly known by the derogatory term “Jewish American Princess” or “J.A.P.”); brittle, cerebral neurotics (look at almost any Woody Allen movie); or – most famously – overbearing, pushy, hysterical Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law.
In 2007 alone, four books appeared, dedicated to revealing, analyzing and (sometimes) celebrating mom’s every kvetch: from Laurie Rozakis’s The Portable Jewish Mother: Guilt, Food, and When Are You Giving Me Grandchildren? to Joyce Antler’s You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother, Marnie Winston-Macauley’s Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother to Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.
All these books explore and undermine the stereotypical Jewish mother: emotionally stifling, sometimes hysterical, yet craftily intelligent, compulsively hard working, and rarely out of “mother mode.”
It’s astonishing that the stereotype of the Jewish mother remains so fascinating to so many people after all these years. It has been more than half a century since TV pioneer Gertrude Berg played the beloved Jewish shtetl bubbe Molly on the comedy series “The Goldbergs.” All but forgotten now, producer-writer-actress Berg was a pre-Lucy, pre-Oprah millionaire media maven. “The Goldbergs” was heard on radio from 1929 to 1946 and moved to the new medium of live television in 1949.
The character of Molly Goldberg is the quintessential “Yiddishe Momme,” the nourishing Old World Earth Mother celebrated in sentimental vaudeville songs. The bedrock of the home, she’s neither devastatingly beautiful nor terribly sophisticated, but a loyal survivor who guards her family like a lioness. Her entire existence was the pursuit of naches fun kinder (joy from her children).
Big boned and even bigger-hearted, Molly was a lovingly meddlesome matriarch. Goldberg’s honest portrayal of Jewish tenement life – showing newcomers who were trying to balance assimilation with tradition – resonated with gentile and Jewish audiences alike.
America, for all its faults, is miles away from the shtetls of the Old Country, but that fact was difficult for many Jewish matriarchs to accept. Their children, on the other hand, were often desperate to fit in with the larger culture, one that valued freedom and independence over family ties.
And so the bossy Jewish mother became a world-famous archetype, thanks in large part to those very children: the Philip Roths and Lenny Bruces and Woody Allens and countless other (mostly male) humorists who helped introduce her to American culture.
Unlike the lovable Molly Goldberg, these portrayals were almost uniformly negative. In Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth writes ruefully: “A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till the day they die!”
As Jews moved up the class structure, the shtetl bubbe no longer had to work as hard. Later, the success of her husband and children might mean she didn’t have to work at all. Today, the stereotypical “Jewish mother” character has morphed into a high-maintenance woman consumed with consuming, devoted to eating or shopping. On “Saturday Night Live,” the “verklempt” Linda Richman (played by Mike Meyers and named after his own Jewish mother-in-law) had time to host her very own TV show!
Another fictional example of this assimilated shtetl bubbe is the character of Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor) on the long-running 1990s sitcom “The Nanny.” Brassy Sylvia, who loves food and tacky fashions, is determined to match her daughter (Fran Drescher) up with her rich gentile boss, Mr. Sheffield; his religion doesn’t interest her as much as his wallet does.
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So what became of the Jewish mother’s daughter?
Self-absorbed, high maintenance, whiny and materialistic – that’s the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess. With Long Island as her ancestral homeland, the J.A.P. is the Jewish mother’s pampered offspring, literally her warm, nurturing bubbe’s polar opposite.
Herman Wouk’s bestselling novel Marjorie Morningstar popularized the stereotype back in 1955. Next came Brenda Patimkin of Philip Roth’s 1959 comic novella Goodbye, Columbus; note that her surname sounds like “potemkin,” the infamous Soviet painted fa?ade without substance.
As we’ve already noted, in movies, fiction and TV comedies, the bossy, unappealing Jewish girl is often contrasted unfavorably with the serene, effortlessly graceful blonde “shiksa goddess,” supposedly the idealized object of desire for ambitious Jewish men (like the upwardly mobile anti-heroes of Roth and Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler). In “Annie Hall” (1977), Woody Allen’s character plays up the difference between his first two wives, both Jewish, and his new uber-WASP girlfriend (played by Diane Keaton), who “looks like the wife of an astronaut.”
More recently, the long running off-Broadway play “Jewtopia” (2004-2007) illustrated the staying power of these stereotypes decades after they’d become clich?s. The story revolved around two young men, a Jew (Adam Lipschitz) and a gentile (Chris O’Connell), who, for dubious reasons, want to date their ethnic opposites: Chris thinks a Jewish girl will run his life and relieve him of taking responsibility, while Adam feels a non-Jewish woman will help him forget his ethnic background.
In “Keeping the Faith” (2000), Ben Stiller plays Rabbi Schram, who is caught in a very unlikely romantic rivalry with his best childhood friend, a Catholic priest, over the affections of an Irish Catholic girl. Before the curtain falls, however, Rabbi Schram is introduced to a number of eligible Jewish girls. Unfortunately, these Jewish women are portrayed as desperate and unattractive.
Ben Stiller returned as Reuben Feffer in “Along Came Polly” (2004), playing an uptight, obsessive, nebbish Jew who marries a not-very-attractive Jewish girl. But before you can say “mazel tov,” his new bride cheats while on their honeymoon. Stiller eventually finds new love with the spontaneous, pretty, non-Jewish Polly (Jennifer Aniston).
Why does the entertainment business produce story after story of Jewish men pursuing gentile women and rejecting their Jewish counterparts? My theory is that these movies and television programs demonstrate a case of art subconsciously imitating life: the industry is indisputably dominated by male Jewish writers who are often intermarried themselves.
These comedies have their moments, but the message of intermarriage is troubling to those of us concerned about the survival of the Jewish people.
From the very outset, Judaism predicated its continued existence on the endurance of the family. The first commandment in the Torah is not about faith or belief, but rather to have children: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill up the land.”
And Abraham is empowered by God to become the father of the Jewish people, not on account of his military strength or his righteousness but because “he will instruct his children and his household after him.”
The home’s central role in Jewish life ensured a safe haven of holy space during the Diaspora. Sadly, though, much modern comedy undermines the Jewish family rather than building it up. It’s an insult to accuse someone of “behaving like a Jewish mother” when it should be considered a compliment.
All these cruel depictions fly in the face of reality, not to mention our spiritual inheritance. It should give us pause when we consider that the very first mention of humor in the Bible concerns a strong, beloved Jewish woman. Matriarch Sarah, you’ll recall, is told that God will finally bless her with her very first child – at the ripe old age of ninety-nine.
Sarah laughs, and who can blame her? But God is not amused: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is there something God cannot do?”
When the child is born, Abraham and Sarah name the boy Isaac; the Hebrew “Yitzchak” comes from the root word “tzchok,” meaning “laughter.” Why? Because, as Sarah explains, “God has caused me to laugh.”
Given laughter’s distinguished, even holy, pedigree, surely the time has come to stop laughing at Jewish women, as Susie Essman did, and start laughing with them.
To her great credit, Essman later apologized for her mean-spirited comments. Now if only the rest of Hollywood could bring itself to rethink the stereotypes of Jewish women it continues to reinforce.
In stark contrast to the Jewish women we see on screens big and small – loud, obnoxious, bossy characters who inspire scorn and derision – real Jewish women share a long heritage of quiet power, serenity, wisdom and selflessness.
Let’s remember that the root of the name Esther in Hebrew is “hester,” meaning “concealment.” Esther was a great, timeless heroine, yet an understated one – the epitome of femininity and faith. Her very name articulated the true essence of real flesh and blood Jewish women. Let’s look to Esther as our standard, not Essman.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the Chabad emissary to Pratt Institute, where he chairs the Religious Affairs Committee. His latest book is “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century” (Barricade Books). His first book, “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” (Leviathan Press), received the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book of 2007. A popular television and radio guest, he’s been profiled in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, The Seattle Times and The (London) Guardian, He is available for speaking and media engagements and can be reached at www.rabbisimcha.com.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein