Different cultures produce different Jewish mothers

When people talk about the Jewish mother stereotype, they’re usually referring to the American Ashkenazi Jewish mother stereotype.

But what about Jewish mothers from different cultures and countries?

In Israel, where the Jewish mother is everywhere, the stereotype is known as “Isha Polania,” or a “Polish woman,” but can be applied to any woman who fits the description: She suffers but with an Israeli twist — not a martyr, she’s aggressive in her suffering and, like a Middle Easterner, she knows how to hold a grudge.

Consider this joke translated from the Hebrew:

“Polish” woman 1: “Have I told you how wonderful you look today?”
“Polish” woman 2: “Too bad that I can’t return the compliment.”
“Polish” woman 1: “What, you don’t know how to lie like I do?”

“They are very jealous, and they don’t forgive,” says Avner Hofstein, West Coast bureau chief of the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. “They don’t forgive their neighbors, and they’re always talking about how someone else is not as good as them in order to make their status seem better (‘Did you see what she did with her son?’).”

Hofstein says that to be a “Polanit” is a state of mind, not a place of origin. “The Yemenites are the biggest Polaniyot,” he says.

But the Israeli stereotypical Jewish mother is also evolving. “Today there are more career women, plenty of women with child care, with nannies — the women work outside more, so their focus is not so much on their children,” Hofstein says. “They’re more like Americans.”

But, he added, in Los Angeles, you do see more of the stereotypical Israeli mother, “because the women don’t work outside the home, and they’re focused on the children and all their activities. All day long the mothers are nudging them.”

Persian Jewish mothers have their own typecasting, too. For these women, the original stereotypical Jewish mother was referred to as “Sara Khanom” (Lady Sara), according to Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, lecturer of Iranian studies at UCLA. Like the American Ashkenazi Jewish mother, Lady Sara is a nurturer and caretaker but not loud or brassy.

“She is usually very naive, submissive and a devoted mother and wife. She is the one who takes care of the family Shabbat dinner with her special meal called the ‘Gondi.’ She usually speaks with a Jewish accent and accompanies her husband, ‘Aqa Ya’qub’ (Master Yaqub) wherever the occasion permits,” Pirnazar says.

Today, Persian Jewish mothers, while many of them have achieved the highest levels of professional, academic and social status, still face the struggles of many new immigrants: how to integrate the old with the new.

“Persian Jewish women are caught between the traditional culture of their original community and the new challenge of life in America,” Pirnazar says. “This challenge is shown in every aspect of their lives: Their own relations with their parents, relations with their spouse, children and, if unmarried, the choice of a partner in life. They try to perform their obligations to everyone and if possible fulfill their own dreams.”

Gina Nahai, a Jewish Journal columnist, is a professor of creative writing at USC and best-selling novelist (“Cry of the Peacock” (Crown, 1991) and the upcoming “Dreams of a Caspian Rain,” among others). Nahai also considers herself a typical Persian Jewish mother because she’s overprotective.

“My son moved to New York two years ago, and every time I see him, I spend the whole time crying, thinking of leaving him,” she says. “My daughter got into Berkeley, and we encouraged her to go, but she didn’t, and we were all happy.”

“Persian mothers want to keep their children warm and safe their entire lives,” Nahai says, but that characteristic is changing a little. Although there are grown men who live with their parents until they get married at 40 or women who must see their mothers every day, perhaps Persian Jewish mothers are “a little less likely” to hold on too long and are more willing to let their children move out.

But as far as the stereotype that Persian Jewish mothers only want their daughters to “marry up” and their sons to have a good career and family, “I don’t see that changing much,” Nahai says.

“I’m really amazed at how much (the girls) have become their mothers; they aspire to the same things as their mothers aspired for them. Some go to school, but you can tell it’s finishing school, not an actual pursuit of something.”