October 22, 2019

Oy vey! You should read what they’re writing about them — in books yet

I have the kind of Jewish mother who could both make gefilte fish from scratch and play 18 holes of golf in one day. Every day throughout my high school years, my mother would hand me lunch in a paper bag as I rushed out the door and left most of the breakfast she had prepared on the kitchen table.

Now, when she visits, my eighty-something mother will clean our toaster inside out if we don’t stop her. She’s still the best person around to shop with for just about anything.

But while I’ve always been a daughter –an adoring one, in fact — this is the first time that I’ve written a column about books for Mother’s Day while being interrupted to go over 5th-grade spelling words and help illustrate a 7th-grade poster. As I write late into the night, tomorrow night’s dinner is cooking and three young children are sleeping upstairs in the new home I share with them and their father, a widower.

We got married just a few months ago, and we are all finding our way toward forging a family. Yes, I see my mother in my household routines, and I am ever aware of her example and increasingly awestruck by her talents.

So I read this season’s selection of books with perhaps a different eye and an increased curiosity. There are serious books about Jewish mothers, lighthearted books, how-to volumes and memoirs and some manage to cross categories. Some offer knowing advice, others observations and jokes. The best are those that are open, honest and wise, not preachy or sentimental.

The title of Joyce Antler’s new book not only grabs attention but conveys the tone of the book. “You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother” is scholarly and lively, full of rich anecdotes drawn from popular culture, sociological and historical studies and life experience.

Antler, a professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University and author of several books, including “The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America,” examines the origins of negative stereotypes associated with the Jewish mother. She shows how images like being domineering, manipulative and overprotective have endured, and how they’ve been depicted in books, film and particularly on television, even as Jewish mothers have represented so much more than that.

“I wanted to understand the misunderstood Jewish mother, ” Antler said in an interview, noting her goal of coming up with a portrait that’s more diverse and pluralistic, recognizing the great strengths of Jewish women over these last decades in America, who’ve helped their families get acculturated and achieve great success. She said that the images get re-invented every generation or so.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother book cover
Hers is the most serious and engaging of new books, as she shifts her analytical eye from early television and radio’s Molly Goldberg and the jokes of George Jessel (“Isn’t it nice to have your own phone?” he asks his mother. “What? Nobody calls you? Even before you had the phone, nobody called you either?”) to Tovah Feldshuh in “Kissing Jessica Stein” and the humor of Sarah Silverman.

Antler also interviews Jewish mothers and includes their voices, speaking directly of their lives. One 97-year-old Sephardic mother of five who was born in Turkey spoke of having “a paradise in my home.”

Antler, who has been teaching at Brandeis for 28 years, is the proud Jewish mother of two daughters, and she’s admittedly quite involved in their lives.

“I’ve come to embrace the label, more so than I ever did before,” she said. One daughter is a stand-up comic who enjoys making fun in her monologue of having a feminist Jewish mother — a mother who encourages her not to wait for a man to shovel the snow for her but to put on a warm coat and get out there.

When you show up empty-handed on the first day of your young child’s softball practice, and the rest of the mothers all seem to be bearing bags of doughnuts for the coach, you realize that they know something that you don’t. “What the Other Mothers Know,” by Michelle Gendelman, Ilene Graff and Donna Rosenstein (Harper), is a smart, practical, funny and hip guide.

The Los Angeles-based authors, who describe themselves as not professionals like Dr. Spock or Dr. Phil but “three Dr. Moms, hands-on working parents” who have to budget their time and money, share advice that’s generous in spirit, especially geared to first-time moms.

There’s nothing of the competitive attitude that marks the so-called “mommy wars,” as they offer their version of a maternal E-Z Pass, culled from those with older kids and good memories. First-timers will learn about what other mothers seem to already know about preschool enrollment, finding good baby sitters and getting around the rules of school uniforms.

Yiddishe Mamas book cover
When I saw Judy Gold’s show, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” off-Broadway, I laughed and cried and called my sister as soon as I left the theater and told her that she had to get tickets. Gold’s new book, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” (Voice), written with playwright Kate Moira Ryan, is based on the show and organized into 25 chapters of questions, ranging from “What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” to “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do as a mother?”

Gold’s monologue — here presented as narrative — is based on her own adventures growing up in suburban New Jersey and now as the mother of two sons, along with the voices of 50 Jewish mothers she and Ryan interviewed around the country over a five-year period.

“I am not the typical Jewish mother I make fun of in my act,” she writes. “I’ve always wanted to be the ‘young and fun’ kind of mom and not some secondary character in a Philip Roth novel. For most of my adult life, I have struggled with the conflicts of being Jewish as well as being gay and being a comedian as well as a mother. Honestly, what Jewish mother do you know who spends her evening in smoky clubs full of drunk people, shouting obscenities over the sound of a blender, and the next day drops off her kids at Hebrew school?”