January 19, 2020

‘Look at Us Now, Mother!’ redefines Jewish stereotype

Sometimes, art can be the best means of revenge — or of healing.

When filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum was 8, her mother ordered her brother to put her on top of the refrigerator so she couldn’t climb down. She wanted Gayle out of the way. “Then they all laughed at me,” Kirschenbaum recalls in her new documentary, “Look at Us Now, Mother!”  The 83-minute film tells the story of Kirschenbaum’s traumatic childhood and how she finally made peace with her mother, Mildred, now 92, who was hardly the stereotypical, nurturing Jewish mama. 

These are some examples of what Mildred told young Gayle, in so many words: Your nose is a schnozzola, so get a nose job (a rite of passage for girls in their Long Island Jewish community). Fifteen-year-old Gayle refused.

Your breasts are too small, so wear falsies.

While Mildred coddled Kirschenbaum’s older brothers like Jewish princes, she treated Gayle “like Cinderella,” the New York-based filmmaker said in a telephone interview.  When Mildred found Gayle’s diaries, she showed them to other people.

And when Gayle once arrived home after curfew, Mildred threw a cold glass of water in her face and ordered her to walk the dog. “I don’t care if you get raped — if you haven’t already,” she told the girl. Then she pulled all of Gayle’s clothes out of the closet and screamed at her to put everything back.

As a result of the abuse, Kirschenbaum was so fearful of her mother throughout her childhood that she suffered frequent headaches, vomiting and dizzy spells, as well as a binge-eating disorder. Most of her symptoms ceased when she escaped from home, at 17, to attend the State University of New York at Binghamton.

But the emotional scars persisted into middle age. “I remember thinking to myself that I was never going to let anybody hurt me like that again,” said Kirschenbaum, now 61, who has never married or had children. “So you don’t really let anybody in.”

Even so, Kirschenbaum thrived at university and in her subsequent career as a producer for such TV shows as “America’s Most Wanted” and  “Mysteries of the Bible.” Then, in 2007, she made her first short film, “A Dog’s Life:  A Dogumentary,” about her rescue shih tzu, Chelsea, which aired on HBO. “I saved Chelsea and she saved me,” Kirschenbaum said.  “She offered me unconditional love.”

After Mildred saw her daughter talking about her work on a national TV talk show, Mildred told Gayle she needed elocution lessons because she sounded too Jewish. “But Mom, I am Jewish,” Kirschenbaum replied.

Then, around 2010, Kirschenbaum finally agreed to visit plastic surgeons — with Mildred in tow — to discuss a possible nose job, so long as she could bring along a camera crew. The result was Kirschenbaum’s widely acclaimed, humorous short documentary, “My Nose,” which was written up on the front page of the Washington Post’s Style section. If you have a mother like Gayle Kirschenbaum’s, the article said, you’d better get yourself into psychoanalysis.

The filmmaker did not ultimately agree to the surgery, and many “My Nose” viewers applauded her decision. “After the question-and-answer sessions, people would say, ‘I love your nose; don’t touch it,’ ‘I can’t stand your mother’ and ‘How do you talk to her?’ ” Kirschenbaum said.

These comments helped lead her to realize that she needed to forgive her mother in order to fully heal. After Mildred agreed to attend therapy with her daughter, on camera, Kirschenbaum embarked upon “Look at Us Now, Mother!” in 2011.

In the film, Mildred appears outgoing,with a feisty sense of humor, as well as “a piece of work,” as one of her friends puts it. Asked why she was so hard on her daughter, Mildred retorts that Gayle was “a bitchy little girl.”

Through the making of the documentary, Kirschenbaum learns about her mother’s own traumatic childhood, including a father who twice attempted suicide and a sister who died young. “I began to look at her as a wounded child,” Kirschenbaum said. As to why Mildred was so obsessed with Gayle’s ethnic looks, the filmmaker theorizes, she was part of a Jewish generation preoccupied with “fitting in and passing” in the United States.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple will conduct a question-and-answer session with Kirschenbaum after a screening of “Look at Us Now, Mother!” at Laemmle Monica Film Center on April 10; Kirschenbaum has known the rabbi since she worked on “Mysteries of the Bible” in the 1990s, when he was her go-to interviewee regarding midrash

“What strikes me about the documentary is how deeply we come to understand a very unappealing ‘type’ — the judgmental, intrusive Jewish mother,” Wolpe wrote of the film in an email.   

“This mother is not the warm, smothering, chicken soup mother of caricature, but one whose emotional life was itself quashed, with generational consequences. Because both her mother and Gayle are such Jewish types, even struggling with ‘Jewish hair and Jewish nose,’ the battle takes on a particularly Jewish complexion. It is funny, and heartbreaking.”

Kirschenbaum believes Mildred agreed to participate in the film because “she loves any kind of attention.” But the process was not one of vanity for the filmmaker. Rereading her own childhood diaries as research, for example, proved traumatic for Kirschenbaum. “I basically cried for a year,” she said.  She also developed an autoimmune disease that caused the skin on her hands to crack and bleed.

But there was also healing, and as a result of the film, Kirschenbaum hopes now to develop an online community dedicated to mending fraught bonds between mothers and daughters. She is also conducting seminars on how to heal from difficult relationships.

Along the way, her relationship with her own mother has evolved. “We love each other, even though we fight like cats and dogs,” Kirschenbaum said. “We can curse each other out and hang up on each other. But it’s like I’m her mother now. I have a wild child who needs attention at all costs, and who loves to be the star of the party.”

Mildred also has a sense of humor about how she is depicted in the film. After viewing the movie for the first time, she told Kirschenbaum, “I never knew I was such a bitch.”

“Look at Us Now, Mother!” opens in theaters in Los Angeles on April 8. The filmmaker will talk with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple at Laemmle Monica Film Center on April 10 after the 7:20 p.m. screening.