On Father's Day, Whither the Jewish Dad?

'J-Mom' Stereotypes Abound But Hubbies Are on Sidelines

Henpecked?: In ‘A Serious Man,’ Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlberg) feels put-upon by his wife Judith (Sarah Lennick).
Focus Features
Henpecked?: In ‘A Serious Man,’ Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlberg) feels put-upon by his wife Judith (Sarah Lennick).

By Lenore Skenazy

Published June 10, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
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Happy Jewish Father’s Day — and you know what that means, right?

Well, actually, you probably don’t. Because unlike Jewish mothers, who’ve got a stereotype that just won’t die (not even if it goes outside without a sweater), Jewish fathers are not defined as any one thing. Which got me wondering: Why not?

Why are us J-moms the butt of so many jokes, stories and songs — well, jokes and stories, anyway — while Jewish dads sit on the sidelines of pop culture, smoking their pipes and carving scrimshaw?

Or… whatever it is they’re doing? They just don’t have the same definitive brisket-braising/doctor-raising image that the moms of our tribe do. “I asked my dad, ‘What’s the stereotypical Jewish father?’’’ said Shaun Eli Breidbart, comedian and executive director of The Ivy League of Comedy, a troupe that does “clean” comedy at colleges and other venues. “He said: ‘I’m busy. Go ask your mother.’’’

The point being that Jewish fathers tend to defer to their wives. But how is that a particularly Jewish trait, considering most men defer to their wives on at least some topics: “Honey, do I like red snapper?”

“The stereotype is, the Jewish husband does whatever the Jewish wife wants,” said Ellie Hirsch, a Tampa, Fla., mom of three who gives parenting advice under the moniker The Mommy Master. “That’s why Jewish husbands are so fantastic!”

Hardly, says author Elliott Katz, whose 2005 anti-wishy-washiness manifesto, “Being the Strong Man a Woman Wants,” has been translated into 24 languages. The stereotypical Jewish father, Katz believes, is “henpecked by a domineering stereotypical Jewish mother. [He’s] doing whatever she wants, in the hopes that maybe one day she will be happy.”

Which is exactly what Hirsch was saying — whooping about, actually — except to Katz this is a problema, and to Hirsch it’s unbelievably great. Both perspectives are pretty well represented in this joke, repeated by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center: “There are two friends who have a 40-year friendship. Sit next to each other every Sabbath. We will call them Steve and Joe. Steve passes away, precedes Joe by only four days. When Joe goes to heaven, he has to find Steve. He asks where the recently deceased people are. There are two lines. The first is filled with hundreds of people. The title of the line is ‘Henpecked husbands.’ Joe looks up and down the line and does not see Steve. He walks to the other side and sees one person in a line: Steve. The line is for ‘Liberated Husbands.’ Joe is confused and asks him why he’s in this line. Steve replies: ‘What can I do? My wife says I should stand here.’”

To me, this is a way of saying that a “henpecked” (and I’d prefer the term “wife-consulting”) husband ends up better off than someone in a long line.

In any event, the rather hazy Jewish dad stereotype isn’t just about docility; there’s also the idea that he’s a very decent guy — doesn’t drink, doesn’t fool around — which has got to be the loveliest stereotype of any group of people ever.

“We’re probably most seen in actors like Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen, who seem to try to please everyone, believe that they’ve failed, and then, in the end, everything works out — much to their surprise,” summed up Michael Kinstlinger, a Web marketing consultant from Baltimore who works from home to take care of his two young daughters.

What’s more, the basic image of Jewish dads includes the belief that they’re willing to work hard to provide for their families. And that work ethic may be the very reason there are fewer jokes — and stereotypes — about them. “When you think of the Jewish father, he wasn’t home,”said David Brimm, a publicist in Deerfield, Ill. “They were working all day. And so most ‘men jokes’ in Jewish humor are about their business partners.”

The jokes aren’t about Dad’s relationship with the kids, because that relationship wasn’t as fraught with all-day-long interactions.

It was also more common to stereotype mothers, because that’s who was raising the budding comedians, adds Brimm, who studies Jewish humnor as an avocation. Most of the comedians who promulgated that stereotype in the midcentury were men, often the children of immigrants, who were trying to become “American.”

Consciously or not, they were embarrassed by the anxious, Old World ways of their moms, who’d grown up in a time and place where it made sense to worry every second. To distance themselves, the men lampooned their mothers.

Meantime, their far-fewer female counterparts — Joan Rivers, Totie Fields — made fun of their boobs, their weight, themselves, but not their parents. It was hard enough to be a woman comedian at all, Ellen Scolnic and Joyce Eisenberg, co-writers known as The Word Mavens, told me. For gals, self-deprecation was the way to go, not daddy deprecation (which sounds vaguely obscene).

But perhaps the most basic reason for the fuzziness of the Jewish father stereotype goes back further than even the Borscht Belt. “From a historical perspective, the answer is simple,” said Lynn Berger, a career counselor and relationship coach in New York City. “Judaism is a maternal-based religion. Jews take the religion of their mother.” So whatever is most “Jewish” is considered Jewish-mother-ish, not Jewish-father-ish, because moms represent the religion.

For example, Berger said, her husband called their son the other day to say, “Your mom loves it when you’re home from college and spend time with her.”

“What about him?” Berger asked about her husband. He loves to see their son just as much as she does. “I believe he was speaking through me.”

So maybe that’s the typical Jewish father: Someone not so very different from the typical Jewish mother — worried, loving, child-centered — except with less cultural baggage. He may not be joke material, but he provides in other ways.

No word on whether he can braise a brisket.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the founder of the book “Free-Range Kids” and the blog of the same name. Her show, “World’s Worst Mom,” airs on Discovery/TLC International.


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