Often, words and expressions change meaning by happenstance, or because a secondary meaning gradually becomes a primary one. There’s no wider significance to it. Sometimes, though, the change is indicative of a real cultural shift.
I had this thought the other day, as I was reading an article about the current trend in some American cities to enact daytime curfew laws for teenagers who are on the streets instead of in school. The article spoke of the growing desire of many American parents to monitor their children’s activities. It quoted a University of Houston history professor named Steven Mintz, author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood,” as saying: “We’re all Jewish mothers now. In fact, we’re much worse. My Jewish mother would let me out at 7 a.m. and say, ‘Come back in time for dinner.’”
It’s not only Jewish mothers who have changed, I reflected as I read this. It’s also the expression “a Jewish mother” itself. For quite some time now in America, this expression has been a term of opprobrium. A “Jewish mother” is a mother who nags, who worries too much, who is overprotective of her children and is overambitious for them. Controlling and dominating, the raiser of spoiled American Jewish princesses and castrated American Jewish princes, she is the object of jokes, barbs and novels such as Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
But it was not always like this. The stereotypical “Jewish mother” — before this was ever an English expression, it existed as the Yiddish a yidishe mama — was once someone very different. She was the very essence of love, of warmth, of selfless devotion. She wanted nothing for her children but their health and happiness. She would defend them fearlessly and stand up for them. She was the mother who every child wanted to have, and every child who had a mother like her longed for her when she was gone.
This is the Jewish mother of the 1925 song “Mayn Yidishe Mama,” which was first sung in Yiddish by Sophie Tucker to lyrics written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack and actually made it to the top five of the Hit Parade. It had lyrics like:
In vaser un fayer volt zi gelofn far ir kind,
Nisht haltn ir tayer, dos iz gevis der grester zind.
Oy, vi gliklakh un raykh iz der mentsh vos hot
Aza tayere matone geshenkt fun got
Vi an altetshke yidishe mama. Mama, oy, mama mayn!
In a literal English translation: “She’ll go through water and fire for her child/The greatest sin is not to cherish her. O, how happy and rich/Is the man who has/Such a precious gift sent from God/As an old Jewish mother./Oy, mama, my mama!”
Several years later The Barry Sisters released their own version of the song in English, with lines such as:
My Yiddishe mama, I need her more than ever now,
My Yiddishe mama, I’d like to kiss her wrinkled brow.
I long to hold her hand once more as in days gone by,
And ask her to forgive me for things I did to make her cry.
Such a song is of course highly sentimental, and one can hardly doubt that many Jewish mothers in those days who indeed were ready to go through fire and water for their children were also ready to pour fire and brimstone on them when they caught up with them. But the yidishe mama of Eastern Europe and her early American immigrant descendants were not just a sentimental stereotype. They were a genuine embodiment of cultural values who inspired serious writing, as well. Think, for example, of Yiddish poet Itsik Manger’s poem “Libshaft” (“Love”):
Shlanke hirsh af farshneyte berg,
di zilberne herner fartshepn di levone
un di levone iz gut tsu zey. Mayn mama hit zey. Geyt zey nokh fis-trit.
Di velf in vald zoln nisht derniukhn.
Farlesht zi di shpurn af shney. Mayn mama iz shoyn zint yorn toyt. Nor ir libshaft geyt arum in roym mit ofene orems farn vint. Tall deer upon snowy hills, their silver horns hooked on the moon. The moon is good to them. My mother guards them. Follows them on foot. Forest wolves must not find their spoor. She blows their scent from the snow. My mother has been dead for years,
But her love roams through space
With arms open to the wind.
Manger’s “Jewish mother” is fiercely protective without letting it be felt: She does not herd the deer, or impinge on them in any way, but gives them their freedom and safeguards them without their knowing it. Yes, there were once Jewish mothers like her, too!
How did such a yidishe mama, about whom even Portnoy might not have complained, turn into “the Jewish mother” of today? It’s a complicated story, involving all the differences between Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe and Jewish life and culture in America. Ideas of motherhood have changed; so have ideas of family and of husband-wife and parent-child relationships; so have our notions of independence and dependency, and of the comparative value of each. Traits that were more valued in former times have become less so today; their devaluation has caused those who have them to be anxious and resentful instead of freely giving and comfortable with who they are. In short, there’s been a whole civilizational transition — and the expression “Jewish mother” tells the story of it.
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