Of Jewish Mothers

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 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:

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”):

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.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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Of Jewish Mothers

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