Mom looks good for 100

Call it the charoset effect.

During Pesach, Stephanie Lauter stood in the kitchen watching her 8-year-old daughter, Eliza, chop apples and walnuts. Suddenly, she flashed back to girlhood and saw herself standing beside her own mother, similarly chopping apples and walnuts for Passover.

It was another time, another place. But that powerful sense of continuity, passed down from mother to daughter, could not escape her. On this Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, Lauter feels gratitude toward her mom. The tired stereotypes about noodgy Jewish mothers just don’t cut it with her.

“With close to nine years on the job of motherhood, I am more than willing to cut my mom ample slack,” says Lauter, who lives in San Francisco. “And of course I’ll expect nothing less from my kids — no guilt, of course.”

No guilt? Where’s the fun in that?

More than 100 years removed from the shtetl, 38 years after Portnoy launched his complaint, and 13 years since TV’s Helen Seinfeld scolded son Jerry for making out during “Schindler’s List,” Jewish mothers still end up the butt of jokes.

But today’s real-life Jewish mother bears little resemblance to the Yiddishe mama of old. As shtetl culture recedes further into the past, so does the overbearing, overprotective, guilt-tripping Jewish mother comedians joke about.

Instead of the kugel-baking shrew meddling in her grown children’s affairs, today’s Jewish mother shares the progressive post-feminist outlook of other modern women.

Oakland native Rachel Brott is a professional singer and formerly the cantorial soloist at Fremont’s Temple Beth Torah. She has three young children at home, teaches part-time and is preparing to sing for the upcoming High Holy Days. It's a lot to juggle, but she prefers it that way.

“I can’t just be a mom,” says Brott. “It would drive me insane. I just can’t deal if I’m not singing. I sometimes have this indescribable feeling of uselessness even though I know I’m doing something very important with the children. They’re the most important thing, but at the same time I have to go where my mind needs to go.”

Brott credits her own mother with bequeathing key mothering skills, including an important Jewish component. “My parents are very, very Jewish,” she says. “My mother had this beautiful feeling about it. It affected me deeply.”

June Brott, Rachel’s mother, is well known in the local Jewish community, having worked with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. But when it comes to mothering, she wishes she could have consulted a manual when her children were little.

“As a young parent I would say I was dumb,” she says. “You need a license to drive a car, but you don’t need any brains to become a parent. So many things have changed. Parents today are so much smarter and have so much more information available.”

Lauter is one of those contemporary parents, and she has strong opinions about the “stay-at-home Jewish mother” label, which she sees as demeaning. “Coupled with ‘not working,’ it’s insulting and definitely inaccurate,” she says.

“It’s particularly inappropriate within the Jewish community, where such a high value is placed on family and raising children.”

But Miriam Ferris gave such a priority to those values: She had 10 children. The wife of Berkeley Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Ferris and a Jewish community powerhouse in her own right, Ferris sees good mothering as one with her obligations as an observant Jew. Yet she, too, is a thoroughly modern woman, born into a family long disconnected from the immigrant experience. If her grandparents spoke Yiddish, she never heard it.

“My mother is an artist, a wannabe beatnik and very much a free spirit,” says the New Jersey native. “She didn’t have many rules. The only thing she put her foot down on was, ‘Don’t bring home a man with a black hat and a beard.”

That’s exactly what she did, of course, when she turned to Orthodox Judaism while still a rebellious teenager. Not to worry; her mother now loves Yehuda Ferris and her 10 grandkids (not to mention two great-grandchildren). But for Ferris, things didn’t get uniformly easier as her family grew larger.

“I remember holding my sixth child in my arms and thinking, ‘How can I do everything for everyone?'” she says. “Every day is a seesaw. It’s always a juggle.”

Given every opportunity to turn into a classically overbearing Jewish mother, Ferris appears not to have taken the bait. Instead, she has developed her own motherhood creed.

“Unconditional love, be a good listener and pray a lot they turn out all right,” she says. “Friday night is a good time to pray for nachas, and try to set a good example, which demands you walk your talk.”

Ferris and the millions of women who comprise Jewish mothers past and present have gotten a lot of attention from the publishing world lately. Several new books have hit the stands, all purporting to explain the hold mothers have on Jewish life and culture.

Joyce Antler’s “You Never Call! You Never Write!” takes a scholarly approach to the subject. Laurie Rozakis’ “The Portable Jewish Mother” is more comical, packed with mock quizzes, quips and other guilty pleasures. The books probe the stereotypes to see if any still float like a matzah ball in a bowl of chicken soup (which you should eat, tateleh).

Marnie Winston-Macauley, author of “Yiddishe Mamas,” has concluded that the negative stereotype of the smothering, worrying, food-obsessed, Yiddish-inflected Jewish Mother has a basis in fact.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” she says. “All mothers want their children to be well and successful. But when you come from an environment where you’ve been persecuted, or singled out as the odd one, obviously you’re going to hold together as a community in ways others do not.”

Theorizes Winston-Macauley: Behaviors that once served the Jewish community — the overprotective ways of stay-at-home Jewish mothers who supervised their children’s health, welfare and education — came to be seen as maladaptive in the assimilationist freedom of America.

“‘Children first’ was a survival trait and not neurotic,” she adds. “These shtetl mothers were doing what the religion commanded them to do, and they were doing what they needed to do to protect their kids.'”

If anyone is to blame, says Winston-Macauley, it’s not Jewish mothers but Jewish sons. “The rules of the shtetl were no longer necessary, nor were they helpful,” says the author. “Some Jewish boys came over [to America] still loving their mothers, then suddenly they’re thinking, ‘Hey, I want to be part of this new land. I want some of that milk and honey.”

Perhaps that led to the kvetchy, even loony, Jewish mother in pop culture, from Ruth Gordon’s tushy-biter in the 1970 film “Where’s Poppa” to Larry David’s caustic portrayals of Jewish mothers in both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Arguably, the most iconic Jewish mother from the last century would be actress Gertrude Berg’s Molly Goldberg character, a staple of 1930s radio and 1950s television. Mrs. Goldberg leaning out the window bellowing “Yoo Hoo!” cemented the image of the zaftig, loving homemaker one or two generations removed from Ellis Island.

But Molly Goldberg is long gone, replaced by the likes of the venomous Susie Green on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” who routinely calls her husband “a fat #&*%”. Or the “helicopter” mother hovering over her kids’ lives, seen in scores of sitcoms or the butt of standup comedians’ jokes.

Oy, those jokes.

Though Jewish mothers today are as likely to do Pilates and have graduate degrees as any modern woman, the jokes usually play on the stereotype of the Yiddishe mama from the Old Country.

And now, a Jewish mother joke interlude:

• A bum walks up to a Jewish mother and, pleading for money, tells her he hasn’t eaten in days. “Force yourself!” she replies.

• Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? It interferes with their suffering.

• Q: What did the waiter ask a table of Jewish mothers? A: Is anything all right?

It isn’t only Larry David cracking wise. Jewish women do, too, and none more famously than comedian Judy Gold. She made a career out of ribbing her mother, including playing real recordings of guilt-slathering phone messages left for her daughter. Aficionados of San Francisco’s Kung Pao Kosher Comedy saw her do it live on stage.

Gold also co-wrote one of those new books, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” based on her one-woman show.

“The Jewish mother joke is very complex,” says Winston-Macauley. “It’s not always understood. We hate pretension as we hate authority. We’re one of the few religions that can make a joke about God, coexisting with the reverence for God.”

Winston-Macauley says she wrote “Yiddishe Mamas” because “I have an almost neurotic interest in justice. It was unjust that we Jewish mothers were running so fast from that altered image of us that changed only in the last 70 or 80 years. [Jewish women] are fighters. They have a determination, which is awe-inspiring and daunting today.”

She concedes there may be a germ of truth in some of the negative stereotypes. Not that these qualities pertain only to Jews. After all, anyone can be pushy or cranky. But anecdotally, some have observed the classic Jewish mother in action.

Rachel Brott says she’s known some Jewish women who were “totally overbearing. A lot I know have this aggressiveness. It puts me off. I’ve grown up feeling allergic to that trait. When I meet someone pushy, I just don’t deal with it.”

Then she quickly adds a measure of admiration: “I would say Jewish women have this courage and positive attitude, and a tremendous amount of chutzpah.”

June Brott doesn’t think she often strayed into the realm of the classic Jewish mother, but she admits that when she sees her grown son, Armin, wearing short sleeves on a chilly day, “I tell him I’d feel better if he had a sweater on.”

Rachel Brott says her mother is “amazingly Jewish and passionate about it. My mother was an improviser, a total artist in any situation. I took so much from her.”

It may be that within a generation or two, the iconic Yiddishe mama will be so ancient a relic, she will cease to exist even as a stereotype. What may take her place is a confident, positive image based more on Jewish continuity than on ethnic anachronisms.

“I don’t relate to the clichés,” adds Ferris. “The worrying, yes, but not the smothering or meddling — and I don’t know anyone who [does]. It’s not something I look for.”

Says Lauter: “While there are certainly many American Jews of my generation that have either fully assimilated or do not feel any identifiable connections to their Jewish roots, within my own community of friends I am surrounded by Jewish mothers to whom the concept of l’dor v’dor [from generation to generation] is central to their identity.”

Still, perhaps lurking in the Jewish DNA is a permanent imperative of maternal love, a love so strong it transcends time and space.

Which brings to mind another old Jewish mother story:

The cruel fiancée of a young Jewish man demands as a wedding gift the beating heart of his mother. The young man tears the heart from his own mother’s breast and runs away. In his haste, the young man trips and falls on his face. As the heart hits the ground, it asks of the murderer, “Did you hurt yourself, my son?”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.