Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"Nu, You Can't Call Your Old Mother?"

I have felt for quite some time that the caricature of the "Yiddishe mama" has not been to our advantage. 
Take, for instance, my mother. Whilst Hungarian in origin (and there are enough stereotypes for that alone, never mind being a Jewish mother) I found I had to defend her identity to a fellow Hungarian. 

"What gives my mother the greatest joy is an empty pot," I explained. 

He looked at me quizzically. "Are you sure she's Hungarian?" 

Ma's logic is that if a pot is empty, that means whatever was in it was a big hit to the point that it was cleaned out. However, this fellow's mother is under the assumption that if a pot is empty, that means that there wasn't enough, meaning someone is going home slightly less stuffed than they should have been. 

I don't think that is a quality specific to Hungarians, but rather to all maternal Jews (what Hungarians get right is the cooking itself [I kid, I kid.]).  

As a child, it has happened (once or twice) that I would come home from school and say, "Ma, I don't have an appetite." According to lore, a true Yiddishe mama will fly into a panic, tuck the child into bed, and proceed to concoct a motley of delicacies to entice the youngster away from a wasted end. 

Ma: "You're not hungry? OK!" (Proceeds to hum cheerfully) 

This letter was published in the NY Times Book Review in response to a, well, reviewed book: 
To the Editor:
In a front-page review of “The Middlesteins” (Dec. 30), Julie Orringer proposes as common knowledge that all Jewish mothers pathologically overfeed their children. I thought that tired and distasteful canard had been put to rest. Yes, I had a Jewish mother, but no, she didn’t overfeed me or my siblings. If the claim was true and, as Orringer also suggests, it was a legacy of ancestral deprivation, all mothers from poor backgrounds (not just Jews) would overfeed. Suffering is not unique to Jews; almost everyone’s ancestors knew fear and hunger.
This stereotype has also been applied to Italian mothers, indicating that it is primarily a figment of the dominant culture and of assimilationist anxieties. To see it repeated on the cusp of 2013 suggests that the reviewer remains uncomfortable with, and hence unsympathetic toward, Jewishness — whether her own or that of others.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
The writer is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Amen, sir! 

Why are our womenfolk belittled as fusspots who drive their offspring to obesity? That they have no identity of their own, that they infantalize their children?
What happened to the tough Yiddishe momma who protects her brood with her awesome presence (with rolling pin in hand), yet drives them to better themselves?

As for the Jewish guilt? Unfair. There are so many other options for psychological manipulation, like passive-aggression. Jewish guilt is an art form, and just because one is a Jew with XX chromosomes doesn't mean she has it down pat.

Let us arise against this stereotype! The "Yiddishe Mama" needs a reboot.              


FrumGeek said...

I agree with the Hungarians making good food (though I'm totally biased). My mom has mellowed out somewhat and doesn't force food down my sisters throat like she did me and my brothers, but my grandmothers, well they never stop feeding anyone until they're ready to burst, and turning down food is the gravest of insults!

Princess Lea said...

Oh, with the grandmothers, totally. Every time we would visit when we were kids my mother would beg her to leave the kokosh in the freezer, but Babi would take it out anyway.