TV’s New Jewish Mother Is Far From Borscht-Belt Schtick (Guest Column)
Mamaleh has gone from a one-dimensional cartoon to a more nuanced character on the small screen as moms on 'Transparent' and 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' upend stereotypes, writes author Marjorie Ingall.
The return of Transparent and the dawning of 5777 offer an opportunity to look at the morphing portrayal of the Jewish mother in TV comedy. For decades, she was a one-dimensional cartoon. Now, thanks in large part to female showrunners, she’s a significantly more nuanced character.
Look, we all know where the Jewish mother stereotype came from. Jokes about the Yiddische Mama as a suffocating, melodramatic guilt-seeking missile flowered from the ’50s to ’80s, when drugstore joke books, Catskills comics and literary writers all mined humor from the caricature of a human sheet of ClingWrap threatening to put her head in the oven every time her son brought home a shiksa.
Writers like Herman Wouk, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and jokesters like Woody Allen and Jackie Mason, wrote with varying levels of sexism and conflicted feelings about their moms. And sitcoms reflected the culture. So we got Sophie Steinberg on Bridget Loves Bernie, Ida Morgenstern on Rhoda, Estelle Costanza on Seinfeld, Sylvia Buchman on Mad About You and Sylvia Fine on The Nanny, to name a few. Until last year (that would be 2015, not 5776), we had Howard Wolowitz’s mother on The Big Bang Theory, a guilt-hurling, soul-crushing, son-infantilizing, housecoat-wearing, Yiddish-inflected force of nature. She almost never appeared onscreen, content to perpetually scream at her son from upstairs. A sample interaction:
Mrs. Wolowitz: Should I ask Leonard to bring over your homework?
Howard: I don’t have homework! I’m a grown man, with a master’s degree in engineering!
Mrs. Wolowitz: Excuse me, Mr. Fancypants! Want me to get you a Popsicle?
Howard: Cherry, please!
Mrs. Wolowitz: I ate the cherry! All that’s left is green!
Howard: You make me want to kill myself!
Mrs. Wolowitz, who was famous for her turbrisgefil (a turkey stuffed with a brisket stuffed with gefilte fish), was written out of the show after the death of actress Carol Ann Susi. And today, pretty much the last remaining Jewish mother on TV who fits the old-school stereotype is literally a cartoon: Sheila Broflovski, Kyle’s mom on South Park. As she has since her TV-birth in 1997, she wears a beehive, sputters her catchphrase, “What, what, what?!” and kvetches constantly about anti-Semitism in her nasal New Jersey accent.
Creating less caricatured Jewish mothers apparently has been a real challenge for male showrunners. It’s been fascinating, for instance, to watch The Goldbergs fight being “too Jewish.” Despite the family’s last name; despite the fact that the characters’ first names include Albert, Barry, Marvin and Murray (Murray!); despite the fact that the show is based on creator Adam F. Goldberg’s actual Jewish family; and despite sharing a network with Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, which mine familial cultural identity on the reg, The Goldbergs didn’t even mention that the family was Jewish for its entire first season. (In 2014, a reporter asked then-ABC programming chief Paul Lee why the show was so … not Jewish. The journalist joked, “I think Black-ish will mention the word ‘bar mitzvah’ before The Goldbergs does.” As it turned out, the journalist was correct.)
This is in part why Transparent feels so revelatory. I’m not sure I’d go as far as the show’s creator Jill Soloway, who told The Jewish Daily Forward, “It’s more controversial to be Jew-y than trans,” but it’s certainly true that complex portrayals of Jewish mothers on TV have been extraordinarily few and far between. Thanks to Soloway and some of her contemporaries, though, that’s changing. Judith Light’s Shelly Pfefferman is monstrously narcissistic, but so’s her entire family. Her fellow Jewish mothers, Sarah (Shelly’s daughter, a wealthy stay-at-home mom) and Maura (Shelly’s ex — formerly, of course, a Jewish father), offer other opportunities to explore what, precisely, it means to be a Jewish mother today. They host Shabbat dinner, but none of them speak in the outdated, schtick-y rhythms of the Catskills. They don’t exist solely to provide an acculturated, barely-Jewish main character with the opportunity for laugh-track-triggering eye-rolling. They struggle with the legacy of the Holocaust, the challenges of defining selfhood, the maintaining of Jewish identity while embracing diversity. They wrestle with their own sexuality as well as with notions of gender.
I was amused that both Transparent and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (another show created and helmed by Jewish women, another show that feels innovative and surprising, another show that depicts Jewish women with shading and gradation — imagine that) had plotlines revolving around a family ring. Transparent had the “Holocaust ring,” a piece of jewelry with an emotionally laden history that many of the show’s characters don’t know about. No one wants it, but no one knows what a symbol of love and acceptance it really is.
Meanwhile, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend desperately wants “the Garfinkel ring” (aka “that stupid ring your family holds on to like a bunch of Hobbits,” in the words of Rebecca’s friend Paula). This ring escaped the Eastern European shtetl with Rebecca’s ancestors — played by Bloom and Yiddish theater mainstay Tovah Feldshuh, who also plays Rebecca’s modern-day mother. But the withholding Mrs. Bunch won’t fork over the ring until she thinks her daughter has earned it. When she comes to visit Rebecca, she belts out an aria of criticism and guilt (“By the way you’re looking healthy/and by healthy I mean chunky/I don’t mean that as an insult/I’m just stating it as fact … I see your eczema is back!”), but she’s not the stereotype of yore. She’s attractive, cosmopolitan, chic. There’s no way she owns a housecoat.
Interestingly, Mama Bunch is closer to the Jewish American Princess stereotype than to the Jewish Mother stereotype. Back in the day, those two portrayals of Jewish women were completely antithetical. The Jewish Mother was extravagantly self-negating and obsessed with cooking and feeding her family; the JAP was all about not eating, not nurturing, only shopping and shuddering at the very notion of sex (What’s the only thing a JAP will go down on? The escalator at Neiman Marcus). The Jewish Mother and the JAP were opposites, but both were emotional and economic vampires … and both were a reflection of ingrained misogyny. And we almost never saw the Jewish American Princess on TV, because Jewish men in American sitcoms usually dated and married non-Jewish women.
But here, again, a new generation of Jewish female showrunners are breaking the mold. On Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City, Ilana’s mom isn’t uptight. She’s fun. She loves to shop and get pedicures, but these predilections aren’t presented as a character flaw. She’s her daughter’s knockoff-handbag-hunting, nail-polish-providing buddy (and an open-minded safe-sex advocate!), not a source of stress or mockery.
And on Lena Dunham’s Girls, we again see a Jewish Mother who doesn’t conform to cliche. Hannah Horvath’s mom is a professor, a cultured woman, not an unworldly homebody. She doesn’t think her progeny is perfect; unlike Seinfeld’s mother — who asks in astonishment, “How could anyone not like you?” — Hannah’s understands that her daughter is lazy and entitled. She wants to cut her daughter off financially as a kind of tough love; it’s Hannah’s father who’s the enabler. But when Hannah gets into a prestigious writing program, her mother conveys pride and offers financial assistance.
Undoubtedly, the most positive portrayal of a Jewish mother on scripted network TV was the very first: Molly Goldberg, who presided over the original The Goldbergs from 1949-1956. Molly meddled, but she was the warm, competent matriarch of a functional, loving family. She wasn’t a supporting character. She was the lead. And she was adored. (Her creator and portrayer, Gertrude Berg, won the first best actress Emmy, in 1950.) The TV show was based on a hugely popular radio show … also created by and starring Berg. Way back in 1929. That, my friends, is a long run.
But after Berg departed the scene, sitcom-writing became the province of a bunch of nerdy Jewish dudes. As American Jews increasingly became suburbanized and acculturated, embarrassed by their parents’ shtetl-y ways, they got to work out their mommy issues on a very big stage. Comedy, after all, was a field wide open to Jews back when many fields weren’t. Suddenly Jewish boys with mommy issues had what today’s media machers call a platform. And they frequently blamed women — yes, especially their moms — for their own feelings of displacement and inadequacy in a culture that still glorified taciturn, buff cowboy manliness.
As times change, and as more women helm comedy shows, I suspect we’ll continue to see more surprising, modern, evolved, non-gimmicky portraits of Jewish mothers. Nu, I’m waiting on the edge of my seat.
Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empahetic, Independent Children and a columnist for Tablet magazine.