In April, a story emerged about Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
Back in 2009, Zuckerberg was asked about a decision to turn down $1 billion from Yahoo to buy his company.
The question was where the willpower to say no came from.
Zuckerberg’s answer: Jewish mother.
An immediate stereotype springs to mind, one perhaps best described by Alana Newhouse in a 2007 article in the Forward.
“Known in some circles as a figure of generosity and deep warmth, in others as the skilled practitioner of toxic enmeshment, the Jewish Mother was acknowledged, here and abroad, as the symbol of over involvement in children’s lives. She was also known for her chicken soup.” http://tinyurl.com/kkovq7v
I am not known for my chicken soup.
But I am a Jewish mother. Does that stereotypical definition hold? And where does it come from anyway?
The Forward piece is about a book by Brandeis University history professor Joyce Antler on the history of the Jewish mother. Newhouse reports that Antler’s book attributes the emergence of the stereotype to the changing dynamics of the Jewish family.
In the Old World, women often worked while men pursued higher learning and the kids were somewhere in between. In the New World, families whose status used to be attributed to the husband’s scholarly accomplishments found that money mattered more. So, the men began to work, the women began staying home, and the character of the “Jewish mother” was born.
Then, as the children grew and connected with the secular New World, the anxiety about survival that was a fixture of Jews living in fear of pogroms in Eastern Europe began to re-emerge as fear the next generation of Jews were disconnecting, the Forward story suggests.
From there came the jokes about mothers who brag and nag and little else, a comedic trope for the ages.
Antler suggests the stereotype has faded as a cultural punch line because the cliché has come true – today’s parents are so over-involved in their kids’ lives, even the archetypal Jewish mother couldn’t keep up.
Maybe. But I wonder whether what’s been on the minds of Jewish moms over time is all that different.
Not long ago, the Ottawa Jewish Archives announced that every edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin published between 1937 and 2009 was available online at https://archive.org/details/ottawajewisharchives. [More recent issues are available at www.ottawajewishbulletin.com/library/.]
I did a random sampling of the April or May issues for every 10 years, beginning in 1945, searching them for the word “mother.”
My admittedly totally unscientific review suggests there’s not much difference over the years.
In the 1940s, a group of Jewish women in Ottawa formed a “mothers group” to talk about their shared interest in Jewish education for their children, the Bulletin reported. Today, the subject that seems to create the most conversation on the excellent Ottawa Jewish Mommies Facebook group is Jewish education.
Today, every synagogue in town is busy coming up with programs and activities to draw in more people, specifically younger ones. Decades ago, for what it’s worth, every synagogue in town came together and formed a committee on that very issue, the Bulletin reported.
Maybe knowing that the things that vex us now are the things that always vexed us can help us stop incorporating another cliché element of the “Jewish mother” into our lives – the guilt.
We think that what our community is going through is unique to now, that it’s our fault, that we need to strike a new committee or devise a new program or do better outreach. All those things are probably true to some extent, but the underlying challenges and fears have been there for decades.
Jewish mother jokes might get old, but it seems the issues never do.
I don’t know what Zuckerberg meant when he credited his mother for the fact he turned down $1 billion. Today, however, Facebook is worth $400 billion.
But she probably wanted the same thing as an Ottawa Jewish mother, who, in 1985 donated to the community foundation. The notice posted in the Bulletin read:
“Wishing Michael Gennis continued success in his career, by his mother.”
And I wish all the wonderful mothers I know a very happy Mother’s Day – including the most important one, mine.