Question: I was wondering if you might address whether Jewish mothers tend to be stereotyped as being more self-absorbed and emotionally self-centered, and whether these stereotypes have some truth? In my experience, the middle-aged Jewish women I know are obsessed with looks, makeup, and clothing – and then force these obsessions on their daughters to improve their own social standing. How do we square this with a tradition which valorizes imahot, mothers, for being self-sacrificing wells of love and strength? How are Jewish mothers both self-absorbed and self-sacrificing?
Answer: As far as I am concerned, stereotypes serve to control people. I would be very reluctant to accept any of your images of the Jewish mother as valid or truthful. I would ask, why is this person being stereotyped? Who is making the stereotype, and what is their agenda? In this case, who gains from the image of Jewish women as self-absorbed, or as totally self-sacrificing? How do the two concepts interact?
Stereotypes surrounding Jewish women are contradictory because American Jews are caught between different cultures, each with their own baggage and expectations. On the one hand, we have a long tradition of self-sacrificing mothers supporting their families through domestic prowess and love. Ask many traditional Jews, and they will tell you that this is still true; Jewish mothers’ role is supporting her family. At the same time, we have become American, and modern American women face an entirely different set of expectations. As Americans, we must be skinny and straight-nosed, we must be independent and consumerist, we desire enough wealth that every family member can actualize their potential. Jewish women are caught between all of these expectations, and the stereotypes surrounding each model do not help. If one successfully conforms, they’re a JAP, Jewish American Princess. If they learn to make challah, they’re an eishet chayil. Amid all of these norms, there is no space for one to just … be.
American Jewish women are stereotyped American wannabes, always trying to be mainstream but never quite succeeding.The stereotype of Jewish women’s obsession with looks began in the assimilationist culture of 1950s suburbia. Anti-Semitism in America was decreasing politically, but Jews were still on the fringe socially. Encouraging daughters to straighten their hair (and their noses!) was a Jewish mother’s way of trying to get her daughter ahead. It was and is harmful that girls are encouraged to change the way they look, but it is not entirely malicious – many parents of all backgrounds struggle between nurturing their child’s individuality and helping them fit in. Similarly, some black and Asian mothers encourage their daughters to lighten their skin or alter their eye shape. It is harmful, but the mothers who encourage their children to change themselves are not the only ones at fault, as they are victims of stereotypes as well as perpetrators.
In assimilating, we have tried to adopt the standards of beauty and self-empowerment which American culture so values. But, because Jews are stereotyped as a little awkward and Jewish features as a little less pretty, Jewish women cannot quite reach that gold standard. Instead, they are stereotyped as always trying too hard – obsessed with makeup, money, and appearance because they naturally are not good enough.
Competing with this ideal is the traditional view of a good Jewish woman, “Eishet Chayil,” “Woman of Valor,” a song traditionally sung at Shabbat dinners. In this description, the valorous woman is totally self-sacrificing, putting her husband and family needs always ahead of her own. In times of persecution, perhaps this served to preserve the Jewish male ego – no matter how egregious conditions were in the outside world, there was a source of love and respect at home. The eishet chayil kept families together – she made Shabbat dinner and fussed over her sons and husbands and taught her daughters how to perpetuate Jewish rituals to their own families. She is the pillar of her home, the quiet strength which keeps everyone going.
While this ideal serves traditional families, the expectation of self-sacrifice comes at the cost of limiting women’s options. Because the prayer honors self-sacrifice to such a degree, it could be – and is, by various feminists – interpreted as though any woman with needs of her own is a narcissist.
In contrast, American women are allowed to have their own careers and desires outside of the family’s. Old and new compete to form a stereotype of American Jewish mothers as self-absorbed and uncaring for pursuing her own needs. Refusing to always act as a matriarch – even expecting a brother or husband to help out around the house – is a break from the traditional role, leading to Jewish women to be seen as nagging and complaining.
Even though we are stereotyped, we also stereotype others. For example, I had once thought of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant “traditional” model of parenting as cold compared to Jewish parenting. When my son was four, his friend and mother and I went to a farm stand to buy plants. The boys were pulling a little red wagon filled with our intended purchases. The friend stumbled and was hit by the wagon’s handle. I immediately ran over to him, but his mother remained in place, asking with genuine concern, “Darling, are you OK?” I realized, however, that we both cared equally, but expressed that care in very different manners. Behavior is cultural; we should not expect everyone to conform to our expectations, just as we do not conform to theirs.
Even if some stereotypes do feel accurate to you, remember that they are never harmless. Stereotypes exist to denigrate, objectify, and categorize. When you see someone as a one-dimensional version of themselves, it is easier to dehumanize them. It is so easy to insult someone when all of society is already doing it – so don’t!
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com