On TV, Jewish Mothers Get Their Due

May 11, 2017

By Ruth Fertig

With Mother's Day approaching, it's time to celebrate our loving, giving, assertive Jewish mothers. Much of what I look up to in my own mother comes out of her Jewishness, but mainstream television would have the world believe otherwise about Jewish mothers. For a long time, American Jewish mothers have been shown as overbearing, pushy and unpleasant to be around. However, some shows are beginning to reclaim this stereotype and give it a positive twist.

Before television, representations of Jewish women in film were generally sympathetic. Early films depicting Jews were about the immigrant experience. While women were portrayed as good people, they were often in victimized or sad positions. After World War I, Jewish women were shown as strong and capable with abundant positive images of mothers and daughters carrying on Jewish tradition. From 1928-37, Jewish women were once again vulnerable immigrants, according to Sharon Pucker Rivo in "Projected Images: Portraits of Jewish Women in Early American Film." In television, however, Jewish women have long been underrepresented, and when they are represented, it is often in a cruel manner.

In particular, Jewish mothers have become and continue to be unbelievably caricatured, almost to the point of ridicule. This is best demonstrated with Mrs. Wolowitz in "Big Bang Theory," voiced by Carol Anne Susi. She is the mother of Howard, the "token Jew" of the show, to whom she brings much frustration and grief, but on whom he relies to a comical extent. We never actually see her; we only hear her grating, New-York-accented voice berating Howard through the walls of their house. She is the butt of many jokes, most of them commenting on how annoying or fat she is. The only time she is ever not the butt of a mean joke is when she dies. Gone is the caring, affectionate Yiddishe Mama of "The Jazz Singer," replaced by the cruel and clingy American Jewish mother.

Fortunately, things are changing. Increasingly in popular shows, Jewish mothers are unapologetically claiming power in Jewish motherhood stereotypes, while showing Jewish mothers to be feminist, sexual, loving, but still their pushy, New York-Jewish selves. In particular, "Transparent’s" Shelly Pfefferman (Judith Light) and "Broad City’s" Bobbi Wexler (Susie Essman) lend grace and depth to an often-mocked stock character.

In Bobbi's character, we find a lovely bond between her and her daughter Ilana. Where many Jewish kids seem resentful of their mothers (Howard Wolowitz often jokes that he wishes his mother would die already), Ilana delights in so clearly being Bobbi's daughter. The two share a sense of humor, mannerisms, personal issues and everything else. Further, Bobbi shares in Ilana's love for her best friend and show co-star Abbi, unquestioningly welcoming her into their family. In my experience, this is the most accurate aspect of Jewish motherhood a show could portray. While she exhibits common Jewish mother trope traits, Bobbi gives off light to those around her — the pushiness and guilting are endearing, and we love her like her daughter loves her.

Shelly Pfefferman's character, while also humanizing the Jewish mother trope, takes things in a more melancholy direction. She is the mother of three adult children, and where Bobbi exudes warmth and happiness, Shelly exhibits a profound loneliness. In most shows, it seems that the Jewish mother is comically selfish and overbearing, wanting her children around her at all times while contributing little besides food and reminders that she raised them. These are not absent from Shelly, but we can see that she really is alone.

Near the beginning of the show she experiences great loss, and she needs her family, but her kids are too self-absorbed to notice. Shelly does get her due — the third season ends with Shelly performing a one-woman show, with a great empowering musical number to uproarious applause by a large audience. "Transparent" finally puts a character that does not normally get a main role directly in the foreground, both literally and figuratively. Through Shelly, the Jewish mother is finally getting the spotlight she has always deserved.

It is a little bit difficult to navigate these characters, particularly Shelly. While they are bringing humanity and empowerment to an oft-mocked stereotype, they are still exhibiting that stereotype. I happen to love the idea of reclaiming, but I admit it is not doing very much for variety of representation.

There is another trait, which makes these mothers a positive force. Robyn Bahr writes in The Forward, "Most importantly, what sets them apart from the Jewish mothers of yesteryear is the narrational focus on their sexuality. While the trope of the Jewish mother is that she often preoccupied by the romantic misadventures of her own children (all to secure future grandbabies), 'Transparent' … and 'Broad City' remind us that these women, each born in the 1940s or '50s, were part of the first generation exposed to the sexual openness of women's liberation. In the most recent season of 'Transparent,' Light performs what may be television's first full-blown septuagenarian orgasm in a scene where she wheedles Maura into manually stimulating her in the bathtub... More directly, the perennially sex-positive 'Broad City' veers straight into the bedroom negotiations between Bobbi and her nebbishy husband Arthur (Bob Balaban) on the subject of pegging. She implores him to keep an open mind about their sexual practices, but he's not so sure: ‘Oh, I forgot about your precious ass—,' she snipes. ‘But MY ass— is fair game, of course.' In the end, her guilt wins." Bobbi and Shelly lay claim to their own crass sexualities, a trait not often allowed to TV Jewish mothers.

I am hopeful for the future of representation. The women who have raised us and guided us to be strong, loving Jewish adults deserve to be represented as such.

Ruth FertigRuth Fertig is HBI's student blogger and a Brandeis senior. She is also the winner of the HBI Student Prize for her research paper, " 'Jewish Women Do Whatever the F**k They Want': Queerness, Gender and Jewishness in Contemporary Popular Television." This draws from her paper as well as research done as an 2016 HBI Gilda Slifka Summer Intern.