Joyce Antler

“Our Mothers Ourselves”: the Invention of the Jewish Mother Stereotype,
1945-1980s.

Although contradictory positive and negative images of the Jewish mother existed in early 20th century American society, increasingly after World War II she was portrayed as a threatening, intrusive guilt-inducing “vampire.” Aggressive and manipulative, living vicariously through her children, especially sons, she was drawn as a “satirical harpy” –domineering, meddling, suffocating. In contrast to the previous generation’s appreciation of her toughness, considered to have ensured the family’s survival amid the hostile environments of Eastern Europe and immigrant ghettos, now her fierce protectiveness seemed crude, nonfunctional, and dangerous– the embodiment of the monstrous qualities of all American mothers.

Exploring the creation of this image in postwar American society, this presentation examines the fit between image and reality, character and real character. It will draw on comedy, literature, and film, as well as landmark studies of the Jewish family by anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict and other social science data.

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