The Jewish Mother
What? All of the Sudden You
Don't Like My Brisket?
She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers.
So starts Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth's definitive kvetch novel of the American Jewish Mother. What's interesting to me is that Roth's portrait ?doesn't start with any of the petty stereotypical claims- overprotective, anxious, neurotic. Instead Portnoy's mother is defined by her power.
Coincidentally, when I posted my own mother's joke to our website, it was accompanied by the following description: "Diane Hoffman is my mom. She can do pretty much anything and, at any given time, is doing everything." The phrasing may be less sublime, but the sentiment is related. If we, and by "we" I mean the Jewish boys, have an issue with our mothers, the issue is with their abundance of gifts, talents, and abilities, or at least with our perception of these things.
But why are these Jewish mothers so exaggerated? Are there steroids in the flanken? What has created this ?über-race of ?shape-shifting moms?
Some scholars suggest that it is intrinsically tied to the Jewish suburban flight during the middle of the last century. For generations the mother had occupied the central role in the Jewish family. In the shtetl, they ran the household, which could include domesticated animals and small farming, while the fathers often spent copious time studying Torah. Suddenly these ferociously intelligent, energetic women were stuck in a house in the middle of nowhere with little or nothing to do. By the 1950s, many could even afford a little help around the house with the laundry and the dusting.
So what's a ravenously curious, intellectually gifted, ambitious woman to do? Many joined associations and community groups such as Hadassah and synagogue sisterhoods. Many ran ?parent-teacher organizations and started book clubs and charity organizations. And starting in the 1960s, many started to enter the labor market. But before having a job became a generally accepted option, many turned their laserlike focus to their children. This had a mixed effect, which we could address further if we had a chapter on psychoanalysis, but unfortunately the publishers ?didn't find our collection of 378 Freudian ?knock-knock jokes to be worth printing.
One might ask-why start the book with a chapter on Jewish mothers?
The answer is simple. That's where it all starts.
A Bonus Freudian ?Knock-Knock Joke
"Oedipus shmedipus, as long as he loves his mother."
Dennis Spiegelman is Eric's dad. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963, married a shiksa (Eric's word choice), and had two children. He deals in antique and collectible objects.
My Son, the President
It's the year 2016, and a Jew has been elected president. He calls his mother and says, "Ma, I'm the president of the United States! Are you coming to the inauguration?"
She says, "Eh, well, I've got nothing to wear."
He says, "Ma, I'm gonna be the president. I can get you a dressmaker."
She says, "Eh, well, I only eat kosher."
"Ma, I'm gonna be president! I can get you a kosher meal."
She says, "Eh, well, how am I gonna get there?"
"Ma, I can get you Air Force One. Come to the inaugural."
She ends up at the inaugural and they're on the reviewing stand. On the left side of her are all of the Supreme Court justices; on the right side is the president's cabinet.
She nudges the guy to her right and says, "You see that guy with his hand up? His brother's a doctor!"
Sylvie Drake has led a fascinating life, which began in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1930. After she immigrated to the United States in 1949, she spent three years acting and directing with the Pasadena Playhouse.
What is the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler?
Eventually, a Rottweiler will let go.
A Bonus Joke from Sylvie Drake
Staring at the Sea
These four women are sitting on a bench in Santa Monica.
It's a gray day. They're staring out at the gray sea, under a cloudy sky, looking miserable. They're not talking.
All of a sudden, one of them breaks the silence and says, "Oy."
Two seconds later, the one next to her says, "Oy, vey."
A few seconds later, the one next to her says, "Oy vey iz mir."
The fourth one turns ?toward the others and says, "Excuse me, I thought we had agreed that we weren't going to talk about the children!"
Mike Leiderman has spent more than thirty years as a Chicago TV sportscaster, producer, writer, and host. He was so excited to be a part of Old Jews Telling Jokes that he flew himself from Chicago to Los Angeles to tell his jokes.
This guy tells his mother that he's finally going to get married. His mother is thrilled!
She says, "Am I gonna meet her?"
He says, "Well, Ma, I'd like to play a little game with you. You have such a good sense of what's going on. I'd like to bring in three women and have you guess which one's gonna be my wife."
His mother agrees.
The next day, he brings in three beautiful ladies and he sits down on the couch next to his mom. His mom talks to them for two minutes and says, "The redhead in the middle."
He says, "Ma, that's amazing! How'd you do that so quickly?"
She says, "'Cause I don't like her."
Harold (Harry) Zapolsky spent most of his career as a professor of physics at Rutgers University, where he served two terms as department chair and is now professor emeritus. He also served in Washington, D.C., for several years as program director for theoretical physics at the National Science Foundation.
A lady is taking her young son to his first day in school. She's walking him to school and she starts giving him a little lecture.
She says, "Now, bubele, this is a marvelous thing for you, bubele. Bubele, you're never gonna forget it. Just remember, bubele, to behave in school. Remember, bubele, anytime you want to speak, you raise your hand."
They get to the school and she says, "Bubele, have a good day. I'll be waiting for you when you get out of school."
Four hours later, she's standing there, and the little kid runs down the steps. She runs ?toward him and says, "Bubele, bubele, it's been such an exciting day. Tell me, bubele, what did you learn today?"
He says, "I learned my name was Irving."
Steven M. Brown, M.D.
Mothers and Sons
Three older Jewish women, sitting on a bench in Miami.
First one boasts, "I have such a wonnerful son. You know what he did for mine ?seventy-fifth birthday? Chartered an airplane. Got all my friends from Great Neck, flew them down here for a party at the Fontainebleau Hotel . . . in the grand ballroom! They made a chopped liver look like a svan! You could die from it! ?Seven-piece orchestra, we partied till two in the morning. Vhat a nize boy."
Second lady says, "Well, you have a nize son, but let me tell you about my boy. Took me around the vorld onna cruise . . . Princess Line, two whole veeks . . . Ve played shuffleboard on the deck . . . We sat at the captain's table. Parties every night. Such a great kid."
Third lady: "Vell, you have a nize boy and you have a nize boy, but let me tell you about my zon Marvin. He lives in New York City. He zees a ?psee-kye-a-trist [psychiatrist] tree times a veek . . . two hun'red dollars an hour . . . and all he talks about is me!!"
A Jewish mother gives her son two ties on the first night of Hanukkah. The following morning, when he comes down for breakfast, he is wearing one of them.
The mom says, "What's the matter-you ?didn't like the other one?"
Dr. Josh Backon
Native American Wife
A guy from an Orthodox family goes out and marries a Native American girl and brings the bride home to his mother.
The bride says, "My name is Honakanaloni but you can call me Falling Water."
The mother says, "My name is Sadie Bernstein and you can call me SITTING SHIVA."
Who Are the Jews?
any attempt to describe the jews begins and ends with one phrase: the Chosen.
When a Jewish boy is eight days old, his parents volunteer him for ritual surgery-some describe it as barbaric-to remove the foreskin from his penis. Later in life, if he has the good fortune to encounter a penis in its ?foreskin-bedecked natural state, he might turn to his parents and ask, "Why? Why does Patrick's penis have a nifty turtleneck, while mine is naked and shorn like a baby mouse?"
"Because, son, you are Chosen. Circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people."
"What's a covenant?"
"A covenant is sort of a contract. A deal. Between the Jews and God."
"Yes. God has chosen the Jews. In return, we get circumcised."
"I don't understand."
"Well the Jews are very lucky because there is only one god, and that god has chosen the Jews as his very favorite people. You know how you pledge allegiance to the flag in class?"
"Well, circumcision is sort of a pledge of allegiance to God."
"Why ?doesn't Patrick have to pledge allegiance to God with his penis?"
"Because Patrick is Catholic. God ?didn't choose them."
"Then why does he get Christmas?"
You could call the whole "Chosen" thing a mixed blessing for the Jews. For one thing, it's ?really kept our numbers down. Jews don't go out, door to door, like Mormons, trying to sign up more Jews. Why? It ? wouldn't be much of a "Chosen" club if anybody could just join. Becoming a Jew is a pain in the ass. If you don't have the required matrilineal proof of membership, you have to pass all sorts of tests and learn to read backwards. But elitism requires a small footprint.
A few generations after Abraham smashed his idols and got the Jews started, his descendants followed Joseph down into Egypt and pretty soon afterward were enslaved. (This is all covered in Genesis and Exodus, which are two parts of the Old Testament, which you can find in most motel rooms, if you want to check my facts.) They were enslaved because the Egyptians ?didn't trust them and thought they might join up with an enemy if Egypt were to be attacked. Why ?didn't the Egyptians trust them? Because they were different. They worshipped one god instead of the sun and those ?funny-looking cats, and they probably went around telling everyone they were Chosen.
This is the beginning of a multimillennial pattern for the Jews. They ride into town. It turns out that they are handy at doing things that the local people aren't so good at: accounting, kosher butchering, comedy. They become a useful part of the community. Then they tell the locals that they are "Chosen." This, to the locals, sounds a lot like "you idiots are specifically not Chosen." The locals get mad and kick their collective Jewish tucheses.
Now let's be fair. The Jews have been persecuted throughout the ages for a variety of sad and terrible reasons that have nothing to do with being "Chosen." But, as a result of this persecution, the Jews have adopted the tenacious pugnacity of the perpetual underdog. It's no surprise that David, slayer of the giant Goliath, is the second greatest of all Jewish mythic heroes (after Sammy Davis, Jr.).
The stories in this section illuminate this quintessential conflict at the center of the Jewish persona: the persecuted elitist, the ? foreskin-free pugilist, the Chosen Underdog.
Richard Z. Chesnoff
Richard Z. Chesnoff was born in Brooklyn to a ?big-band musician father and a singer mom. Since then, in forty years of global news work, he has covered many of the major stories and personalities of our times. He has written for Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and the Huffington Post, and as an ?op-ed columnist for the New York Daily News.
A Meeting with the Pope
In the Vatican in the sixteenth century, one of the cardinals has borrowed an enormous amount of money from the Jewish banker. And he can't pay it back. So he goes to the pope and he says, "I think, Holy Father, we should get rid of all the Jews."
The pope says, "I can't throw all the Jews out. I just can't do that."
"Well," he says, "why don't you find an excuse. You challenge the rabbi to a duel over who has the truer faith."
The pope agrees, so the cardinals go to the community and talk to them. The Jews don't like the idea but they can't say no.
But one of the Jews says, "You know, our rabbi is very learned, his Hebrew is excellent, but his Italian is limited and his Latin is nonexistent. And with all due respect to the pope, I can't believe that his Hebrew is so good that he would be able to debate."
So the cardinal says, "You know what? Instead of having a debate vocally, they can debate with symbols, with signs."
So they agree. The day comes and the cardinals are assembled. The pope comes in, sits on his throne. The rabbi comes in wearing a long black robe. He sits down below. They nod to each other.
And then the pope begins. He holds up three fingers. The rabbi looks at him for a second and holds up one finger. The pope swings his finger in a circle over his head. The rabbi looks at him and points down to the ground. The pope pulls out a glass of sacramental wine and a holy wafer and holds them up. The rabbi looks at him a moment, sticks his hand in his pocket, and pulls out an apple and holds it up.
The pope slaps his hands together and says, "That's it. These Jews are too smart for me. They don't have to leave; they can stay."
The Jews exit, very happy, and the cardinals run around the pope and say, "What happened?"
"Well, I held up the sign of the Trinity-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost-and the rabbi held up a sign that there's only one God. I spun my finger to say God is everywhere and he pointed down to indicate God is right here.
Excerpted from Old Jews Telling Jokes by Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman. Copyright © 2010 by Sam Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.