By Harlan Garbell
“Arthur, it’s me, your mother. Remember me?”
—Mike Nichols and Elaine May
For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Nichols and May were an improvisational comedy team back in the 1950s and 60s. In their early years they played clubs in Chicago, where they met, and became famous for their incisive sketches regarding miscommunication between people. Some of their most famous sketches involved family members communicating (or trying to) with each other.
For me, the funniest, and yet most discomforting, of these sketches was the mother who is calling her son, the first Jewish president of the United States. At first, mother and son are having a friendly and polite conversation about how the grandchildren are doing and so forth. Then the conversation starts turning a little darker as the mother inquires why the son doesn’t call her as often anymore. Mother asks, “So, what do you do that’s so important that you don’t have time for your mother?”
The conversation goes south from there. At the beginning of the telephone call the son sounds authoritative and in command. After all, he’s the president of the United States. Slowly, but surely, his mother wears away at that authority. At the end of the call he is essentially blubbering and talking baby talk on the phone to his mother. It is hilarious and frightening at the same time.
The humor, of course, derives from the fact that notwithstanding that the son has become the so-called “most powerful man in the free world,” he cannot withstand a 10-minute session with his mother who has infantilized him with a few well-aimed, guilt-inducing remarks. Some of us have been there (speaking for a friend, of course).
To be sure, contrary to cultural stereotypes, not all Jewish mothers are like this (more on this later). However, I have to admit that throughout history there may have been a few Jewish mothers who could have easily changed world history but for the persistence, or luck, of their overachieving sons. For example, if Jesus’s mother was like the president’s mother in the Nichols and May sketch, I think there would be a good chance folks today would have a painting of Jupiter hanging on the wall above their beds instead of that ubiquitous bearded man with the halo.
Let’s imagine as a young man Jesus started showing a proclivity for doing, how should I put it, “extraordinary things.” His mother, Mrs. Ofnazareth, could have easily damaged his self-confidence with sarcastic remarks like: “Hey, big shot, you’re not so great. What, you think you can walk on water?” Deflated, it is very likely Jesus would not have reached his (God-given?) potential but would have regrettably settled for his mundane job as an itinerant carpenter. His mother would always be reassuring him that he should be grateful: “Son, those rich folks who live by the Sea of Galilee are always looking for someone to build a dock for their boat.”
Or consider how proud Mrs. Freud was when her son, Sigmund, graduated from medical school. “Thank God, my son is a doctor. I always knew he would be a great dermatologist. Now I can die in peace.” Perturbed, her son tells his mother that this is not what he had in mind. He is opening up an office in Vienna and will call himself a “psychotherapist.” His first patients will be “hysterical women.”* Mrs. Freud replies: “Siggie, you want to see a hysterical woman? I’ll show you a hysterical woman — me! What woman is going to pay you just for talking with her? But, boychick, she will pay you when her fat kid’s face breaks out from eating too many Viennese pastries. Don’t be a schlemiel, Siggie, those kids’ faces are a gold mine.” Totally intimidated, the newly minted doctor caves. Rich Viennese comment on the new medical practice established on ritzy Kärntner Strasse — Freud Skin Care, Ltd.
Henriette Marx is not having a good day. She just got a letter from her son, Karl. From London, no less. Karl is not working and is asking his mother for a loan (which, by the way, is historically accurate). The letter states “Hey, Mom, I could really use some cash to tide me over. I’m finishing up this great book. It’s going to be a best seller, I just know it. My working title is The Communist Manifesto. It’s about how the working class is going to take state power from the Capitalists. You’ll love it — there’s no sex in it and it has a happy ending.”
Communist Manifesto? Mrs. Marx starts getting verklempt. She slowly gathers herself and writes back: “So, what do you know about the working class? You wouldn’t know a shovel from a pogo stick. Last time you were home Dad was fixing a drawer and asked you to get him a screwdriver. You fixed him some kind of drink instead. And what is this ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ mishugas? Your father worked his tuchus off so you could go to university, and this is what we get? Forget it. And son, you better hope Rabbi Goldstein never hears about this ‘opium of the people’ dreck. You know he has a weak heart.”
Marx is dismayed and starts to recalculate. “Screw Rabbi Goldstein,” Marx thinks. “Who buys that Talmudic shtick, anyway?” But he knows he is in a bind. His mother really knows his weak points and has artfully skewered his proletarian pretensions. Let’s face it, he needs the money.** He puts aside the Manifesto permanently and starts working on a book on the care and feeding of English Bulldogs. It’s a gigantic hit. (Workers have dogs too, don’t they?) Marx starts getting substantial book royalties. Enough to get him a nice flat overlooking Kensington Gardens. Life is good. To each according to his ability, he thinks to himself.
Well, as I mentioned earlier, all that stuff you read in books and see in movies about overbearing, manipulative Jewish mothers is essentially fiction. As someone who had a Jewish mother, I can assure you that this stereotype is way overdrawn. I attribute this to the fact that Jewish writers, comics, and producers have always been overrepresented in the media . But these people like to kvetch like the rest of us (OK, more so), and their mothers are in easy target.***
To put this in perspective, I can honestly say that my own Jewish mother never pressured me about anything important. Her mantra was always that her sons would find their own way. And they did. Now my Aunt Sarah, that’s a different kettle of gefilte fish.
* During Freud’s time, “Female Hysteria” was a common medical diagnosis for women.
** In a letter, Henriette Marx once wrote, “if only Karl had made Capital, instead of just writing about it.”
*** At this point you are probably saying to yourself, “What’s with all the Yiddish words? How come there is no glossary here?” And I would reply, “Nu, you never heard of Google?”
Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.