Kvelling About Jewish Mothers On Screen

This is a guest post by  Scott Fox, 21, a young wanderer of sorts having grown up in the Jewish communities of Boston, Cleveland, and Memphis all while maintaining the New York accent he got from his parents. He loves the new home he has found in the town of cows, colleges, and contentment:  Northfield, Minnesota, where he is a history major at Carleton College. A pop culture geek who has been surrounded by Jewish humor his entire life; he hopes to be a journalist or an historian.
Perhaps one of the most unexplainable aspects of this meshugge world we live in is Jewish mothers. They have the craziest ideas and yet we often end up using their wisdom, either because their uncanny in their accuracy or because we’ll feel guilty if we don’t. Jewish mothers will provide anything to take care of their mishpucha: food, encouragement, even the shirt off their backs. But they are also often the first to yank you back to reality and the original sources of your neuroses.
Jewish mothers were once a stereotype found throughout entertainment. Today, as we assimilate, there are less and less depictions in film of the traditional yiddishe mama. Perhaps this is why many of the films discussed here take place in the past. Still that is no reason to forget some of the best examples movies have created. At their best, these characters seem so realistic that we cannot stop ourselves from giving Mom a call. Here is a list some of the ones that should not be forgotten.
Anne Bancroft, Garbo Talks (1984)
Anne Bancroft, born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, has cultivated a career of Jewish-mother-like figures (Torch Song Trilogy, Home For The Holidays, Keeping The Faith) when’s she is not being a WASP seductress (The Graduate). It helps that anyone from New York who is Jewish, Italian, or even Latino can often be cast as either of these three ethnicities (see John Turturro). Bancroft does it best in Garbo Talks as Estelle Rolfe, a woman dying of a brain tumor whose son (Ron Silver) is trying to help her achieve her last wish: meeting famous actress and recluse Greta Garbo. Estelle remains upbeat in the worst of situations and relishes the pleasure she gets from her son and the pictures. Bancroft plays her so sympathetically that it is no wonder her son would do anything for her.
Lanie Kazan, My Favorite Year (1982)
Like Estelle Rolfe, Kazan’s character is starstruck by a screen legend her son brings over. “Mrs. Belle May Steinberg-Carroca of Brooklyn, NY and Miami Beach, FL for two weeks each and every winter,” (which is how her son introduces her) is infatuated by Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), a drunken Errol Flynn-like actor. Belle’s son, Benji (Mark Linn-Baker), is a writer for a 1950’s variety show who is looking after Swann and brings him over for Shabbos dinner at the family home. Belle appears in her best dress and jewelry as she talks to Swann in sophisticated language that cannot hide her loud New Yawk accent. The rest of Benji’s family is just as absurd. His mother is married to a Filipino former prizefighter who feeds the family parrot. His aunt shows up to dinner in a wedding dress.
Carol Kane, Hester Street (1975)
Kane received a Best Actress Oscar Nomination for a powerful and heartbreaking performance as Gitl, a woman who comes with her son from the shtetl to 1890’s Lower East Side. Her husband, who has already been in America for several years, has rejected the old country’s traditions and wants his wife to do the same. Gitl is not ready to change her values. She does not want to stop wearing her wig and look like a gentile or have her son, Yossele, called Joey. The film tells the story of our ancestors’ coming to America as well as grappling with the ongoing issue of Jewish assimilation. Like Kane, mothers as well all Jews often have to deal with their long-held beliefs converging with an ever-changing world.
Sari Lennick, A Serious Man (2009)
Any list compiled in Minnesota of Jewish films will, of course, include the Coen brothers’ comic masterpiece. The film takes our conceptions of Judaism, the 1960’s, suburbia and ridicules them. Take Judith Gopnick, for example. Instead of the worrying Jewish mother that is usually seen in these nostalgia films, she is confident and dominates over her husband. Yet she is still committed to Jewish customs, wanting a get (a Jewish divorce document) and for her outgoing husband, Larry, to talk to the rabbi. She is a serious woman who wants a serious man like Sy Abelman. She tells Larry about her love of Sy, “This is not about whoopsie-doopsie,” hilariously using a euphemism of the time to avoid mentioning sex. Sadly, this is Lennick’s only film. She is primarily a stage actress.
And the best for last…
Mary Tyler Moore, Flirting With Disaster (1996)
Like in Ordinary People, Moore brilliantly plays against the icon she created in television as Pearl Coplin, the neurotic adoptive mother of Mel (Ben Stiller). She and her husband, Ed, (George Segal) fret when Mel goes in search of his birth parents. She combines all of the humorous attributes of what we identify as a the stereotypical Jewish mother: the worrying (she forces Ed to go from New York to New Mexico because she thinks her son is in trouble), the inappropriateness (she shows how her support bra works in front of the adoption associate), the constant bickering between Pearl and Ed, and the general New Yorker qualities. An excellent performance that is so realistic that you are unable to stop laughing.

Your turn: Who are your favorite yiddishe mamas on the silver screen? Comment below!

Does all of this talk about Jewish film characters make you want to see a flick? Check out what’s playing at the 2011 Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, which runs through April 10th.

(Image: Kevitivity)