You Never Call, You Never Write!

In a special Mother's Day edition of Mocha Moms, author Joyce Antler takes on cultural stereotypes in her new book on the history of Jewish mothers. She joins the other Mocha Moms for a discussion.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In just a bit, a soon-to-be-mom wastes no time introducing her son to music. But first, it's time for our weekly visit with the Mocha Moms. Today, just in time for Mother's Day, you never call, you never write. Where have you heard that before?

It comes from one of America's most common stereotypes. It's also the title of a new book by author Joyce Antler. She wrote the book, "You Never Call, You Never Write: A History of the Jewish Mother." And our Mochas in the studio with us, here in D.C. today: Jolene Ivey, co-founder of the Mocha Moms; Divina McFarland, member of Mocha Moms; and Cheli English-Figaro, president emeritus of Mocha Moms. Welcome all.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hi.

Ms. DIVINA McFARLAND (Mocha Mom): Hi. How are you doing?

Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hello.

MARTIN: First, let's start with a little something from comedian Amy Borkowsky. She has recorded phone messages from her mother for over 10 years. Here it is.

(Soundbite of phone message)

Unidentified Woman: Hi, it's me. I meant to tell you, so you don't set off the metal detector at the airport make sure you don't wear an underwire bra. A lady on the bus said it happened to a woman she knew and she claims they've frisked her for four hours. Even if she's exaggerating and it was only two, that's a long time to have a stranger surveying your land. So just for one day, you may even want to consider going braless. Love you. Bye.

MARTIN: Okay, Joyce Antler, where does this fit into the stereotype? Now, she clearly loves her daughter, she wants what's best for her. Where does this fit into the archetypal Jewish mom?

Ms. JOYCE ANTLER (Author, "You Never Call, You Never Write: A History of the Jewish Mother"): She is the archetype of Jewish mom and she certainly doesn't know her boundaries, does she? But this idea of calling your children to warn them, to remind them, to complain that they never call back, has been with us really for almost, you know, three, four generations.

Amy is not the first to come up with this - George Jessel in vaudeville, Nichols and May on the Broadway stage - always the complaint, you know, that children who don't know enough to lead their own lives. And it's funny and it's in some ways true, but of course it is an exaggeration.

MARTIN: Yeah, of course it is. So give me the quick, succinct archetype Jewish mother, the charming side and the less charming side.

Ms. ANTLER: The charming side is the mother who's very concerned about the child's well-being. Can't cross the street without the mother's help, doesn't have what to eat without the mother's help, and the caring, the concern, the love, I think that's the charming side. The negative side, as I said, is in-your-face over-involvement, overprotection, and it is a spectrum. There are real characteristics, there are real mothers like this, but what we've know most is the excessive side.

MARTIN: Let's bring the Mochas in. And Divina, are there any traits that you identify with?

Ms. McFARLAND: I don't know. I don't see any problem with that phone message personally.

MARTIN: You go, girl.

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, you know, I've been accused of being overprotective by my own children in addition to some of my friends - Cheli's shaking her head.

MARTIN: Cheli's shaking her head.

Ms. McFARLAND: I know, I know, I know what you want to bring up too, Cheli. You want to bring up my four-hour (unintelligible) there's nothing wrong with wanting the children to stay close. And that's my rule. I want my son, who's 10, when he goes off to college, the rule is he can only go within a four-hour radius of my home.

MARTIN: By plane, boat?

Ms. McFARLAND: By car.

MARTIN: By car. Okay.

Ms. McFARLAND: Four hours by car.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: That wasn't the story.

MARTIN: Okay, well.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: The story was her driving behind the school bus.

Ms. McFARLAND: Okay, whatever.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Okay.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yeah, I drove - listen, my kid wanted to ride the bus; I said, fine, get on the bus. I drove behind the bus.

MARTIN: What's so terrible? Exactly. Okay.

Ms. McFARLAND: What's wrong?

MARTIN: What's so terrible? What about - Cheli, what about you? Are there any traits that you identify with, either negative or positive?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I am a Jewish mother.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I am a Jewish mother. There's nothing wrong with that message. Are you kidding me? You know, I - my mother started her teaching career in the New York City public high school in the '50s, so all of her friends who are her colleagues were either Jewish women or Italian women. So that's who I kind of grew up with, because those were my mom's friends. And so I feel like I had a Jewish mother, and I'm a Jewish mother.

MARTIN: What it is about the Jewish mother image that is powerful for you and that you appreciate and admire, and want to emulate, frankly?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Well, the fact that they really, really value education and achievement at all costs. And I think the fact that they have a real strong heritage, what makes them a people.

MARTIN: Passing on heritage.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Joyce, I don't know how you relate to education at all costs. I just want to give you a chance to say that, but how does it strike you hearing that persons from another culture find much to emulate and admire?

Ms. IVEY: I think that's terrific, and I think what the Jewish mother needs more of is the kind of respect that you're expressing, because these comedy routines don't really give it to Jewish mothers. And I think, you know, we need to uncover all the strengths that they have provided. It's nurturing their own children. It's nurturing the community. It's being politically active, and I think we need to rewrite the history. We need to rewrite the jokes so some of that comes through.

MARTIN: What about the stereotype of African-American mothers?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I don't know exactly what that stereotype would be. I know that when I was reading this book, I really had to think about how - I've had to be very mindful raising five black boys. And I would disable them if I were to raise them in the stereotypically Jewish mother way, which is over-involved and doing too much to take care of them. I want to take care of my boys. I want to love my boys, but I have to give them the power to take care of themselves because nobody is going to be catering to black men.

So when these boys grow up, they have to be strong, they have to be capable, they have to be able to think for themselves, and they're not going to have anybody calling them up to warn them about anything, you know, in their day to day lives.

MARTIN: But I think there is an intersection there between the stereotype of the Jewish mother and the stereotype of the African-American mother. There is this sense of, you know, ambitious for the daughters, but coddling of the sons.

Ms. IVEY: I don't coddle mine.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm, I hear you. I hear you. Do you...

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, I do.

MARTIN: Okay. Do any of you find yourself as mothers pushing against this stereotype?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Absolutely. I think - I'm so glad you keep on using the word stereotype, because this is not real behavior entirely. I think Jewish mothers were involved in their children's lives, but the value that was so important to them was independence, individuality. So coddling is the wrong word. And I certainly raised my daughters to be aware that they need to make it on their own.

MARTIN: Divina, what were you going to say? You're going to say, what do you mean? I embrace it? What are you talking about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: Now, you know what? I think one of the perks of being a mom and having a mom who's at home and involved for my children, anyway, there are a lot of things that they don't have to do and they don't have to worry about. Now, for example, this is a joke, but my kids aren't allowed to use knives. I cut their meat. I don't know when I'll be ready for them to, but, you know, I'm afraid they might hurt themselves. So I'm, just, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: It's the truth.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Is that scary?

Ms. McFARLAND: It's the truth.

MARTIN: Jolene and Divina.

Ms. IVEY: Jolene, I don't coddle my sons. I coddle mine. I'm coddling. I drive them everywhere they need to go all the time.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Well, they're 10. They're not going to drive themselves.

Ms. IVEY: Right. Well, they came - like you said, I followed the school bus, and I don't see anything wrong. Because if something happens, I need to be there. Well, I'm a little bit insane. I do realize that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: I think it's better to kind of take their training wheels off gradually. You know, he's got to learn how to do these things. He's not going to learn it. If I follow him around all the time, he's got to learn how to do it.

MARTIN: Joyce, I wanted to ask you why you think that these images persist?

Ms. ANTLER: It's amazing. You know, the most surprising thing I found in my research is the ubiquity, the pervasiveness of this stereotype. It's been around three, four generations. Why does it persist? Because there's some correspondence in reality, because it seems to be okay to mock the Jewish mother. I think this mother has become a target, a scapegoat in ways that are a fairly worrisome. I don't think this is good.

MARTIN: Well, I want to ask you about that, though. Is it really so terrible? I mean, you have - you know, of course, nobody likes being mocked, and nobody likes being put into a sort of a box. But does it have any important social effects that you think need to be softened out?

Ms. ANTLER: Several. Several. I think when you compare our Jewish mothers to vultures or rottweilers because they don't let go, that's kind of a worst kind of misogyny, even anti-Semitism. And the negative effects are really internalized by Jewish women. I know of several who say I don't want to be like that. So what they latch onto is the negative effects, and they monitor their own parenting. And often I think they're afraid to give the same kind of warmth, the presence that we've all been talking about. That's not a good effect.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the image of the Jewish mother is evolving?

Ms. ANTLER: I certainly do, and I'm happy about the new face of the Jewish mother because feminist scholars, memoir writers, Holocaust survivors' children, and even today comedians - especially women comedians - are giving us new heroes, new kinds of Jewish mothers, and it's really exciting. They're, you know, going inside the old stale caricature and showing the positive strengths, the positive warmth that is there.

My own daughter, who's moving five minutes from me, is a comedian. And she does a lovely routine about what's the difference between a Jewish mother and Jewish feminist mother? And the Jewish mother would say, you know, don't go outside because it's snowing. You need a shield. And a Jewish feminist mother would say, you don't want to stay inside when there's misogyny out there. Go fight the patriarchy and wear a coat. You know, so it is changing, and I think it's really important that we now have women who are telling this story and making the jokes.

MARTIN: Okay, Joyce Antler, I wanted to ask - just in time for Mother's Day - I wanted to ask each of you, Joyce included, what is your fantasy Mother's Day? Jolene, do you want to start?

Ms. IVEY: My fantasy is to get up early in the morning, not to sleep in, but to leave the house before the kids get up and not to come back until they're in bed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: And I go out with girlfriends.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. IVEY: We go to lunch, we go to the movies, you know, whatever we want to do. And I'm just - don't do the mother thing for a day.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. IVEY: That is my fantasy.

MARTIN: On the day that you disappeared and went on walkabout, where'd you go?

Ms. IVEY: Well, one time, I remember a girlfriend and I, we went out to lunch and we ordered a drink. And then when we finished the drink, we ordered another drink.

MARTIN: You did?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: And we only got halfway through that drink before it was time to go to the movie. So I very politely asked the waiter for a kid's cup. And he gave me - he knew what I was going to do, but what could he say? He gave me the kid's cups, and we poured the rest of our drinks in the kid's cups and we put them in our pocketbooks and we walked to the movies and we took out our drinks and we finished drinking them while we watched the movie. And we thought it was a riot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This is Jolene being bad.

Ms. IVEY: Hey.

MARTIN: Cheli, what's your fantasy Mother's Day?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: My fantasy Mother's Day is similar to Jolene's, except that people will get up and get out of the house, and leave me in the house.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: You see, I want them all out. And I want to be in my house, in my castle, doing what I want to do all the day.

Ms. IVEY: But if I did that, I would clean.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I would not clean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I would not clean. I would not cook at all.

MARTIN: At all. I see.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Ever.

MARTIN: Okay. Divina, what's your fantasy Mother's Day?

Ms. McFARLAND: Their fantasies sound really, really good to me. I like them leaving me in the house, but I don't think I would stay there very long. I think I'd do what Jolene did, and then go out to lunch or something like that. But I think, you know, everybody's fantasy Mother's Day is probably a break. I just want a break. And if it's only for a few hours in the day, then I'll take the few hours. But I would like some time when I'm not mom. So it would be nice to not hear that. Just for a day.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Joyce, what about you?

Ms. ANTLER: You see, my daughters are a little bit older, so I think I'm speaking from the other side. I'd like a reunion. They're far flung. I'd like to spend Mother's Day with them. I miss them. I want them to call. I want them to come home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANTLER: My daughters - you know what they say. They say, mom, we do call. Learn to listen to your voicemail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, thank you so much. Husbands, take note. Daughters, take note. Call, don't forget to send the card. Thank you for joining us. And we are joined here in the studio with Jolene Ivey, Divina McFarland and Cheli English-Figaro of the Mocha Moms, here in Washington for our weekly visit. And we were joined from New York, guest mom, Joyce Antler. She is the author of "You Never Call, You Never Write!: The History of the Jewish Mother." Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. McFARLAND: Thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thank you.

Ms. ANTLER: Thank you.

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