We have seen the last old-school, Jewishly observant, housecoat-wearing, perpetually bellowing, all-devouring, ultra-controlling, super-insular, Yiddishly inflected, son-emasculating Jewish Mother on network television.
Howard Wolowitz’s unnamed mother on the Emmy-winning sitcom The Big Bang Theory never appeared on camera; she just screamed at her son from other rooms in their house or over the phone. Carol Ann Susi, the actress who played Mrs. Wolowitz, died in November, and her last episode aired the same month. While there has been no official announcement about whether the role will be recast (a CBS publicist answered all my other questions but repeatedly ignored that one, despite my noodging tone that would have made Mrs. Wolowitz proud), the show’s executive producer Bill Prady told TV Guide, “There are no plans for any other actress to play the role.”
Mrs. Wolowitz was a throwback to vintage Jewish Mother jokes and monstrous stereotypes, to Philip Roth’s Mrs. Portnoy, to Herman Wouk’s Rose Morgenstern, and to Philip Wylie’s entire Generation of Vipers. She was smothering yet selfish, a gaping maw of need and hunger. And her still-living-at-home adult son yelled back at her and claimed to want to be free of her—an engineer, he actually became an astronaut to escape—but was also dependent on her.
Howard: The doctor says you need to get exercise!
Mrs Wolowitz: I get plenty of exercise!
Howard: Crushing my will to live isn’t exercise!
Howard: Mom, everyone at NASA can hear this call.
Mrs. Wolowitz: Good! They can hear what a horrible son you are!
Howard: OK, nice talking to you! Goodbye! [Hangs up] Well, space is ruined.
Mrs. Wolowitz: Howard, are you having a playdate?
Howard: I don’t have playdates! I have colleagues!
Mrs. Wolowitz: Do their parents know they’re here?
Howard: No, but if you keep screaming, maybe they’ll hear you!
Howard’s colleague Leonard, listening: Is that your dad?
Howard: If she grows any more hair on her face, yes.
Mrs. Wolowitz: Should I ask Leonard to bring over your homework?
Howard: I don’t have homework! I’m a grown man, with a master’s degree in engineering!
Mrs. Wolowitz: Excuse me, Mr. Fancypants. Want me to get you a Popsicle?
Howard: Cherry, please!
Mrs. Wolowitz: I ate the cherry! All that’s left is green!
Howard: You make me want to kill myself!
Mrs. Wolowitz: Howard, have you seen my girdle?
Howard: No, ma!
Mrs. Wolowitz: I can’t find it and I’m late for my Weight Watchers meeting!
Howard: Maybe it committed suicide!
(In 2009, producer Chuck Lorre told The Jewish Journal, “Things are loud in a Jewish household … that’s just the way we talk. Other people go, ‘Why are you yelling?’ I’m not yelling; I’m making a point! That was the fun of creating that off-camera mother. That’s how communication happens in some households, and it’s normal in that house.” He added that he wasn’t even aware that his family’s conversation style was a thing until he had dinner a non-Jewish home: “They said, ‘Could you please pass the butter?’ I said, ‘Why are you whispering?’”)
Mrs. Wolowitz was depicted as gout-ridden and and food-obsessed (she’s famous for her turbrisgefil—a turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with gefilte fish) as well as her unwillingness to let her son lead his own life. Her depiction dovetailed squarely with older portrayals of Jewish mothers on television. There was Sophie Steinberg (Bibi Osterwald) on Bridget Loves Bernie, the ’70s sitcom (loosely based on the 1922 play Abie’s Irish Rose) about a young Jewish man and a young Catholic woman who get married over the objections of her rich, uptight, goyish family (businessman dad and daffy socialite mom) and his working-class, deli-owning Jewish family. Also in the ’70s was Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s mom (on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the spinoff Rhoda), who responded to Rhoda’s request for a tiny wedding by inviting 79 people (and later told her, “That Joe is such a doll—too bad you’re gonna lose him.”)
From 1989 to 1998 we had Seinfeld, where Jerry’s mother Helen repeatedly said of her oft-annoying son, “How could anyone not like him?” and was known, Jerry said, for having “never once set foot in a natural body of water.” Concurrent with Helen Seinfeld was Sylvia Buchman (Cynthia Harris) on Mad About You (1992-1999), who delivered healthy helpings of guilt to her son Paul (Paul Reiser) and WASP-y daughter-in-law Jamie. Typical was this Thanksgiving exchange:
Sylvia: Oh … no sweet potatoes with marshmallows?
Jamie: No, I’m making a sweet potato mousse.
Sylvia: Oh. No sweet potatoes with marshmallows, then. (Pause.) Let me share a story if I may. It was Thanksgiving, 1943. My father was off fighting Hitler in the war, and we were all visiting my mother in the hospital with the croup. They brought in her dinner, and the sweet potatoes didn’t have marshmallows. Of course. Because they were rationed.
Paul: They rationed the marshmallows?
Sylvia: It was war!
Paul: Oh, of course. Silly me.
Sylvia: Anyway, one day the war was over and everything went back to normal. And I promised myself that never again would I ever have a Thanksgiving where there were sweet potatoes without the marshmallows. (Pause.) But this is fine.
On a similar guilt-inducing trip was Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor), Fran Drescher’s mother on The Nanny (1993-99), who once complained, “You couldn’t call to tell a person that you’re coming? I would have Windexed the couch!” Sylvia hocked her daughter incessantly to marry and was prone to dramatic, self-aggrandizing gestures. (“If you leave, I’m going to throw myself in the Hudson River!” she threated, to which Fran replied: “Ma, flooding New Jersey isn’t going to solve anything.”)
From 1998 to 2006 there was Bobbi (Debbie Reynolds), Grace’s narcissistic, shallow, performance-loving mother on Will & Grace. She once told her daughter, “Honey, just tell me what you want me to criticize and I’ll do it. I want you to be happy.” (I say this to my own teenage daughter often.)
The closest character to Mrs. Wolowitz on television today is literally a cartoon. Sheila Broflovski, Kyle’s mother on South Park (1997-) is fat, with a New Jersey accent (employed as she sputters her catchphrase, “What, What, WHAT?”), a beehive hairdo, and a propensity to kvetch about anti-Semitism and thereby spoil everyone else’s fun. If we’re looking for other depictions of Jewish moms on TV today, let’s not count the appliqued-sweater-loving, neurotic, over-nurturing sheet of Cling-Wrap known as Beverly Goldberg, on the underrated The Goldbergs, brilliantly portrayed by Wendi McLendon-Covey. Despite the family’s name, their religion is never mentioned. (At this point, into the show’s second season, the omission is starting to seem bizarre. The characters’ names, like those of the family members of actual series creator Adam Goldberg, include Albert, Murray, Barry, and Marvin. Come on.) I also can’t include the monstrous Judith Light (or for that matter, the non-monstrous Jeffrey Tambor) on Transparent because that’s not TV; it’s Amazon. And if you want to talk about Jewish mothers on reality TV, go do it in the comments. All reality programs (except cooking shows) are, to me, a plague of locusts.
Undoubtedly, the most positive portrayal of a Jewish mother on scripted network TV was the first: Molly Goldberg, who presided over the original The Goldbergs from 1949-1956. Yes, Molly meddled. But she was also the warm, competent matriarch of a functional, loving family. She wasn’t a supporting character like all these other Jewish mothers. She was the lead. And she was adored. (Her creator and portrayer, Gertrude Berg, won the first Best Actress Emmy, in 1950.) The TV show was based on a hugely popular radio show … also created by and starring Gertrude Berg. Way back in 1929. That is a very, very long and hugely successful run.
It’s not accidental that The Goldbergs is the one show in this article created and helmed solely by a woman. (Fine, I’ll give you the Golden Globe-winning Transparent, even though it is not on actual television, with its nuanced portrayal of a transgender Jewish “moppa”; the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, has a transgender Jewish father.) When women get to create shows and tell stories, they tend not to turn their own mothers into cartoons.
There’s one more reason Mrs. Wolowitz’s was the last Jewish Mother on TV: The Jewish Mother stereotype is dying out. It’s virtually unknown to younger viewers (as is the once ubiquitous Jewish American Princess stereotype). To most millennial-and-younger Americans, Jews are regular old boring white people.
You know who the new Jews are? Asians. In the firmament of American immigration, acculturation, and pop-culture placement, Asian Americans are where we were 20-40 years ago. Witness, as just one example, the rise of the Chinese mom—the Tiger Mom stereotype as the new the locus of love, suspicion, fear, and resentment. This year’s most hotly anticipated new sitcom, premiering on Feb. 10, is Fresh Off the Boat, based on chef Eddie Huang’s autobiography. Early clips seem to indicate that the show’s mom, played by Constance Wu, delivers both shriek-y high-pitched (Jewish-Mother-reminiscent) realness and deadpan flat-affect strictness. And unlike most of the earlier sitcoms I’ve mentioned, Fresh Off the Boat’s directing and writing staff is remarkably diverse in terms of both race and gender. While part of me is bummed to hand over the comedic reins (especially given that we never even saw a wedding between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman on a sitcom until Grace married Leo in 2002, let alone got to watch a young-ish, non-harridan-esque Jewish mother raise her kids—come on! It’s too soon for us to go!), the rest of me is glad at least that the Fresh Off the Boat people are spreading the comedic wealth. Hey … there are even a bunch of Jewish names among the crew. One is even female.
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.