Navigate to Community section

The Silence of the Dads

Why there are no jokes about Jewish fathers

Marjorie Ingall
June 16, 2017
Illustration: Library of Congress
Illustration: Library of Congress
Illustration: Library of Congress
Illustration: Library of Congress

Last year, I published a book about the Jewish-mother stereotype. At almost every JCC, synagogue, and bookstore appearance I did, a man—invariably surrounded by women—would raise his hand during the Q&A and ask, “But what about Jewish fathers?”

I never had a satisfactory answer. The only Jewish-father joke I know is a Jewish-mother joke: A Jewish kid comes home from school yelling, “Ma! Ma! I got cast in the school play!” Mom says, “Oh, darling, how wonderful! What role did you get?” Kid answers, “I’m playing the Jewish father!” Mom snaps, “You march right back there and tell them you want a speaking part!”

It’s a familiar stereotype: Jewish mothers are loud and domineering, so much so that a man can’t get a word in edgewise. This portrait, which reached its apotheosis in the 1960s and gradually faded away throughout the ’80s, depicts a woman who is smothering, controlling, and teeming with ambition that only extends as far as her child. The Jewish mother herself is sheltered and unworldly—she demands that her spawn become a doctor or lawyer because she herself lacks the imagination or drive to envision anything else; she craves only bragging rights among her friends. The JM’s flipside is the Jewish American Princess, the JAP—who’s skinny instead of fat, grimly obsessed with exercise instead of cooking, and lives to shop and get her hair and nails done rather than be a self-sacrificing, schlumpy martyr like her elder.

Both caricatures are unfamiliar to the young people of today. They know the type, but not the terminology. After all, demanding mothers and entitled daughters come in all ethnicities. The internet teems with amusing videos by millennials about growing up with a Latina/black/Filipino/Chinese mom—tributes that tend to be more affectionate than pointed. The old Jewish-mother jokes, on the other hand, have some venom running through the laugh lines.

That may be because jokes about Jewish mothers hit it big as Jewish sons were breaking into American comedy. From the 1950s to the ’80s, Jews were creating the burgeoning worlds of standup (nurtured in the Borscht Belt) and the sitcom. Their jokes about their mothers could be a reaction to what they saw as their moms’ provincial-ness and talent at guilt-production (here they were, young men creating a brand-new art form, and their moms just kept carping at them about making a living!) and a reaction to acculturation. As young Jewish men moved into the suburbs, breached once-WASP-y fields, and spoke like Americans instead of like Yiddish-accented greenhorns, their mothers—clinging to religion and demanding they marry nice Jewish girls—seemed embarrassing and backward. And as for clingy … well, mothers in America in the years immediately after the Holocaust might be excused for a bit of clinginess, no? (If you go back further, for generations of Jewish world history, the Jewish mother was the working parent who engaged with the wider world, and the Jewish father was the sheltered scholar.) Furthermore, in Jewish tradition, women rule the domain of the home, and Judaism is a very home-centric faith. As writer-performer Gabrielle Orcha noted, “It’s a funny contrast that the religion is so intensely patriarchal … but the informal social organization is matriarchal.”

In the middle of the 20th century, with young Jewish men getting a wide platform for their storytelling for the first time, all these factors coincided to make Jewish mothers (and daughters) the subject of mockery. Sons were pretty much given a pass because they were the ones writing the jokes. And dads were depicted—if they were depicted at all—as nebbish-y, henpecked schlemiels. It doesn’t help that fathers in the Torah are not the greatest role models. Sure, they’re powerful and have a direct line to God. But when you look at Abraham (who traumatized his beloved son by nearly sacrificing him with a big knife, and abandoned his other kid to die in the desert), Isaac (who raised a pottage-stealer and a wannabe-murderer), Jacob (who played favorites to such a degree that 11 of his kids conspired to sell the bratty 12th into slavery), and then dart a few glances at Lot, Saul, David, and many other dads of the Tanakh…well, they were important fellas, but they were parenting washouts.

That said, commentary on our early texts perhaps offers a little more guidance than the texts themselves. A compilation of Talmudic directives to dads (with an occasional word to the mothers) spotlights perhaps the most famous parenting instruction, from Kiddushin 29a: “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: Circumcise him, redeem him if he is a firstborn, teach him Torah, find him a wife, and teach him a trade. Others say to teach him how to swim as well.” As I noted in my own book, that swimming business may be practical advice—as the Talmud notes, “[the child’s] life may depend on it,” or it may be a metaphor. A father won’t always be there to fish a kid out of trouble, so make sure your spawn are self-rescuing and self-sufficient. Too many parents, eager to spare their offspring any distress or discomfiture, bail the kid out or make excuses for their behavior—which is bad for the kid in the long run. Not experiencing consequences has consequences.

Other obligations of dads, according to the Talmud: “A man who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob” (Kiddushin 29a); “if you strike a child, strike him only with a shoelace” (Baba Batra 21a); and “a father must provide his daughter with appropriate clothing and a dowry” (Even haEzer 71 in the Shulchan Aruch). The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism also shares a Hasidic story about the Ba’al Shem Tov, jauntily known as the Besht: A father once came to the Besht complaining about his son, who had been forsaking Judaism and morality. The man asked the rabbi what to do. The Besht replied, “Love him more.”

One can see how, taken together, this portrait of good Jewish fathering might seem indulgent. Find your kid a wife? Don’t hit? Give your daughter nice stuff? Pile on the love when your kid screws up? Pair that with our tradition’s emphasis on literacy and scholarship and you can see why there’s a stereotype of Jewish men as wusses. As Orcha notes, “When I think of Jewish fathers I think of sensitivity, passing on intellectual and scholarly traditions, and a much greater interest in their daughter’s interior life than would be typical in other cultures.” True. This kind of compassion and vulnerability is often viewed as weak (it’s not), particularly when contrasted with the Midler-esque bombast of the Jewish mother. And authors like Philip Roth did a lot to contribute to the image of the Jewish dad as an unmanly schlimazel.

I think the most canonical American-Jewish-dad text isn’t by Roth, though. It’s Chaim Potok’s 1967 The Chosen. Here you have two sides of religious Jewish-American fatherdom in the 1940s—Reuven’s father, who is nurturing, widely read, and engaged in the world, and Danny’s father, who is dictatorial, doctrinaire, and fervently separatist about secular culture. In the book and its sequels, Reuven’s worldlier, gentler father is depicted far more sympathetically than Danny’s harsh and ultra-religious father. (The final book in the trilogy does end with a peek into Danny’s father’s mind; we understand what he was trying—however imperfectly—to accomplish by raising a son in silence and coldness.)

Like Jewish Mother and JAP jokes, The Chosen now seems squarely a product of its time. Today’s world, in which American Jews are likely to be utterly secular, would baffle all of The Chosen’s dads and sons. Reuven’s family—depicted in the book as more “American” than Danny’s—would seem extraordinarily religious and alien to most high-school and college-age Jews now. And the fact that in this narrative set before the founding of the state of Israel, Zionism is a marker of liberalism and anti-Zionism is a mark of conservatism feels ironically foreign.

So where does that leave American Jewish dads today? Who are they, and what do they stand for? It seems that in a more diverse Jewish world, generalizations about Jewish dads are relics, much as they are for Jewish mothers. Diversity, acculturation, and secularization mean that Jewish dads, for better or worse, are just American dads.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

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.