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Jewish Moms: The Good, the Bad, and—Oh, Give Us a Break Already

Why my search for the ‘Worst Jewish Mothers of 5776’ failed

Marjorie Ingall
September 02, 2016

An “unmensch” is the opposite of a mensch: “A person who behaves in such an undignified way that he [sic] cannot be considered a decent human being.” The word is both German and Yiddish, literally meaning inhuman person, ogre, monster. (Also, it is a cyborg Nazi super-soldier in the Hellboy comic books, in case that ever comes up on Jeopardy!)

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The idea for this post was to do a roundup, as we head into the close of the Jewish year, of the most heinous Jewish mothers of 5776, real and fictional. After all, I have a book about Jewish Mothers coming out (maybe you’ve heard!) that discusses how generally awesome we have been throughout history, contrary to the stereotype! So would it not be an amusing little divertissement to mock some current Jewish mothers who are totally not delightful, who are the exception that proves the rule? Oh ho ho, we’re all already chuckling in anticipation!

I thought about the usual celebrity offenders, Gwyneth Paltrow (privileged pontificating narcissist who named a child after a fruit) and Courtney Love (cheese-hating pontificating narcissist who is frequently estranged from her own child). I thought about reality TV characters (surgically inflated Real Housewives! hatemonger and R.L. Stine character Pamela Geller!) I thought about Jewish mothers in recent fiction: Rose Krasinsky in Modern Girls, fed up with childrearing and eager to return to activism in her Lower East Side community when she suddenly finds herself unwillingly pregnant! Maribeth Klein in Leave Me, an overworked NYC editor mom who flat-out leaves her husband and children and goes on the lam in Pittsburgh! (PITTSBURGH!)

But then I started feeling icky. Moms—Jewish and not—already get so much snark and abuse hurled at them. In the inevitable dichotomy of mom-shaming, you’re either a neurotic, clinging helicopter parent or a neglectful, free-range selfish, oblivious loser who is probably high on bath salts right now. If you work outside the home, you’re choosing to miss the beautiful moments of your child’s life; if you don’t work outside the home, you’re a parasite with no interior life. If you expend energy on your appearance and fight aging tooth and nail, you’re shallow and inappropriate; if you’re not wearing makeup and your bod isn’t tighter than hospital corners on a military bed, you’re not valuing yourself. There is no winning.

And many of the women who are candidates for “worst mom” status simply don’t deserve it. I just went down a Google rabbit hole of Munchausen by proxy, the disorder in which parents (usually mothers) surreptitiously make their children ill to get attention, thinking this might make for funny blog-post fodder. What? I’m so sorry. Mental illness: Not funny. Bad moms who kill children aren’t funny. Bad moms whose kids get hurt or lost because they don’t have the money for quality childcare aren’t funny.

And while it’s always acceptable to hate all over cartoon and unreal figures, I’m not sure I actually know any. Jewish mothers still don’t get a lot of play even in media created by Jews. I have yet to see Bad Moms (co-starring Unorthodox podcast sensation Kathryn Hahn, who I love in everything she has ever done), a movie that men don’t seem to love but which every mom viewer seems to find hilarious. Still, I’m guessing that most of the bad moms in Bad Moms are not, in fact, bad moms. They just don’t fit the impossible strictures of perfection held up for moms. And the “bad moms” in well-wrought fiction aren’t, of course, cartoon villainesses at all. They’re women in difficult circumstances who are doing as well as they can with the cards they’ve been dealt, and who wrestle with their decisions the way Jacob wrestled with that farshtunkiner angel. They’re hard to hate, at least if you’re being fair. Can’t you sympathize with Rose Krasinsky, who’s got five kids and not a lot of money and yearns to go out and have an impact and do good in the big wide world again? Haven’t you dreamed of escaping an ungrateful husband and demanding spawn to just be unencumbered for a while, like Maribeth Klein? (If you say no, you’re either lying or self-deluded. I’m neither of those things. I’m dying to go on a book tour purely so I can sleep alone in a hotel bed I don’t have to make.)

As for actual, non-fictional humans: Telling the truth about motherhood, which is that it is frequently boring and dreary when it is not terrifying or sob-inducing, endears you to exactly no one. No one wants to hear it. You’re supposed to be amusingly diffident (“Oh, please, I just whipped up this easy Harry Potter cake while running a conference call about the impact of the TPP agreement! Anyone could do it!”). No kvetching is allowed. Yeah, I could have used this blog opportunity to mock the cartoon villainesses of reality TV and punditry—but they’re such easy, dull targets. If there’s any wit in jokes about the Real Housewives or vile Jewish TV commentators, I’ve yet to hear it. And as for actual celebrities… well, do I have any actual clue what Gwynnie or Courtney’s home life is like? Sure, I find their self-presentation irksome, but I don’t truly know what they’re like as Jewish mothers. If Courtney’s daughter Frances doesn’t speak to her, using that as fodder seems prurient and sad, not funny or helpful. Certainly not in a purportedly humorous little blog post.

So, uh, sorry. Here’s to every Jewish mother who’s just trying her level best.

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.