It doesn’t take more than a handful of screenshots of the texts between Kate Siegel and her mother, Kim Friedman, to realize why her Instagram is called Crazy Jewish Mom.
I just talked with a great West Coast Sperminator on jdate for u. Lawyer, Stamford, lives in one of those gated communities near Mulholland
Unless you are carrying my grandchild, go to the gym and stop eating garbage
TEXT ME BACK RIGHT NOW!! I HAVEN’T HEARD FROM U IN HOURS. U HAVEN’T DRIVEN A CAR IN YEARS. ARE U OK? IM WORRIED.
Ok. Calling LAPD.
Since Siegel began the Instagram sharing text exchanges with her mom in November 2014, Crazy Jewish Mom has racked up nearly 700,000 followers and a bevy of media attention, which Siegel, 26, has parlayed into a book deal.
It’s all proof that even in 2015, the stereotype of the Jewish Mother—smothering, hyper-worried, aggressively spouse-seeking, and nagging for grandchildren—is remarkably robust and recognizable.
For as long as Jewish comedians have been making mainstream America laugh, they’ve been mocking their moms.
The Jewish Mother was the ultimate fodder for Borscht Belt comedians in the Catskills, like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Shecky Greene, and Henny Youngman.
Dan Greenburg’s successful 1964 humor book How to Be a Jewish Mother launched a thousand yuks and solidified the stereotype.
Five years later, Philip Roth immortalized (or villified) the Jewish Mother in his 1969 Portnoy’s Complaint as the stifling, guilt-inducing culprit behind his protagonist’s inability to commit to women or make sense of his sexual “perversions.”
In the past 20 years, the Jewish Mother has been the ideal comedy foil with her melodramatically intrusive, abrasive, guilt-tripping ways—as seen in Helen Seinfeld on Seinfeld, Sylvia Fine on The Nanny, Sheila Broflovski (Kyle’s mom) on South Park.
The likes of Crazy Jewish Mom is “old whine in new bottles,” Joyce Antler, Brandeis University professor and the author of You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother, told The Daily Beast.
After reviewing the Instagram account, Antler quickly picked up on many of the attributes typically associated with the Jewish Mother: finding your child, especially your daughter, a spouse; wanting grandchildren; telling him or her to fix herself up; instructing them to call more frequently.
Some have voiced concerns that perpetuating these negative, stereotypical attributes of the Jewish Mother is misogynistic or anti-Semitic.
‘“Crazy Jewish Mom,’ with the mother’s focus on body image, marriage, child-bearing—all in the name of love—only reinforces the negative stereotypes about Jewish mothers,” Rebecca Eisntein Schoor wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward this year. “Using the word ‘Jewish’ in the name of the Instagram account just perpetuates Jewish stereotypes about the overbearing, mean-spirited mother.”
Siegel has quickly become seasoned at responding to these concerns.
“This is a representation of myself and my mother. This is not even a full representation of us, and it’s not meant to be a presentation of what a Jewish mother-daughter relationship is,” Siegel told The Daily Beast. “To be honest, I chose ‘Crazy Jewish Mom’ because that’s what she is and ‘Crazy Mom’ was already taken.”
Siegel is sensitive to the accusations, and later sends me an email explaining that she and her mother have been invited to speak at United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation events.
She cites how her mother “does not adhere to the traditional stereotype” and proudly describes Friedman as a feminist and a “trailblazer.” Friedman is, in fact, a well-known, pioneering director, involved in shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, The Love Boat, and L.A. Law.
At the same time, Siegel is positioning herself and profiting from the traditional stereotype and chose the “Jewish” descriptor. Intended or not, is there a risk that this will cause damage to Jewish women, or negatively impact how they are perceived?
Antler, a Jewish mother of two daughters who are now Jewish mothers themselves, feels ambivalent about Crazy Jewish Mom. “I was not so much offended. It’s just not all that original,” she said.
Still, she sees the potential impact—both good and bad—of rehashing the Jewish Mother stereotype.
“If we believe that the stereotype represents a particular type and that’s all there is, it can be dangerous. When Jewish women think they don’t want to be like the Jewish Mother or the JAP [Jewish American Princess], because these portrayals are so offensive, they may also turn away from their heritage, and that is tragic,” she said.
However, she added that “if you look for the humor or find hidden or deeper meanings, some which may even challenge the stereotype from within, the jokes can be funny and even enlightening.”
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and a mother of two, also feels conflicted about Crazy Jewish Mom and how to respond to it.
“On the one hand, comedy is always funny, but I think there is a danger in reinforcing stereotypes. Then, I think people think it’s true or try to conform to it,” Weiss-Greenberg told The Daily Beast.
For her, the overall perpetuation of the Jewish Mother stereotype was more bothersome to her for its implications about women and mothers, rather than the Jewish community.
“I think it’s less anti-Semitic and more sexist. You tend not to see fathers made fun of this same way. It makes it seem like these mothers have nothing else better to do with their time than harass their children,” she said.
(Siegel has started another Instagram where readers can send in texts of exchanges with either their mothers or their fathers, so dads aren’t totally immune, but it does not have the fame or following that Crazy Jewish Mom does).
But Weiss-Greenberg isn’t sure getting up in arms over Crazy Jewish Mom or the general perpetuation of the Jewish Mother stereotype is the right strategy.
“There’s a concept in Judaism called tochacha: don’t rebuke a person if the person is not going to hear you. You have to deliver a message in such a way that will be respected. It’s challenging with something like this,” she said.
Perhaps speaking to a generational gap, Weiss-Greenberg’s own mother, Iris Weiss, was not concerned at all by Crazy Jewish Mom.
Weiss described it as “cute.” She views the text exchanges as universally relatable.
“I always thought it was uniquely Jewish, but there’s something quite common, especially about the mother-daughter bond,” Weiss told The Daily Beast. “The mother saying ‘I can’t believe you’re going to wear that’ is something I think a lot of ethnic groups have.”
Jewish mother of three Barbara Marmelstein Landau was “absolutely not” offended by Crazy Jewish Mom.
She “understands where it [the stereotype] can be negative and people might not understand.” But during her 30+ years of parenting, Marmelstein Landau has focused more on the positive flip-sides of the Jewish Mother stereotype—the warmth, the devotion to family, the unconditional love.
“When I think of myself and who I am, I am a mother first. I am mother to a lot of people—not just my sons, but my stepsons, my niece and nephew. Maybe a younger generation might not like that answer, but that’s who I am,” she said.
These positive elements are also apparent in Crazy Jewish Mom.
While husband-hunting tips and hassling her daughter for grandchildren are overwhelming elements, a charming candor and closeness is also presented.
Friedman’s concerns over whether Siegel is wearing sunblock or is bringing her rape whistle on her flight provide an endearing counter-set of Jewish Mother concerns that contradict the worst historic conceptions of Jewish Mothers as insensitive, demanding harpies.
“The bottom line is that this stereotype lives, even when you would not expect it to be going on this long,” said Antler.
“In some ways, perpetuating the stereotype can be harmful, but we don’t want to give it up. In these familiar tropes, there can be something really positive as well as negative.”