April 29, 2010


Secrets of a Jewish Mother: Real Advice, Real Stories, Real Love. By Jill Zarin, Lisa Wexler, and Gloria Kamen. Dutton. $25.95.

     Clichés become clichés in the first place because they contain, at their heart, a nugget of truth. Some stereotypes, although scarcely all, are the same way – and some people deliberately play to the stereotypes their heritage evokes, such as the Latin lover, the frugal Scotsman and, as in this book, the Jewish mother.

     You get three Jewish mothers here for the price of one, although it is the name of Jill Zarin – known from The Real Housewives of New York City on the Bravo network – that gets the most play. Gloria Kamen is Jill’s mother; Lisa Wexler is Jill’s sister. The three women are clearly cut from the same cloth, at least within the pages of this guide-to-life book. Each gets a chance to express herself separately on a subject, but there is virtually no attitudinal difference in what they say. As for the content of the book – well, there is content, but it is so frothy that it seems ready to evaporate if you examine it too closely. It is also rather strangely old-fashioned. Take the subject of dating and sex: “A Jewish mother does not advise you to live together before marriage. …Why would a guy choose to get married if he gets all the benefits of marriage by living together, without the burdens? …Why should he get to see you in your pretty underwear without having to accompany you to your parents’ on the holidays or help pay for all those pretty negligees?” Oh, come on – didn’t that sort of thinking go out of style about 50 years ago? Do these women really think people who cohabit don’t see each other in everyday working clothes and don’t visit each other’s families? Obviously this is a very, very skewed view of human relationships – made more so when, after the general statements, the authors get to make some specific ones. From Lisa: “I don’t understand couples who would rather live together before getting married just because they want to save up for a ring.” From Jill: “One of the rules I learned from my mother is to never move to a city for a man without a ring and obviously never move in with a man without a ring.” And from Gloria, who is her mother: “In my day, people simply did not live together before they got married.” Apparently her day has continued to today in this particular group – both the sexual revolution and women’s liberation passed these three Jewish mothers by, in terms of their attitudes if not necessarily their experience.

     Of course, it is this attitudinal hyper-traditionalism, delivered with a kind of homespun certainty, that will attract some readers. They will find plenty of it. “We strongly believe that Jews should marry Jews, Christians should wed Christians and so on.” “Learn as much as you can for as long as you can.” “A real friend will kvell [be joyful about someone else’s accomplishments] when you receive that promotion you’ve been working for, your kid has gotten into Harvard (it should only happen!) or you finally manage to lose those last ten pounds.” “Ideally, we do not push our kids into doing anything [as a career] they wouldn’t be happy doing. But we are not above giving a shove in the right direction.”

     Readers who are not enthralled by this sort of dispensing of this sort of pseudo-wisdom will quickly start wondering what planet these women are from. The answer is, of course, the planet New York City – specifically the planet Jewish New York City, which apparently accounts for a lot (and not just the sprinkling of Yiddish terms). Even advice that is intended to be with-it and plainspoken tends to come across as hectoring here. For example, what should a woman do if her marriage is not going well and she flirts a little too avidly with an attractive co-worker? Should she tell her husband what happened? From Gloria: “Why do you want to confess? To make yourself feel better? To alleviate your own guilt? Too bad. If you intend to stay with your husband and work on your marriage, then shut up and don’t say a word. …Fooling around was your sin; your punishment is that you have to live with what you did.” Wow! And this is in a hypothetical example of someone who was not actually unfaithful – only “almost.”

     These self-proclaimed Jewish mothers are big on forgiveness of close friends and family, but not so forgiving otherwise. And they really do have an almost laughably narrow view of human relationships in the 21st century: “Two parents are better than one. Don’t holler—of course, there are exceptions to this rule.” But rules are what Secrets of a Jewish Mother is ultimately all about – rules on how to live, with whom, when, under what circumstances, doing what sort of work, where, for what kind of payment, and on and on and on and on. And if you don’t like what you are told here – well, you can always feel guilty for not “getting” it. Guilt is a big behavioral driver for these women – and, in fact, the use of guilt as a motivator by Jewish mothers is not only a stereotype, not only a cliché, but, as readers of this book will discover, a way of life.

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