MAMADRAMA (2001) The Jewish Mother Stereotype

This will be a very personal view of the documentary Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema.(2001). When I arrived from the Middle East and settled in London I was puzzled by the expression “She is such a Jewish Mother”. I had lived in the Middle East in a middle class Jewish family. My culture and language were French. I just had not come across this stereotype before and it took me a while to understand its significance. As described by M.Medved (film commentator) in the documentary the JM is “loud, obnoxious, domineering, emasculating, not particularly attractive but insisting she was in her youth – almost entirely a negative stereotype”.  Other unflattering describers are used:  suffocating, whining, moaning.  My mother was nothing like that. She was no exception. I could not either see in my 5 aunts, to whom I was very close, any features of the stereotype.  Around 2002 I saw Schwarz’s  Mamadrama at the Barbican, and I understood the source of  the stereotype and why it did not mean much to me. I came from a very different social background from the film makers and comedians of the time.  Around the same time I noticed that in a TV comedy series  Goodness Gracious Me the immigrant Indian mother bore some resemblance to the Jewish Mother. However the comic character with her obsession  with home-made food and attachment to her son was treated much less viciously than in the Hollywood films.

As a starting point Schwarz uses her own experience of being a daughter and mother. With profuse clips of Yiddish films silent and talkies, 50s Hollywood and more recent Israeli films, Schwarz illustrates the interviews of film historians, commentators and directors in order to interpret and explain the origins of the JM stereotype. She traces the JM character in Yiddish films, where she is the depository of roots, tradition and family, the warm woman full of unconditional love.  She is always right and the conflicts between mother and son are always resolved happily. At the hands of male Jewish writers, directors, producers, in Hollywood she becomes a monstrous object of derision.

The experience of immigration and assimilation, the conflict between two cultures, the needs of the Hollywood film narrative, are given as explanations of this transformation.  The immigrant  Greek Mother, Italian Mother, Indian Mother share some features of the Jewish Mother.  None has attained the general acceptance of the stereotype.  But it is Dr.Patricia Erens who merges the many factors. She proposes that the JM is the fantasy of Jewish male writers  and directors with ‘problems’ who dominated post war Hollywood .

It is this gender aspect that interests me and is only hinted at in the documentary.  I am  usually uncomfortable with the use of film clips to illustrate a position, a point of view. I feel they use the sequences out of the context of the whole film. In this case Schwarz’s film stimulated my curiosity. I want to see more of the documentary footage of crowds of immigrants arriving in the USA, of the Jewish pioneers working the land in Palestine  where older women are obviously present. I will have to view  Hungry Hearts  (1922) where the angry woman has to deal with the greedy landlord. The image of  the  mother with an axe destroying her own work on her home because of the unfair increase in her rent is unforgettable.   Who and why did the daughter in the clip from Mothers of Today (1939) kill and did her mother rescue her?  Are there prewar Yiddish films that show the mother as breadwinners as well as homemakers? And how is the marital relationships portrayed in  these films?  The mothers ‘look old’ dressed in black often with an apron, white-haired in buns or  scarves over the head. In the post war films of the 50s the mother looks much younger. Often the sons have made good and life is not hard. Are there any post war  films where the JM is seen struggling in difficult circumstances?

It seems that with the creation of Israel the JM stereotype has disappeared and that in Israeli films the mother is treated as a person. The testimony of the actor and director Gila Almagor who, as a child mothered her mother is emotionally powerful. Other film clips are also included  but now that the Israeli film industry is flourishing one would need a deeper study and ask if  the character of the mother who must see her sons and daughters going to war every few years is producing a different image.

Mamadrama is a thought-provoking documentary and helps to explain the stereotype of the Jewish Mother. It raises many interesting questions.

User Reviews

An interesting look at the role of a mother
25 January 2004 | by Manny (TheSixthChild) (Melbourne, Australia) – See all my reviews
This is indeed one of the most interesting and entertaining documentaries I have seen, however I can’t say that everything in this film was accurate.

I’m not Jewish, I’m Greek. I can definitely relate to the stuff they presented in reference to the personification of a stereotypical Jewish mother, however I cannot agree that this image was started by Jews.

What was lacking was the fact that this supposed mother (whether she be overbearing, nagging, melodramatic etc) exists outside the Jewish religion. I’ve seen these examples of unorthodox mothering from various cultures, including Indian, Italian, and of course my culture, Greek. The documentary implies that these cultures forged this image from the Jews, however I totally disagree.

Other than this, I found the documentary to be very entertaining as it displayed various clips from all walks of cinema involving the Jewish mother, including “Come Blow Your Horn”, “Where’s Poppa?” and “My Favourite Year”. It also focused on various rare Israeli films as well as Hollywood, and such a unique blend made this documentary a must see for all mothers (not just Jewish ones).

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, Ageism, documentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to MAMADRAMA (2001) The Jewish Mother Stereotype

  1. Joan Padro says:

    Rina, I must sat I have never seen it either. (except on TV and in the movies) Best, Joan

    Date: Wed, 15 Oct 2014 14:54:37 +0000 To:

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