On Media / Pop Culcha
February 10, 1998 / 14 Shevat, 5758

Film, Lies And Jewish Mothers

By Neil Rubin

Two recent TV shows portray the joy and agony of tracking the development of Jewish characters in pop culture. A few years ago we had the quixotic, neurotic, and enjoyable Dr. Joel Fleishman of Northern Exposure. Today, we live with the materialistic, neurotic and nauseating Fran Drescher of The Nanny.

What's more compelling is what such characters say about who and where Jews are at any given time in American history. So Sunday night, as I joined about 70 people for the latest segment of the American Jewish Committee/The Temple annual film series, I wondered what a film about today's Jews, which will surely be made in 20 years, would reveal.

But first, look at what Sunday night's movie, Next Stop Greenwich Village, said about how far we've come.

Set in the early 1950s, its lead, a 22-year-old named Larry, moves out of his Brooklyn home into Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Larry leaves the comforting (and smothering) confines of his Jewish neighborhood, one where the defining trait is simply that lots of Jews live there. He goes to a world where Jews and non-Jews seem to mix freely, and ethnic heritage isn't even mention. That's fine for Larry; while packing, he picks up and then puts down his yarmulke, symbolic of the past that he feels he no longer needs.

Larry's Jewish mother fits the unpleasant stereotype. She treasures her son, so she screams at him, and hugs him, brings food to the new apartment and begs him to call "tomorrow, at 4 p.m. I'll be waiting."

A fascinating schism in American Jewish identity came in the post-movie discussion. It was so clear to those of us born in the northeast that this was a decidedly Jewish film. But the southern-born half of the crowd wondered why. Driving Miss Daisy they know. But overbearing Jewish mothers? Silent Jewish fathers? The lack of any mention of religion -- Jewish or not? It was decidedly not their Atlanta Jewish neighborhood of the early 1950s.

Back to the present. There is, I guarantee you, some kid growing up today who will in 20 years write a feature film on Jews of the 1990s. And with the rapidly changing face of American Jewry, I wonder how the characters in such a work would come across. First, look at what's gone. There are no more immigrant relatives. Unlike in past years, today the majority of young Jews have decidedly American roots. Some, such as myself, go back five generations on one side.

The once prominent concept of antisemitism, (remember Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement?) has disappeared. Indeed, earlier this week I spoke to a group of Atlanta Jewish Community Center senior adults about this. I never personally experienced antisemitism, I said to their disbelief. For them, Hitler wasn't history and Holocaust revisionism is a more than minor threat. But much of this is simply irrelevant to today's younger, secular Jews, who are driven by economics and socially by spirituality's many forms. Even the concept of the pushy Jewish mother is diminishing. Jokes and snickers aside, today's Jewish mother is in the workforce, and sometimes a single parent.

So in 20 years, today's Jewish family on film might look like this:

The only question is who will be cast. For the sake of my intestines, I pray that Fran Drescher isn't the grandmother.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.


2/1/98: The news according to Sid

© 1998, Neil Rubin