The Last Jewish Mother on TV

by marjorieingall on January 17, 2015

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The actress who played Mrs. Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory recently passed away, and with her went a once-pervasive staple of broadcast-TV humor. I wrote about the portrayal of Jewish mothers on television, then and now, in Tablet Magazine this week. 

[Parenthetically: A Facebook commenter took issue with my quick dismissal of Maura and Shelly on Transparent as “not really on TV” because their show is on Amazon. This is fair. Shelly is indeed an old-school, grasping, manipulative Jewish mother; I think there’s an entire essay in comparing her with Maura — her former husband, who has come out as trans — and discussing the way to portray Jewish mothers in a more nuanced, wide-ranging way as we as Jews become more acculturated. Furthermore, it’s no accident that Transparent, the one current TV show offering a modern variant on Jewish motherhood is — like Mrs. Goldberg — the creation of a Jewish woman rather than a man. And while I’m digressing, can anyone confirm whether Leonard on The Big Bang Theory is Jewish? I think there was a mention of his Judaism once — as opposed to the incessant mentions of Howard and his mother’s religion — but he also celebrates Christmas. His icy, distant, designer-suit-wearing, celebrity intellectual Ph.D. author mother is an interesting modern take on the Jewish Mother, flawed and comic in a less-shtetl way. There’s also an essay — for someone else! — on how the advent of Amazon and Netflix may force network TV and even cable to encourage more auteurism. Which could mean opportunities for Jewish mothers to tell their own stories, rather than merely existing as caricatures and objects of their ambivalent sons’ hack-y humor. So: Even if the consumer sees little difference between Amazon and TV, in terms of economic, delivery, access and ratings models there are certainly big differences. Which could be good for everybody. And this concludes the possibly longest parenthetical that I, a lover of the parenthetical, have ever engaged in.]

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(The one time Mrs. Wolowitz actually appeared on-camera was as a corpse in an alternate universe in which Howard had a Norman Bates moment.)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

tanita January 19, 2015 at 4:58 pm

I have to say that I admire that you can talk about what is, for me, a big HIDEOUS stereotype with any sense of humor at all. I like that you’re not ready for the stereotype to go away so that actual SANE Jewish ladies can take the stage… I guess there’s enough African American matriarchal stereotypes that I’m ready to be over …although, thinking about them now, I do realize that few are contrived by women. HMMM.

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