The archetypal Jewish mother and her often contradictory traits (her excessive love, smothering pride, embarrassing cultural rigidity, and withering disappointment) have become a major trope in contemporary entertainment, particularly in the work of Jewish comics. As Martha A. Ravits suggests in the essay “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture,” this stereotypic figure functions both as a kind of in for Jewish artists to mainstream (white) mass culture, as well as a projection of their own unease and cultural/personal insecurities. This larger than life mother figure becomes a kind of scapegoat, onto which the comic can safely project his own unease over his at times almost liminal role in modern culture, his guilt both for assimilating and abandoning older cultural models, as well as for failing to assimilate enough to attain the ideal of American success. The Jewish mother stereotype becomes not only a filter for the Jewish comic’s self-loathing and fears, but also a personification of his ambiguous relationship with popular culture. Therefore, although this portrayal of Jewish mothers, and mothers or women in general, is blatantly misogynistic, it is more important, when examining her role, to question what she represents of her creator’s own shortcomings and insecurities.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Woody Allen has repeatedly used or referenced this behemoth of ethnic parental stereotyping. In Allen’s landmark film, Annie Hall, several scenes center on flashback visitations of protagonist Alvy Singer’s childhood home. In these flashbacks, Alvy’s mother screeches at Alvy, his father, and other family members, demanding that Alvy become a better son, a higher achiever, and a good Jewish boy (in one scene, Alvy’s family is transposed against Annie’s Norman Rockwellian family ham dinner. Alvy’s family declares, when asked, that they fast for holidays, to absolve themselves of sins which they themselves cannot name). Much like Alexander Portnoy’s mother in Portnoy’s Complaint, Alvy’s mother is a major figure in all of Alvy’s recollections of early life. She looms large, much like the roller coaster Alvy’s family home is situated beneath. The roller coaster itself is a very interesting metaphoric expansion of the Jewish mother: it is a howling, ever-changing, rattling monster looming over every moment of young Alvy’s life, a colossal, oppressive and omnipresent mother hen, literally perched above Alvy as he grows up, rattling his nerves and destroying any peace in the household. Not only does Allen’s Alvy have a literal Jewish mother to heckle him and push him into deep neurosis, he also has the mommy-coaster literally shattering his nerves throughout his early life.
Of course, in using the Jewish mother trope, even expanding it into the roller coaster metaphor, Allen, or at least Alvy, is largely projecting his own insecurities and expiating his personal guilt over his own shortcomings and interpersonal failings. Rather than address his own part in the shambles of his life and relationships, Alvy retreats into mother blame, and “Jew” blame; of course he can’t fit in Annie’s family, he’s a Jew, and her Grammy is a “Jew-hater.”
Interestingly, Ravits proposes that the Jewish mother stereotype is a way for Jewish comics to transition into, and connect with, a wider audience. The stereotype functions as a way of distancing the comic from that which his audience may dislike about “Jews,” and renders him acceptable, different. It also creates a sense of camaraderie: “we’re all in this together, laughing at this silly backwards woman.”