Growing up, I was always surprised by the representations of Jewish mothers I would see in films, TV shows, and books. I was, in particular, floored when I first read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint when I was an undergrad. I read my father’s autographed copy of the novel and knew, well before reading it, that it was an important book for another generation (the baby boomers); and I wondered if it would speak to me. But something about the representation of Portnoy’s mother didn’t resonate.
Perhaps I was surprised by the representation of Portnoy’s mother because I was raised in upstate New York by a mother whose Long Island upbringing didn’t include all of the urban, immigrant, or post-immigrant fears that many Jewish mothers are “supposed” to have. I did in fact have some very aggressive New Yorkers in my family, but they seemed tame in comparison to Philip Roth’s fictional mother. Portnoy’s animosity toward his mother and her “guilt trips” is extreme, to say the least. In this moment, when Portnoy is speaking with his therapist, he let’s loose his animosity:
BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! I have read Freud of Leonardo, Doctor, and pardon the hubris, but my fantasies exactly: this big smothering bird beating frantic wings about my face and mouth so that I cannot even get my breath. What do we want, me and Ronald and Leonardo? To be left alone! If only for half an hour at a time! Stop already hocking us to be good! (121)
Portnoy’s mother is a nag and, for Roth, Portnoy becomes a schlemiel by virtue of his mother’s over-weaning. As Donald Weber says of the Borsht Belt Comedians, this generation’s comedy did much to blame mother’s for the inability to “fit in.” For Roth, this was a sexual issue and a social issue that he, in his later novels, looks to overcome.
To be sure, Roth’s later work wants to leave the schlemiel and the nagging mother behind. But, to my surprise, the nagging Jewish mother stereotype doesn’t die away. In fact, I noticed that it resurfaced in recent film Guilt Trip (2012) and in Gary Shteyngart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
But in both works, the Jewish mother re-emerges in an odd way. In Guilt Trip, the mother (played by Barbara Streisand) comes across as the schlemiel. Her son, played by Seth Rogen, is also a bit aggravated at his mother’s nagging, but he is not by any means a Portnoy. And while we may be turned off by Portnoy’s nagging mother, we are endeared by the absent-mindedness of Streisand, the schlemiel-mother.
The mother in Shteyngart’s novel is different and, in contrast to Rogen’s character, Vladmir, is without a doubt dwarfed by his mother. But the difference between them is based on an entirely different premise than in Roth’s novel. It doesn’t lead Vladmir to become a “sexual schlemiel” like Portnoy; on the contrary, his sexuality is not the issue. Rather, his economic and social status is the issue. Vladmir’s mother is an immigrant who has become a raging financial success and she hounds him to climb the socio-economic ladder.
His mother is loud and aggressive, while he is sensitive, weak, and introspective. And the day we first meet her is on Vladmir’s birthday:
“DEAREST VOLODECHKA!” Mother shouted. “Happy birthday…! Happy new beginning…! Your father and I wish you a brilliant future….! Much success…! You’re a talented young man…! Economy’s improving….! We gave you all our love as a child…! Everything you had, to the very last….! (12)
Like Portnoy, Vladmir is frustrated, but I wouldn’t say he is angry: “Vladmir turned down the volume on the headset. He knew what was coming, and, indeed, seven exclamation marks down the road, Mother broke down and stated wailing God’s name in the possessive”(13). He listens as his mother goes off on him and actually admires her for her theatrical performance.
However, the narrator notes that this admiration is bitter-sweet; as we learn, Vladmir suffered as a child under his mother’s admonitions to be the best:
Vladmir…suffered under his mother’s accusative wails as B-plus report cards were ceremonially burned in the fireplace; as china was sent flying for chess-club prizes not won; as he once caught her in her study sobbing at three in the morning, cradling a photo of the three-year-old Vladmir playing with a toy abacus, so bright-eyed, so enterprising, so full of hope. (14)
We also learn that she laments that he has “hips of a homosexual” and, later in the novel, we also learn that she finds his walk to be “too Jewish”(45). In other words, his body (and not just his economic and academic failures) also bears the mark of his failure to integrate.
The phone conversation that ensues against this background outlines the anger that his mother feels because he is not a success. But, in the end, she notes that he is not a “complete loss”:
His mother made an effort to laugh and told him how insane it would be not to have a birthday barbeque. “You’re only twenty-fine once,” she said. “And you are not a – How you say? A complete loss”(15). Since he’s not a “homo” and he has a “Jewish girl. Little Challah-Bread” he’s not a complete loss.
Here, the important thing for his mother is that he, at the very least, stay with a Jewish woman. But he cannot look “too Jewish” or like a homosexual as that would keep him from being accepted and rewarded by society.
These sketches of Vladmir’s Jewish mother show her to be laughable but not to be a person worthy of anger and ridicule. As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Vladmir is treated like a child by Rybokov and here, too, he seems to be in the position of a child. But this childishness is not something today’s readers will find reprehensible; in fact, many may in fact identify with Vladmir’s childishness and his plight. Unlike his mother who resents it, readers will most likely identify with his innocence. And, in our bad economy, we can understand his economic failure and his lack of ambition.
Portnoy’s mother “smothers” him and won’t let him be, and as we can see Vladmir’s mother is also overbearing. However, Vladmir doesn’t resent her, he humors her and loves her. Both Portnoy and Vladmir are schlemiels, but Portnoy takes his aggression out on his mother (who he blames for his becoming a sexual schlemiel) while Vladmir takes no aggression out on his mother and blames her for nothing. He is, more or less, a passive schlemiel. And the innocence of the latter is more endearing of interest to us that the aggression and anger of Portnoy. Their failures are read differently by both authors.
In many ways, although I never had a mother like Portnoy’s or Vladmir, I can understand how their exaggerations may have some truth. But of the two, I find that Shteyngart’s approach to Vladmir’s mother is much more to my liking that Roth’s approach to Portnoy’s mother. Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that I find something admirable in the way the narrator and Vladmir relate to the mother. They humor her. This, to my mind, is the best approach. And, besides, who, after all, should be to blame for being a schlemiel. While it was a stigma for Roth, for Shteygart being a schlemiel has its advantages. Being a failure, in other words, has its fringe benefits.
But, for Shteyngart, being a schlemiel, it seems, is more than simply being a failure. For this author, the best traits of the schlemiel can be found in his loving, reflective, and innocent nature. Much of this difference in attitude has to do, I think, with our differing attitude on what it means to be a man and a success. Although many people in Shteyngart’s novel want Vladmir to be a man and a success, we don’t. What matters most to us isn’t his success or his manhood; rather, what matters is the fact that he loves his mother and all those around him no matter how much they may be disappointed with him.
And on this note, I guess I’m lucky. My Jewish mother, unlike the mother of these fictional Jewish mothers, never gave me any guilt trips. And even if she did, I think I , like Vladmir, would still love her.