Strong Mothers, Weak Fathers & Schlemiel Children: Then and Now


The Jewish-American family has almost always been depicted in a comical way in novels, films, and TV shows. In the Jewish-American family, the mother plays a powerful role and is the pit of many jokes. In the 60s and 70s, many novels (such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, TV shows like the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda, display the strong mother alongside a weak father; the children are, of course, schlemiels or Jewish American Princesses.

Maurice Berger in an essay entitled “The Mouse that Never Roads: Jewish Masculinity on American Television” (in Too Jewish, ed. Norman L. Kleeblatt) argues that the dysfunction of the Jewish family was central to these shows and that the mother was at the center of it all:

The Jewish mother’s dysfunctionalism – her inability to respect emotional boundaries, her disregard of her children’s privacy or feelings, and her over-controlling nature – renders her undesirable as a parent. The self-depreciating neurotic, exemplified by Rhoda Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Brenda Morgenstern (Julie Kavner), Rhoda’s bank-teller sister on the sitcom spin-off Rhoda (1974-1978), especially in contrast with her elegant WASP counterparts, continually undermines herself through whining entreaties that further denigrate her feminine voice. (95)

The weak father and the schlemiel fit well into this home which is run by the mother. Following the cultural theorist Hommi Bhabha, Berger calls this a “partial gender system.” In this system, everyone is partial in their gender. This goes for the mother and JAP daughters as much as it does for the men who are, in his reading, feminized schlemiels.

The wider significance of the partial system is exemplified by one of television’s most insidious masculine stereotypes: the feminized Jew. Given the rarity of the reverse construction, that of the hyper masculine or macho Jew, it is almost inconceivable that Jewish actors such as the starts of Bonanza (1959-1973), Lorne Green and Michael Landon, could have actually played their roles as Jewish cowboys – a role afforded to only one character on American television. (97)

Berger sees this epitomized in Felix Ungar (Tony Randall) of the Odd Couple. Even his roommate, Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), “reads as both effeminate and closeted”(99).

Martin Morgenstein (Harold Gould) plays the “subordinated schlemiel,” the “weak father…continually henpecked by the Jewish female, the Jewish father is shy , quiet, and usually un-opinionated; he is often berated or ignored by his wife and children who overrule him and undermine his authority”(99).

I’ll end this part of my reflection on the comedic Jewish family in TV and literature in the 60s and 70s with Roth’s Alex Portnoy – a definitive schlemiel character – and his awed and resentful description of his powerful mother (which goes on, in one paragraph, for a few pages):

It was my mother who could accomplish anything, who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good. And could a small child with my intelligence, with my powers of observation sought that this was so? She could make jello, for instance, with sliced perching hanging in it, teachers just suspended there, in defiance of the law of gravity. She could bake a cake that tasted like a banana. Weeping sufferings, she grated her own horseradish rather than buy the pashas they sold in a bottle at the delicatessen…..She dredges the further recesses of my ears during cold peroxide into my head….She lights candles for the dead – others invariably forget, she religiously remembers, and without even the aid of a notation on the calendar. Devotion is in her blood….When I am bad I am locked out of the apartment. I stand at the door hammering and hammering until I swear I turn over a new leaf. But what is it I have done….What can I possibly have done! (9-12)

To be sure, Portnoy blames his mother for his being an emasculated male (schlemiel). Powerful mothers and schlemiels are in films like Heartbreak Kid (1973, redone in 2017 with Ben Stiller) and also dot many stories of Bruce Jay Friedman.

What about now?

Powerful mothers and schlemiel children remain but with differences since, in the much used formula of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, the schlemiel ends up a different, more “functional” character at the end of the film and so does the mother. For instance, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand played the powerful mother/schlemiel son duo in the film Guilt Trip but the duo is functional by the end. While Jessie Eisenberg – a millennial like Seth Rogen – also turns to mothers and schlemiel duos in his book Bream Gives me the Hiccups the duo is comical in a way that is charming.

The awkwardness of the schlemiel character – from shows like Parks and Recreation to Community – makes awkwardness a norm; so, in contrast to Berger and an age that emulates masculinity, we now have shows that don’t see the awkward male or child as an issue. To be sure, both men and women are schlemiels in these shows. Disfunction is not in contrast; its the norm. If anything, masculinity and authority are the target of these comedies. Jeff, in Community, represents this kind of masculinity but, if anything, that is challenged in nearly every episode by the other schlemiel characters.

Simon Rich – who writes for SNL, the New Yorker, and is the creator of Miracle Workers on Netflix – is an up and coming writer of the schlemiel in many of his comedies.

But in these shows by Rich we see less families and more people just starting off in life. He seems to be avoiding the powerful Jewish mother trope.

Nonetheless, what we seem to be seeing more of these days is a shift. Although the schlemiel remains, the mother is not the source of all dysfunction in the Jewish comedic family. You don’t have the same kind of schelmiel family anymore, whether that is to be found in Arrested Development or in Transparent. Because the understanding and reception of gender has changed, so has the comedic family. The schlemiel – in many ways – has become more than an American icon; it has become a norm of sorts in American TV and film.

3 thoughts on “Strong Mothers, Weak Fathers & Schlemiel Children: Then and Now

  1. Given that “awkwardness has become the norm”, isn’t there a prophetic dimension to the stories of the 60s and 70s? I think even of Bob Dylan’s “awkwardness” which has since been recoded as the genius of cool/cool weird genius.

    • That’s an insightful comment. How do you see this as a prophetic dimension? Perhaps it’s because it let’s things slip through the cracks of rigid dichotomies between tough and weak that we find in Hemmingway and in much post-WWII film and fictio

      • Hindsight in 2020, for sure. From the perspective of this present crazy moment, the ‘awkward’ Subject is like the top of a pyramid where all lines of the past converge. Everything was pushing us to ‘here.’ Dylan, Kaufman, Kurt Cobain, Riot Grrl feminism, the golden age of boutique television, reality TV, etc. Everything has gone into this Dionysian blender. Perhaps it’s more a tornado-like form than a pyramid.
        But I am not sure rigid dichotomies and pyramidal hierarchies are a thing of the past. What we may be presently experiencing is the final awkward death throes of a certain confused, but for that reason, sometimes humane, liberal humanism and the transition to a much more direct connection with the state, where the awkwardness and differences of individuals are smoothly, electronically effaced by a sheer wall of mega-corporate/state institutions.

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