SINGING THE JEWISH MOTHER ON AND OFF THE YIDDISH STAGE.
In their scholarship on the subject, Joyce Antler and Riv-Ellen Prell, among others, argue that the Jewish mother became the vessel into which American Jews poured their anxieties about assimilation, class, and gender in the middle of the twentieth century. In You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother, Joyce Antler argues that "representations of the Jewish mother reveal deep-seated anxieties about Jews' relation to the culture at large and to each other. Like the American-as-apple-pie mother, the Jewish mother became a vessel into which the cultural contradictions of a society grappling with ethnic, gender, class, and racial tensions were poured.... [and] a foil for the self-doubts and insecurities of her children" (2007, 9). Indeed, American popular culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is littered with caricatures of excessive Jewish women, an unending parade of yiddishe mames who, from one incarnation to the next, in fiction and in real life, continue to reaffirm the trope of Jewish femininity as too consuming, too materialistic, too loud, too devouring, too Jewish, or otherwise simply too much.
In this article, I challenge the existing understanding of the Jewish mother figure by recontextualizing her within the substantial repertory of commercially published Yiddish songs that were first performed for Jewish immigrant audiences in the early twentieth century. Prell and Antler presume that the Jewish mother figure has always existed in some form, and their survey skips straight from the East European Jewish mother of the late nineteenth century to the Borsht Belt jokes that catapulted the Jewish mother stereotype to mainstream fame in the 1940s. There is no scholarship on Jewish mother stereotypes within Yiddish culture: when Prell and Antler cite immigrant Jewish women as agents of cultural production in America, they tend to only consider English-language culture. Yet actresses like Regina Prager, Jennie Goldstein, Lucy Gehrman, and Molly Picon, among countless others, were renowned for their powerful performances of Jewish motherhood on the American Yiddish stage. Their contributions are absent from any exploration of the ways in which the lives and work of powerful female performers shaped ideas about Jewish femininity in the early twentieth century. Instead, scholars turn to performers like Sophie Tucker, discussed below, who abandoned her humble Yiddish origins in favor of the more lucrative American stage. In such narratives of crossover success, Yiddish-language entertainment tends to be dismissed as monolithic and perpetually outdated: the path from Yiddish immigrant entertainment to mainstream American culture is a one-way street, the thinking goes, so as second- and third-generation immigrants forgot their mameloshn in the 1920s and '30s, Yiddish theater, which offered generous servings of nostalgia for greenhorn audiences, ceased to be relevant.
At the height of Jewish immigration to America between 1895 and 1930, Yiddish-language entertainment constituted the cultural point of entry for Jewish immigrants. New York City alone boasted a dozen different theaters where nightly performances combining drama, dance, comedy, and music mirrored the same economic and cultural struggles faced by its audiences. It was these nightly offerings of popular fare--sentimental melodramas, musical comedies, and variety shows---that Yiddish-speaking immigrants enjoyed most (Sandrow 1996, 91-131). The most popular of these shows were consumed by audiences around the world thanks to productions that toured cities as close as Newark and as far away as Buenos Aires and Warsaw; commercial recordings and published sheet music; and Yiddish-language radio stations that featured performances of hit songs and abridged versions adapted especially for broadcast. By the 1940s, the stereotype of the Jewish mother had been well established by and for Yiddish-speaking American immigrants through commercially published Yiddish popular songs, over seventy of which survive as sheet music and recordings from the first half of the century. Like the theater shows in which they often appeared, the mother songs conjured the familiarity of tradition to offer Jewish immigrants a nostalgic, comforting, and temporary escape from the otherwise constant struggle to adapt to modern American life. The yiddisbe mame Prell and Antler take for granted, therefore, is an early American cast on the stereotype that would, by the 1940s, evolve into the guilt-inducing punchline of Borsht Belt comedians.
A Jewish mother song is one in which the mother herself--her nurturing presence and, in some cases, lack thereof--is the main subject. The genre of mother songs overlaps at its edges with songs about both mothers and fathers; lullabies, which are often sung by mothers; orphan songs, which sometimes lament the mother's absence; and wedding songs, if the mother should be lucky enough to see her children under the wedding canopy. Further, the sentiments in songs about Jewish mothers are non-transferrable: while there exists "Mayn libster fraynd iz mayn mamenyu [My best friend is my mother]" and "Di Eybike Mame [The Eternal Mother]," there is no "Eybike Tate."
In the songs, the Jewish mother, a steadfast figure who is inevitably abandoned by her children, is frequently positioned against the adaptive process of Americanization. As a result, her representation in song does not symbolize a lost world so much as a lost identity. Tracing the evolution of the Jewish mother stereotype in American popular culture, Martha A. Ravits writes, "All the embarrassing baggage of ethnicity--unassimilated habits, Yiddish accent, incomplete understanding of American mores--was projected onto the [Jewish] mother, a representative of outmoded values.... Therefore, the mother, by virtue of gender and generation, functioned as a scapegoat for self-directed Jewish resentment about minority status in mainstream culture" (2000, 5-6). Though they lagged behind the Jewish mothers real-life economic and social empowerment, the songs themselves reveal a surprisingly complex response to the ongoing anxiety of assimilation. Ultimately, like the Jewish mother jokes of the mid-century, immortalizing the Jewish mother in song allowed Yiddish-speaking immigrants to embrace a cultural identity from which they were simultaneously trying to distance themselves.
THE JEWISH MOTHER COMES TO AMERICA
The Yiddish mother songs genre is strongly rooted in the real-life figure of the Jewish mother and her intimate connections with Jewish identity. The most obvious connection is a biological one: as a matrilineal religion, it is the mother who connects her children to their Jewish identity. Second, Yiddish itself is known as mameloshn [the mother's tongue] because of its practical association with Jewish domestic life. Until the mid-twentieth century, Hebrew was reserved for religious study and worship, activities that were exclusively associated with men. The Jewish mother supported her family's religious identity in other important ways. With three symbolic flicks of her wrist over the candles, she would welcome the Sabbath each week, modeling for her children standards of conduct that befitted an observant Jew. Sylvia Rothchild locates the nexus of the Jewish mother's embodiment of religious practice in the historically symbolic relationship between food and tradition.
Special foods were symbolic and prepared in a ritualistic [fashion] that gave her the feeling she was participating in historic events. Her baking was not just an excuse to provide an accumulation of fattening "goodies," but part of the history lesson she was teaching her children. The honey cake for the New Year included her prayers for a "good, sweet year." The blintzes at Shavuoth, hamentashen at Purim, pancakes at Chanukah invoked the holidays, gave her home a holiday atmosphere, and reason for blessings. (1972, 4)
In America, Jewish mothers were not only concerned with their children's religious development, but also proved to be more devoted to their children's physical well-being than other immigrant mothers. A 1922 report of the New York City health commissioner concluded that babies born to Jewish mothers on the Lower East Side were healthier than those who were born to "uptown" women because the former went to great lengths to ensure their offspring received milk. Jewish mothers were particularly eager for opportunities to learn, and regularly sought out "the most up-to-date advice from officials, unlike other foreign-born mothers" (quoted in Antler 2007, 33). (1) A clinic director in Brownsville proclaimed that the Jewish mother was '"the most sacrificing mother in the world.... The board of Health is second only to the Almighty in her eyes'" (Antler 2007, 33). Moreover, multiple first- and second-hand accounts attested to the great lengths and personal expense to which Jewish mothers went in order to provide for their families' every need (218-20). (2)
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Yiddish-speaking immigrants were acutely aware of the implicit mainstream expectations about their assimilation. Discussing the incompatibility of being both American and Jewish, Prell notes, "To be an American and a Jew necessitates relinquishing one or another of those identities. Social class, career aspirations, styles of interaction and sexuality--separately and together--are codes for and symbols of how one is American" (2003, 242). In Eastern Europe, it was not uncommon for women to go out and work to help support their husbands, an arrangement they hoped--though it was seldom realized--would allow their husbands to study To rah all day. In the ideal middle-class American household, however, women working outside the home amounted to moral failure on the part of the husband. Jewish families therefore traded spiritual and intellectual wealth for economic prosperity: wives still oversaw domestic affairs, but seldom worked outside the home, while their husbands worked at increasingly lucrative jobs. Jewish children, especially boys, tended to remain in school longer than their mainstream American counterparts, and in many cases, even attended college, an opportunity that was not readily available to Jews in Eastern Europe. This increased education among Jews, a vital factor in their upward economic mobility, was facilitated in part by Jewish girls, who tended to enter the workforce slightly earlier than their brothers in order to support their families. Because they often were allowed to decide how much of their income went to their families, and were expected to keep a portion for themselves, Jewish girls generally felt empowered, rather than burdened, in their new roles as breadwinners.
In 1931, the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog sponsored an essay contest on the topic of whether a 50/50 marriage, in which both spouses earned salaries and tended to the household, was preferable to a traditional one. While many responses favored a modern marriage, young men and women alike suggested that such an arrangement was only acceptable until the couple had children. From that point on, the only acceptable course of action was for the marriage to revert to a traditional one. Given the dramatic shifts in family dynamics and economic status for first- and second-generation immigrants during the early decades of the twentieth century, it is perhaps surprising that even "modern" young Jewish adults proved reluctant to revise their views about motherhood. Yet for both popular Yiddish culture and young Americanized Jewish adults, the frontier of modernity was not without limits: the period from 1911 to 1930, roughly corresponding to both the peak and effective cessation of Jewish immigration, saw no less than fifty mother songs performed and published. This number, which comprises two-thirds of the total number of mother songs I have located, cannot be a coincidence: even as Yiddish-speaking immigrants took on new roles to assimilate into American life, they still needed the comfort that popular Yiddish culture, and especially the mother songs, provided. In the songs themselves, the Jewish mother remained such a powerful symbol because of her strong connection to both her children and to Jewish identity itself.
THE EMERGENCE OF MOTHER SONGS, 1907-1920
The earliest surviving mother song, "A brivele der mamen," penned by Yiddish-language entertainer and American immigrant Solomon Schmulewitz, dates from 1907 and remains one of the best-known examples of the genre. Several performers recorded the song in the years immediately following its publication, including Schmulewitz himself. In the late 1930s, the song would be used in the score to a Yiddish film by the same name, which starred Lucy Gehrman. Written from the mothers perspective, "A brivele der mamen" describes her dearest wish--for her child, who is leaving for America, to write her a letter each week.
I beg you with tears and fear, your dear, loyal mother You're traveling my child, my only child across the faraway sea Just get there in good health and don't forget your mother Oh, be well, and go with luck Each week send a letter, delight your mother's heart my child. (1907)
The second verse reveals that the child does not write any letters, to the deep anguish of his mother. And in a perhaps predictable twist of fate, the child, who has become successful in America and a parent himself, learns in the final verse that it is now too late to write a letter, for his mother is dead. The pain and anxiety of familial separation during the peak of Jewish immigration is in this song poignant and also transferable. Though this song text describes the separation of mother and child, adapting the sentiments to other relationships proved to be fairly simple for Schmulewitz, who also published "letter" songs to Father, the Bride, and the Groom.
The mother songs that followed in the 1910s and 1920s would become more closely tailored to the Jewish mother herself. The majority of the mother songs repertoire abounds with very specific and recurring descriptions of her sacrifices and struggles. She is often lovingly described from the perspective of the child or a narrator; in "A mame iz der bester fraynd," a song from 1914 by H. A. Russotto, for example, the child remembers his mother as a protective figure: "When someone spoke badly of me/She smoothed everything over with her tenderness/... So I knew then of the world/Her hopes, her efforts--nothing compares/There is simply no other friend like her." In the second verse, the mothers status as a protective figure is enhanced through a brief description of a father's sternness. When a father strikes his child in punishment, "it is only the mother who cannot stand to her hear child's cries." The final verse reaffirms the extent to which the mother is attuned to her child's suffering: "The worst may happen to her/Even the impossible is not hard for her/As long as her child's desire is fulfilled" (1914). This description of the mother's sacrifices is echoed throughout countless other Jewish mother songs. In "A muters gebet [A mother's prayer]," "The mother groans and begs with tears/That evil and wrongdoing her child won't bear," and in "A mames vert [A mother's worth]," she stays up all night tending to her sick child. "The mother is tired, broken, and weak/Still she sings without stopping and cries/The child is refreshed from her song/Closing his little eyes gladly" (Altman 1912; Schmulewitz 1913).
The music of these songs is fairly homogenous, and conforms with the standard Yiddish popular song characteristics that Mark Slobin notes in Tenement Songs. These include a verse-chorus form, the use of waltz time, especially during the chorus, and a vocal part usually comprised of simple intervals and within the range of a single octave (1982). The use of a minor key and a krekht (sob) in the singer's voice round out the standard musical contributions to the gravitas of the mother songs genre.
The early 1920s saw the enactment of two immigrant quotas that reduced the annual flood of hundreds of thousands of East European Jewish immigrants down to a few thousand. It is no coincidence that at the same time, the theme of the mother songs began to shift away from the pangs of transatlantic familial separation and first-generation economic hardship. Instead, mother songs evolve in three directions through the rest of the 1920s and beyond, reflecting some of the ways in which Yiddish-speaking immigrants adapted to their American surroundings.
THE TRAGIC MOTHERHOOD OF LUCY GEHRMAN AND JENNIE GOLDSTEIN
In response to new anxieties around immigration and Americanization, Yiddish mother songs simply became even more of what they already were: with only minimal linguistic changes, they continued to paint the Jewish mother in an increasingly unequivocal and hyperbolic manner. An ever-tragic figure, she watches over her children when they are ill, refusing sustenance and sleep until they are well; she toils tirelessly that they might not know hardship; about suffering she is wont to say, "mir zol zayn far dir! [it should be me instead of you!]"; and when all is said and done, she finds herself alone, having been abandoned by her successful, Americanized children.
The period from 1921 until 1940 saw some of the most potent mother songs to be performed on the Yiddish stage, at least thirty-six of which survive as sheet music and records from this time. Thirty mother songs were published between 1921 and 1930 alone, suggesting that the genre reached its height at precisely the same time that the annual influx of Jewish immigrants drastically decreased. Moreover, to a far greater degree than their predecessors, the Yiddish mother songs of the 1920s and beyond became closely associated with Yiddish actresses like Regina Prager, Jennie Goldstein, and Lucy Gehrman. Sharon Power notes that Yiddish actresses were viewed as positive role models, "symbolizing a two way bridge between the Old World and the New. As talented, glamorous, modern American women who nevertheless maintained a strong connection to Jewishness and the Jewish community.... Yiddish actresses portrayed a desirable balance between Americanization and Jewishness" (2012, 89).
The New York-born Jennie Goldstein (1896-1960), for instance, was famous for playing tragic, fallen women, so much so that her obituary in the New York Times characterized her as "the greatest Yiddish tragedienne" ("Jennie" 1960). Reviewing her performance in Souls for Sale, another critic commented that "Miss Goldstein can act with genuine warmth and with genuine pathos, but unfortunately she does not stop at that point, but goes on to break the thermometer" (W.S. 1936). Goldstein's hit song from the 1927 show Her Great Secret, "Ikh bin a mame," describes an especially tragic circumstance of motherhood:
I am a mother--so where is my child? I a mother--and suffer for a sin I am a mother--and must be from afar A khupe--and the mother won't be there I am a mother--it's just not meant for me To be loved and respected like every mother Oh mothers, feel my heartache now: A terrible punishment, to be a mother without a child. (Goldstein, Rund, and Jaffe 1927)
"Ikh bin a mame," alternatively known as "Vu iz mayn kind?," refers to a different kind of familial separation than the transatlantic divide in "A brivele der mamen": in the show, Goldstein's character gave away her baby, perhaps as a result of economic hardship. Nonetheless, Goldstein's distress in the song is immediately apparent, and the text reaffirms the unique bond between her and her child. The verse utilizes the ubiquitous imagery of the mother asking God for her child's health and success in life, of hoping that someday she will be lucky enough to see her under the khupe. But in the chorus, quoted above, Goldsteins tragedy becomes clear: she is a mother who has been deprived of the immediacy of her child's wellbeing, and will never see the singular joy of her child under the khupe. While other songs about familial separation and abandoned children are narrated by the child in. question, "Ikh bin a mame" is one of comparatively few mother songs to be told from the first-person perspective of the mother. Further, as the penultimate line reveals, it is only other mothers who will understand her plight. Goldstein's direct appeal across the fourth wall to the mothers in the audience, another unusual feature, clinches the emotional pathos of the song.
"Di eybike mame" by Israel Rosenberg and Harry Lubin (1929), was sung by Lucy Gehrman in a Yiddish drama with the same title. Like many mother songs, the lyrics cobble together several standard tropes and variations on stock phrases to paint an especially tragic picture of the Jewish mother. The first verse alone declares that every woman's desire is to be a mother, overtly references the genre of cradle songs, details the lengths that the mother will go to support her children, and laments her subsequent abandonment in her old age. Like "Ikh bin a mame," this song appeals to other mothers' special understanding of their role: "only a woman can feel a mother's joy and good fortune" when she first looks at her children. The mother is blind to her child's flaws: to her, he is charming, always a perfect angel. After the familiar image of the mother singing a cradle song, there is a startling description of the lengths she will go to provide for her children in times of hardship:
She meets days of hunger, of hardship, Her child is forbidden from knowing The mother, she tears off her flesh To her child she gives the last morsel.
The mother's motivation for such extreme sacrifices is the hope that in her old age she will be repaid with nakhes fun kinder (pride from her children). Instead, she is "forlorn at night, alone by day, noticed by no one, valued by no one."
The chorus laments the mother's sacrifices in light of her thankless efforts: echoing other songs, she has given up her life, luck, and health, and her sorrow at being subsequently abandoned by her children is unknowable. The second verse, marked "deklamatsie," explores the dynamic between the mother and father: when the father raises his hand to strike the child, she will intervene, blind to her child's flaws. She guards her child day and night if he falls ill, another stock image of mother songs: "already she does not know day from night/Over the child's life she trembles and guards." If the father should die, the mother will bear hardship until the child grows up, despite the meager rewards.
"Di eybike mame" is one of many mother songs to proclaim that every woman's wish is motherhood, while simultaneously detailing the many ways in which the Jewish mother's role is a thankless one. Though the mother's naivete is made apparent at every turn, the song's real message is not a warning to either mother or child to change their ways, but rather, that nothing should change at all: the chorus ends with the words, "eternal mother, remain eternally a fool." More importantly, the language used to describe the Jewish mother in this song--not to mention Lucy Gehrman's performance--is nearly as excessive as the Jewish mother herself is purported to be in real life. For instance, the second verse ends with the words, "Great children, great suffering/So many tears, so little happiness," reinforcing what seems to be the inherent tragedy of motherhood. The first verse also utilizes an especially graphic metaphor. While "reysn fun di hoyt" is not an uncommon phrase, and is akin to "tearing one's hair out," it nonetheless brings to mind a kind of sacrifice at once more self-destructive and severe than the accompanying stock phrase, "she sacrificed her life, health, and luck," that appears in the chorus. And while this song is more hyperbolic in describing the Jewish mother than most, the entire repertory of mother songs amplifies, to varying degrees, the real-life characteristics of Jewish immigrant mothers that have been documented in numerous oral histories and sociological studies.' It is certainly true that Jewish mothers in real life were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths for their children, and in America, they were often innovative in the methods they employed to provide for their families. The songs, in exaggerating the Jewish mother's sacrifices and overlooking her resourcefulness, contribute to the tension between the very real phenomenon of Jewish women adapting to American life and the comforting image of a stable, traditional maternal figure in an uncertain and ever-changing world. Further, the excessive sentiments used to describe Jewish mothers in these songs have arguably contributed to the impression of her as excessive in real life.
AMERICANIZING THE JEWISH MOTHER
The lone exceptions to the common tropes of the mother songs genre are a handful of songs written by Molly Picon for some of her Yiddish musicals in the 1920s. Picon, one of the most enduring icons of the Yiddish stage, was a second-generation immigrant and a woman, unlike the majority of the first-generation Yiddish-speaking male lyricists and composers from this time period. It is worth noting that the American-born Picon was somewhat insulated from the anxieties and tensions surrounding assimilation that her audience--and other songwriters--would have faced. As a second-generation immigrant, she consciously underwent a reverse assimilation, touring Eastern Europe with her husband in the early 1920s in order to improve her Yiddish. Further, even though Picon began to cross over to American mainstream entertainment in the 1930s, she continued to perform for Yiddish-speaking audiences until the final decades of her life. Unlike Goldstein and Gehrman, Picon was a petite, spry soubrette, known for gender- and age-bending performances in shows like Yankele and Mamele, in which she starred as the title characters.
The handful of mother songs for which Picon wrote the lyrics are the only ones that contain the Americanized sentiments one might expect from mother songs that were written after the early 1920s. While many earlier mother songs incorporate varying degrees of daytshmerish (Germanized Yiddish) to add a bit of refinement, Picon's songs are fairly modern, tending more towards Americanized sentiments about mothers whose descriptions are at best only vaguely Jewish. For instance, the song "Ikh vil a meydJ vi mayn mamen iz geven" from the 1925 production Molly Dolly proclaims,
I want a girl like my mother used to be A girl like my mother is difficult to find With a plain calico dress With manners, beauty, and gentility I want a girl like my mother used to be. (Picon and Rumshinsky 1923)
Despite its brevity, this song represents several significant departures from the usual imagery found in the mother songs. Of the girl that the narrator's mother "used to be," we are given only the most generic description of a woman who dresses plainly. She is beautiful, well mannered, and genteel. Not only might a mother of any ethnicity fit such a description, these characteristics, especially gentility, suggest a middle-class American mother. By contrast, the most common physical description of the Jewish mother, when her features are mentioned at all, is of a woman who is constandy crying. The song "Nakhes fun kinder" mentions that "From crying and wailing the mother becomes blind," undoubtedly a result of the hardships she struggles to bear and her profound loneliness once her children are grown (Gilrod and Sandler 1925). The songs "Di Eybike Mame" and "A Mame Darf Men Hern" declare that, "alone she carries the heavy weight" and "much blood, sweat, and tears she shed for you" Qacobs and Secunda n.d.) "A mames vert" describes the mother as "tired, broken, weakened" after countless sleepless nights spent watching over sick children, and a song called "Mayn libster fraynd iz may mamenyu" adds that "The mother grows old and gray before her time" (Schmulewitz 1913; Meisel, Perlmutter, and Wohl 1921). These songs together present a picture of a Jewish mother who is haggard and exhausted, an image that is hardly compatible with beauty or gentility.
Another mother song by Picon, from the hit show of the 1926-27 season, Mamele, loudly proclaims that "if it's good enough for Mama, it's good enough for me." In the show, Picon plays sixteen year-old Mamele, or Kid Mother. Following the death of her mother, Mamele shoulders the domestic responsibilities of caring for her ungrateful family. Her siblings are all keen to become modern Americans, and it is only Mamele who seems interested in upholding the traditional ways of her immigrant mother and the Old World. "Oyb s'iz geven gut far mayn mame" is a commentary on the tensions between the New World and the Old:
If it's good enough for Mama, then it's good for me Her opinions, her virtues were always tasteful Wise men weren't around, everyone lived happily Now everyone says "for the old world I don't care" I don't envy them the new, I like the old much more If it's good enough for Mame, then it's good for me.
In the second verse, Picon observes that modern women have time for a menagerie of pets, but not for children:
She has a poodle, a canary, and a bulldog that's named Mary But for a child she doesn't have time And my Mama had no trouble giving birth to 11 children And she was all right. (Picon and Rumshinsky 1926)
Like "Ikh vil a meydl" above, "Oyb s'iz geven" is a far cry from virtually every other mother song. Avoiding any physical description of the Jewish mother, she is here characterized as tasteful and traditional, traits that seem out of place among the legions of Jewish mothers who tearfully wring their hands and pray to God for the health of their children. Further, the second verse hints towards motherhood as being easy, even with eleven (!) children. There is no mention of the economic, cultural, and linguistic struggles that Mamele's mother undoubtedly faced, only an affirmation that the old ways that Mama represents are superior to the new.
More importantly, though the Jewish mother's sacrifices and the toll they take are remembered fondly in all of the songs about her, she is ultimately a figure of the past, one whom the male songwriters seem content to leave behind. It is only Picon's songs that promote the Jewish mother's qualities, vague as they may be, as being desirable and attractive, and it is only these songs that attempt to bring the Jewish mother into the future.
In straddling the worlds of being American and Jewish, Picon's mother songs evoke a figure who is traditional, affectionate, unconditional in her love for her children, and, most importantly, restrained: the very qualities that her Jewish audience, perpetually struggling against being "too Jewish," would have found palatable. Americanizing the immigrant Jewish mother, however, proved to be a difficult undertaking. In Picons songs, the mother she describes is at best only vaguely Jewish, and while her increasingly Americanized performances remained successful with her Jewish audiences, only one mother song followed her lead.
A YIDDISHE MAME OFF THE YIDDISH STAGE
"My Yiddishe Mame" is the only Jewish mother song under consideration whose genesis and performance history has taken place almost entirely in mainstream American culture. The song is often cast as the nostalgic pinnacle of the Yiddish mother songs genre. Irv Saposnik, for example, writes, "For all its reverence for the Jewish Mother, 'My Yiddishe Momme' [sic] is more elegy than celebration. While its Yiddish voice is reluctant to let go, its intimations of impending mortality suggest the inescapable passing of time. Like much in Yiddish American culture, it refuses to admit defeat, but instead recalls the recent past in order to restrain the inevitable" (1994, 439). While there may be some truth to this assertion, the scholarly understanding of "My Yiddishe Mame" as put forth by Saposnik, Antler, and others, isolates the song from its origins.
In fact, there are compelling reasons to consider "My Yiddishe Mame" within the larger context of the Yiddish mother songs genre. The song's English lyrics invoke the specifically Jewish setting of a "humble East Side tenement," while in the Yiddish version, the woman with the "cried-out eyes" who would "voluntarily give [her children] bread from her mouth" is undeniably a description straight out of Yiddish mother songs like "Eybike Mame." Contrary to being pure nostalgia as scholars suggest, "My Yiddishe Mame" was written in 1925 and recorded by Tucker in 1928, precisely the years when the Yiddish-language mother songs were at the peak of their production. Most of the songs performed by Goldstein, Gehrman, and Picon referenced in the preceding sections were published after 1925. Yet if "My Yiddishe Mame" is not an oudier in the mother songs genre, how else can we account for its success?
To answer this question, I turn to Sophie Tuckers legacy as a Jewish-American entertainer who arguably owed the success of both her assimilation and her career to blackface performance. Much has been written in recent years about Jewish blackface performers, and Sophie Tucker in particular. Michael Rogin, for example, suggests that "[Blackface]... enacted the feature that, together with racialism, defined the exceptionalist character of American nationality: the power of subjects to make themselves over. In turning white to black and back again, minstrelsy played with the process of identity change that transformed poor into rich, daughters into wives and mothers, and immigrants into Americans" (1996, 49). Tuckers blackface stage persona was so convincing that eventually she resorted to removing one of her gloves (in some later performances, her wig) at the end of her act in order to prove her whiteness to the audience.
Sophie Tucker approached the Jewish aspects of her performance persona--like using Yiddish words to "give her audience a kick"--much like the wig and gloves of her blackface performance, as a kind of mask that could be donned or removed at will. Writing on Tucker's place in American culture, Lori Harrison-Kahan argues that "Jewishness did not simply represent who Tucker 'really was' [in her performances]; instead, it functioned as another complicating ingredient that bedeviled attempts to pin down her identity" (2011, 49). Tucker was not the only performer to use Jewishness as an interchangeable facet of her identity, nor was she the first Jewish-American performer to distill the potency of "Old World" culture. This process of distillation, in which the essence of Jewish identity was simultaneously reduced to a series of stereotypical tropes and watered down in order to be more palatable, accounts for much of Jewish cultural production in the twentieth century, from Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer to Fanny Brice, The Goldbergs, Woody Allen, and even Seinfeld. And of course these examples.only scratch the surface. "My Yiddishe Mame"'s success, therefore, lies precisely in the way both the Yiddish and English versions call on the tropes of the mother songs genre while avoiding its hyperbolic specificity.
As a testament to the newfound palatability of Jewish mothers via "My Yiddishe Mame," the song's performance history took on a life of its own well beyond Sophie Tucker. Countless Jewish performers, including cantor Yosele Rosenblatt, The Barry Sisters, and Leo Fuld recorded their own covers. During the Latin craze of the mid-century, the Irving Fields Trio even retranslated the song into a mambo on their seminal 1959 album Bagels and Bongos! (14) In absence of the descriptive lyrics and with a more fashionable accompaniment, the Jewish mother was updated and re-exoticized in a way that appealed to many Americans. Bagels and Bongos sold two million copies, and Fields continued his successful formula of combining Latin American music with other cultures on albums that "toured" Hawaii, France, and Italy. Neither was "My Yiddishe Mame"'s performance history limited to Jews: goyish performers like Tom Jones, Billie Holiday, and Connie Francis also recorded the song. In fact, Francis's cover sounds even more Jewish than the versions sung by Jews themselves, a result of blending the Yiddish and English versions of the song and adding a few krekhts (sobs) for good measure.
"My Yiddishe Mame" also appeared in the final scene of a fifth-season episode of The Nanny in 1998. In the episode, Ray Charles plays Sammy, the fiance of Fran Dreschers grandmother, Yetta. Initially, Fran and her mother are resistant to the idea of Yetta remarrying. Sammy is black (a fact that had escaped the notice of the nearly-blind Yetta) and Gentile; moreover, Fran's mother feels that twenty-five years after her father's death is simply too soon for Yetta to remarry. Sammy wins the women over once he mentions that his nephew is Bryant Gumbel, host of the Today Show, and sends Fran to the studio to audition as a weather girl. While most of the episode centers around Fran's audition, Sammy reappears behind a piano in the last scene, with Yetta at his side, to perform an abridged version of "My Yiddishe Mame." On a show that drew heavy criticism for its negative, stereotypical portrayals of both the Jewish American Princess and the Jewish mother, this performance is important for several reasons. (5)
First, the deliberate choice to use "My Yiddishe Mame" reaffirms Jewish femininity in ways that "Bei mir bist du schon" and "Hava Nagila," the only other possible contenders for most iconic Jewish song, do not. In Charles's rendition, the tragic Jewish mother of yesteryear has been recast as a sexually attractive figure. He refers to Yetta not by name, but as his "yiddishe mama," which carries sexual implications along the lines of the identity Sophie Tucker coined later in her career, a "red-hot mama." Yetta, the yiddishe mama in question, also intimates in the beginning of the episode that she has a physical relationship with Sammy, despite her advanced age. In this context, the chorus can be read not as a nostalgic yearning for an unattainable re-imagining of the Jewish mother, but as a gently erotic expression. Instead of a song that is specifically from a child's point of view about his mother's love, and his desire to make amends for any actions that caused her distress, this rendition is pointedly unapologetic. With its improvised ending, culturally situated somewhere between the cantorial wails of the shtetl and a smoky jazz club in Harlem, Charles's performance is perhaps more open to interpretation than any prior version of the song. While Tucker's yiddishe mame is situated in the past, a subject of sympathy, Charles's mame, while old, is seated right next to him on the piano bench, surrounded (presumably) by her family and friends.
Second, we cannot ignore the fact that Sammy is a black man who is trying to integrate into a Jewish family, a prospect that plagues Fran's mother throughout the first half of the episode. His rendition of "My Yiddishe Mame" in the concluding moments of the episode, then, is suggestive of a kind of blackface in reverse. Instead of Jews "commandeering... African-American culture" (Harrison-Kahan 2010, 5), it is now Jewish culture that is being appropriated for comedic effect, as critical subterfuge of Jews acting black by presenting blacks acting Jewish, and as a means of acculturation into the dominant white culture or the dominant (Ashkenazic) Jewish subculture.
Third, and last, Ray Charles's performance had an unintended consequence. In addition to legitimizing his character within the episode, for at least one critic, The Nanny's rendition of "My Yiddishe Mama" also helped to legitimize the entire show. Writing about a later episode, in which Fran schemed to go out with her employer's eldest daughter's philosophy professor, who was not only young and handsome but, more importantly, Jewish, Slate writer Jeff Goldberg concluded, "if it's a choice between secularized sitcoms such as Mad About You and The Nanny, which, while sometimes embarrassing to Judaism, are unembarrassed by it, I'll take Fran Drescher. After all, any sitcom that hires Ray Charles to sing "My Yiddishe Momme" [sic] can't be all bad" (Goldberg 2018). Thus "My Yiddishe Mame" has, in the course of its performance history, drawn on both the rich history of Yiddish mother songs from whence it came, even as it has, in other ways, attempted to Americanize and modernize the Jewish mother.
THE LEGACY OF YIDDISH MOTHER SONGS
The Yiddish mother songs published between 1907 and 1930 constitute an increasingly urgent attempt to reconcile traditional Old World identities with the modern American identities that the New World demanded of all its inhabitants. The mother figure described in the songs symbolized the Jewish identity to which immigrants clung, and from which they needed to distance themselves to become Americans. Devoid of place and time, the songs laud the extent of the Jewish mother's unwavering devotion to her children, warts and all. Many years later, Borsht-Belt comedians would draw on this same unflinching devotion to create the Jewish mother jokes that would help to define Jewish American humor.
To conclude, I would like to return very briefly to the song "A brivl der mamen." A contemporary audience might notice that the second verse contains the seeds of countless Jewish mother jokes from the mid-century Despite her entreaties, her son never writes her a letter:
These eight years I've been alone, my child went far away. His childish heart is hard as a stone, not a single letter has come. How can my child go on? How is his life? It must be going well for him there because he has forgotten me I have sent him a hundred letters and he still has no idea that my pain is so deep.
In fact, the last two lines of this verse can be reformulated into the comedic accusation that doubles as the title of Joyce Antler's book: He never calls! He never writes!
Yiddish culture in America--experienced through theater, radio, and commercially published songs--provided an exclusive space for immigrants to navigate the tensions of the New World. As immigrants and their children became increasingly Americanized, they left Yiddish behind, and with it, the comfort and safety of an insider culture. Within the safety of Yiddish culture, the Jewish mother's outsized efforts are lauded with sincerity and, of course, nostalgia. Who loves better, more unquestioningly, than a Jewish mother?
But it is precisely the Jewish mothers outsized efforts that mark her as excessive, as too much, and therefore as Other. Second- and third-generation American Jews, who owed their successful assimilation at least in part to their mothers, could hardly present her as anything other than a caricature, a punchline, to a homogenized American audience. For all of Picons success on the American stage, and despite attempting to modernize the Jewish mother, Picons stage persona was always inseparable from her Jewish identity. It was Tuckers ability to wield "My Yiddishe Mame," her signature "Jewish song," as a prop of her performance that allowed other Jews--and non-Jews--to do the same. Ultimately, the yiddishe mame of the mother songs represents all of the potency of Jewish identity that Yiddish-speaking immigrants could not carry into their lives as modern Americans. And the Jewish mother figure, eternally devoted to her children's well-being, was only too happy to oblige.
D. A. GELLER is the Digital Preservation Manager at the YTVO Institute for Jewish Research. She earned her PhD in musicology from The Graduate Center, CUNY in 2019; her dissertation, "The Musical World of Joseph Rumshinsky's Mamele," explored the music of Yiddish-speaking immigrants on New York's Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.
(1.) Quoted in Antler, You Never Call! You Never Write!, 33. Other sociological surveys of Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants note differences in family dynamics and attitudes towards children between ethnic groups from the early twentieth-century, affirming Jewish immigrants as the most concerned with their children's overall development.
(2.) See also Sydney Stahl Weinberg, "Jewish Mothers and Immigrant Daughters: Positive and Negative Role Models," Journal of American Ethnic History 6, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 39-55.
(3.) See, for instance, Paula E. Hyman, "Gender and the Immigrant Jewish Experience in the United States" in Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Judith R. Baskin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 312-36, and Daniel Soyer, "The Voices of Jewish Immigrant Mothers in the YTVO American Jewish Autobiography Collection," Journal of American Ethnic History 17, no 4 (Summer 1998): 87-94.
(4.) On the musical connections between Latin-Americans and Jews, see Josh Kun, "Bagels, Bongos, and Yiddishe Mambos, or The Other History of Jews in America," Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 2}, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 50-68.
(5.) For some sense of the criticisms the show drew, see Antler, You Never Call! You Never Write!, 184-85.
BOOKS AND ARTICLES
Antler, Joyce. 2007. You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goldberg, Jeff. 1998. "My Nanny Problem: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Nanny." Slate.com, February 5. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/1998/02/my_nanny_problem.2.html. Accessed September 10, 2018.
"Jennie Goldstein, Actress, 63, Dead." 1960. New York Times, February 10.
Power, Sharon. 2012. "Yiddish Theatre Actresses and American Jewish Identity." Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 30, no. 3 (Spring): 84-107.
Prell, Riv-Ellen. 2003. "Rage and Representation: Jewish Gender Stereotypes in American Culture." In American Jewish Women's History: A Reader. Ed. Pamela S. Nadell, 238-55. New York: New York University Press.
Ravits, Martha A. 2000. "The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture." MELUS 25, no. 1 (Spring): 3-31.
Rogin, Michael. 1996. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rothchild, Sylvia. 1972. "In Defense of the Jewish Mother." Off Our Backs 2, no. 6 (February-March): 4-5.
Sandrow, Nahma. 1996. "Shund and Popular Theater." In Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Saposnik, Irv. 1994. "Jolson, the Jazz Singer and the Jewish Mother: or How My Yiddishe Momme Became My Mammy." Judaism 43, no. 4 (Fall): 432-42.
Slobin, Mark. 1982. Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of Jewish Immigrants. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Tucker, Sophie. 1945. Some of These Days: The Autobiography of Sophie Tucker. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc.
W.S. 1936. "Souls for Sale." New York Times, September 21.
Altman, H. 1912. "A muters gebet [A mother's prayer]." New York: Saul Schenker.
Gilrod, Louis, and Peretz Sandler. 1925. "Nakhes fun kinder [Pride from children]." New York: Trio Press.
Goldstein, Jennie, Morris Rund, and J. Jaffe. 1927. "Ikh bin a mame [I am a mother]." Arr. Alexander Olshanetsky. New York.
Jacobs, Jacob, and Sholem Secunda. n.d. "A mame darf men hern [A mother you must obey]." New York: Trio Press.
Meisel, H., Arnold Perlmutter, and Harold Wohl. 1921. "Mayn libster fraynd iz may mamenyu [My best friend is my mother]." New York: A. Teres.
Picon, Molly and Joseph Rumshinsky. 1923. "Ikh vil a meydl vi mayn mame iz geven [I want a girl like my mother used to be]." New York: Trio Press.
--. "Oyb s'iz geven gut far mayn mame, iz es gut far mir [If it's good enough for Mama, it's good enough for me." 1926. New York: Metro Music.
Rosenberg, Israel, and Harry Lubin. 1929. "Di eybike mame [The eternal mother]." New York: Theo H. Silbert.
Russotto, H. A., and M. Zavodnik. 1914. "A mame iz der bester fraynd [Your mother is your best friend]." New York: S. Schenker.
Schmulewitz, Solomon. 1907. "A brivl der mamen [A letter to mother]." New York: Theodore Lohr.
--. 1913. "A mames vert [A mother's worth]." New York: A. Teres.
D. A. GELLER YIVO INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH RESEARCH
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|Author:||Geller, D. A.|
|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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