There are, at last count, approximately one bazillion jokes about Jewish mothers. I tried to get a more accurate count by entering the question “How many Jewish mother jokes are there?” in Google, but, oddly, the search came back, “You shouldn’t know from it.”
My favorite, this week, has been making the rounds of the Internet — the Internet itself being a fairly Jewish concept, by the way, because who else but a bunch of Jewish yentas could have been working all these years on a way to have gossip travel even faster?
Anyway, here’s my favorite Jewish mother joke these days:
Non-Jewish mother: My child is tired and thirsty, he must have milk!
Jewish mother: My child is tired and thirsty, he must have diabetes!
But what about Jewish fathers? Don’t we deserve a little ribbing? Let’s not forget that the image that informs the Jewish Mother joke is ultimately a very loving one — when Elaine May says in an old routine, “I didn’t eat all day Thursday, I didn’t eat all day Thursday night, I didn’t want my mouth should be full in case my son should call” — she is not only lampooning the mother’s penchant for exaggerating her own suffering, but also enshrining an image of the Jewish mother as enormously caring, always sacrificing, always there for her children.
So what are the dads, chopped liver?
There are precious few jokes about Jewish fathers. One of the few that are out there comes from Jules Feiffer, who said, “I grew up to have my father’s looks, my father’s speech patterns, my father’s posture, my father’s opinions, and my mother’s contempt for my father.”
But rather than just objects of contempt (a role we play with gusto, I might add), Jewish fathers deserve their own dollop of sympathy and humor, because after all, do we suffer?
You shouldn’t know from it.
The suffering of Jewish fathers begins well before the baby is born.
Jews are not supposed to have baby showers, or order cribs, because you don’t want to anger God. He’s the only one who’s supposed to know what happens next, and if you act like you have an inkling of what’s in the future — for example, if you say to a friend, “See you tomorrow, Selma!” she’s likely to say, “What are you talking about? Who names anyone Selma anymore?”
Or, more likely, if she’s a neurotic Jew of our generation, she’s likely to say, “kin ahorah!” — a term that means “Excuse me, God, no offense meant, we know you’re the only one who can see into tomorrow, we’re nothing compared to you, you’re great, you know, did we ever mention it?”
That’s the sum total of all Jewish prayers, by the way. There are different prayers for every holiday, and they all sound different, but when you translate them, they all boil down to, Boy, that God, is he great or what? Holy Cow! Not that we think any cows are really holy, by the way, because Thou art the Lord our God and we’d never even think of idolizing a graven image. Not once! Well, we put the Beatles up on a pedestal, but not as high as you, God! Congratulations on being yourself!
His name, in Yiddish, even translates as, “I am that I am.” So, in other words, Jews have spent the last 4,000 years worshipping Popeye.
So anyway, it falls to the Jewish father to figure out how to get all the baby stuff without making God mad. When my Uncle Artie’s first kid was born, he ordered the crib, but had them leave it at the warehouse. And now that it was up to me to work my way though all this, I thought, how dumb is God to fall for a trick like that? What, God can’t read the receipt tacked up to the bulletin board?
If you manage to negotiate these spiritual-consumer conundrums and actually have a child, your troubles have just begun. Trying to keep your toddler safe while not passing on all of your intense neuroses is a Catch-22 equal to, say, Republicans saying they want to lower taxes while balancing the budget. Those kids on the playground, tottering under oversized football helmets and kneepads, or wearing industrial face masks to enter the sandbox? Look three feet over their heads. Hovering like a helicopter: a balding guy with a “chai” necklace.
Jewish mothers are notorious for over-feeding their children, but the task of feeding the child makes the Jewish father even crazier. Reason: Jews imbue food with such significance. Start right on Rosh Hashanah, when you’re trying to teach your son to say “L’Shana Tovah,” which means either “Happy New Year” or “pass the apple cake.” Jews like to eat round things on Rosh Hashanah, so they will have a well-rounded year. Also, things with a head on them, so they will be at the head of things, not in the rear. Also, apples and honey, so we’ll have a sweet year. This culminates on Passover, when, I think, we thank God for the right to wash our hands in the tears of our ancestors and then dip parsley in it. Or something like that.
Are you not surprised that so many Jews wind up overweight? Forget counting carbs: Our food is all laden with polyunsaturated symbolism. “Oh, eat these chocolate chip cookies, my son, you should be a chip off the old block.” “It’s Simchas Torah, you must eat this banana split. We are only eating things shaped like smiles on Simchas Torah” “A McDonald’s happy meal? It goes without saying! Fress, mine kinder! Eat and be happy!”
Ben and Jerry’s could make a mint marketing to Jews. Instead of cute hippie names like Heavenly Hash and Cherry Garcia, they could just make Your Mother Is Proud Of You Have Some Chocolate, No One Should Get Hit By A Van-Nilla, and May Your Child Get Into Harvard He’s Such A Smart Boysenberry.
So, this Father’s Day, I suggest that you be kind to the Jewish father. Thank him for his suffering, his worrying, and his eternal place as a second-class citizen.
Remember that like all the great Jewish baseball players, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg and, um, well, there you go — like them, the Jewish father may be a little different, but he is still, in his own way, a hero, for triumphing in the face of adversity.
Or, at least, for failing miserably, but keeping his sense of humor while doing it.
Walk up to him, shake his hand, smile warmly, and say: “How many Jewish fathers does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Two! One to tell his wife he can do it himself, and one to call the super.”
Philip Lerman is the author of “Dadditude: How A Real Man Became a Real Dad,” published this month by Da Capo Press. Parts of this article were adapted from the book.