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One size does not fit all when it comes to the stereotype of Jewish mothers, as D.C. editor Rachel Ament’s hilarious new collection of essays, The Jewish Daughter Diaries, amply demonstrates. These mothers are all radically different from one another, though there are at least two—admittedly stereotypical—overlapping traits: anxiety and humor.
“Whenever I’d tell my mom something of childish importance,” Iliza Shlesinger writes in her contribution, “like ‘I have to pee,’ or ‘sometimes I like to smell the inside of my own nose,’ my mother would say flatly, ‘I’ll alert the media’—a sarcastic nuance lost on five-year-old me.” In another essay, Wendy Liebman writes that after four years of courtship, “Jeffry asked my father if he could marry me. My mom said ‘It’s about fucking time.’ That’s not even a joke. That is what she said.”
Meanwhile, other mothers, like Gaby Dunn’s, worry about everything. “This is, after all, the woman who forced me to keep cash in my underwear and socks, in case I was ever mugged.” And when “I was three, she taught me a made-up song with my full name, address and telephone number, so that I could tell the police where I lived if I ever got lost…She brought me down to the police station to give them fingerprints and a cheek swab, just in case…”
But in the first story, “JDate My Mom,” by Laura Greenberg, things go a step further: Greenberg’s mother impersonates her on JDate to find an acceptable Jewish husband. At age 30, Greenberg writes, “I had now entered stage 4 single girl cancer.”
The emphasis here is on too much love. Everything that drives these daughters batty about their mothers derives from an overabundance of caring and worry.
Mayim Bialik (the titular star of Blossom) contributed “They’re All Jealous of You,” which is, apparently, her mother’s refrain whenever her daughter hits a bump on the road of life. Another zinger of a title, my favorite of the collection, is “Home for the Apocalypse”; also good is “Become Carol Breslaw in Four Easy Steps,” about a mother obsessed with disasters. The story, by Anna Breslaw, begins: “I am almost certain that my wonderful, idiosyncratic mother doesn’t really know what I do for a living, which is ‘blogging.’ I think she envisages me as the decoy underage girl on To Catch a Predator, except the decoy house is the Internet.” This particular mother fulfills many stereotypes, from excessive worrying to achievement fetish to a fixation on any book with a blurb “After an unspeakable tragedy…” In another piece, author Rachel Shukert tells her mother, “You’re not a nagging Jewish mother. You’re an Old Testament prophet.”
This collection is a very welcome addition to Jewish family literature, most of which, up until now, has focused on sons. But daughters have had their struggles too, as the book’s subtitle (“True stories of being loved too much by our moms”) hints. Perhaps the most over-the-top example of such excessive love is the mother who “revealed that when she dies, she would not only like to be cremated, but wants me to keep her ashes in my underwear drawer, so ‘I can be with you always.’” Yes, there’s something familiar about all this, so familiar that I hid this book under a stack of formidable tomes at my own house. Alas, I was too late; my daughter found it. “This explains a lot,” she said.