Mr and Mrs Goldberg are summoned urgently to their son Lionel's school. With colossal solemnity they are ushered into the headmaster's office. Gravely, the principal addresses the Goldbergs. "We are extremely concerned. Your son has the most pronounced Oedipus complex this school has ever seen." "Oedipus, schmoedipus!' replies Mrs Goldberg, smiling. "What does it matter as long as he loves his mother?"
In another similar incident at an educational establishment down the road, the Finkelsteins are also awaiting news of their boy Sherman. "We are profoundly sorry to tell you this," says the headmaster, blushing slightly, "but your son has been spotted playing with his genitals." "That's no problem," responds Mrs Finkelstein, blithely, "some of our best friends are genitals."
Through jokes like these, on the couches of Middle European psychotherapists and around the Miliband, Letwin, Lawson, Rantzen, Lipman, Jacobson and Feltz family tables, the Jewish Mother Myth is passed painfully from generation unto generation. Jewish mothers are far greater than the sum of their parts. Although they may appear to be no more than five feet two in their stockinged feet, and to sport strangely stripey hair courtesy of Leonard of Highlights A-Go-Go in Edgware, they are monumental creatures; mystical, magical and malevolent. Mix Medusa, Lucrezia Borgia, Florence Nightingale, Golda Meir, the late Queen Mother, Sadie Portnoy of complaint fame, Shelley Winters swimming in her girdle to save her husband's life in The Poseidon Adventure, Mother Teresa, Old Mother Hubbard, and Barbra Streisand tasting foie gras for the first time in Funny Girl: "Just some dried up toast in a sliver/On the top... a little chopped liver... Oh!", and you still don't come close to capturing the Jewish mother's pomp, circumstance or significance. She is a martyr, a monster, a seductress, a prude, a doctor, a lawyer, a diplomat, a pugilist and an utterly selfish, entirely selfless concocter of chicken soup.
If you're none the wiser, join the club. I am a Jewish mother of 26 years' standing – and, since you ask, they're a lawyer and a teacher, two Botticelli-faced, eligible young assisted blondes who can read Lorca in the original, sing divinely and have private health care and all their own teeth – and I still have no idea if the Jewish mother deserves legendary status. How am I supposed to know? I've never had, or indeed been, any other kind of mother.
In his learned 1960s thesis on the subject, How to be a Jewish Mother, Dan Greenburg – the first of the late Nora Ephron's three husbands, later depicted somewhat vengefully in her novel Heartburn as a nerdy collector of newts – states: "You don't have to be Jewish or a mother to be a Jewish mother." He's convinced you can be a Chinese chef or a Welsh policeman and still, if you have what it takes, become a Jewish mother. Let's bear in mind, though, that Greenburg had a manual to sell. I haven't, and I'm not sure Jewish mother-dom is, like zumba dancing or glass blowing, a skill you can simply acquire if you put your mind to it. I'm not certain it's even an attribute. Boiled down, like a nice bit of brisket, with just the right saltpetre/bay leaf combo, the essence of Jewish mother seems to me centred in an implicit and unshakeable belief in the importance of the role itself.
Jewish mothers don't do self-effacing. We – notice I've dispensed with my faux anthropologist voice and decided to admit I'm writing about myself – see no reason to take a back seat. We know we are pivotal. If we'd managed more than a C in O-level biology we'd describe ourselves as the family fulcrum. We gave birth to you. All that you know we taught you. You cannot, therefore, understand what you are supposed to think until we tell you. We'd be depriving you of your Moses-endowed duty to honour us if we didn't unleash all our feelings about everything, domestic and international, upon you at all times. I guarantee, therefore, you will never hear the following uttered by a Jewish mother:
"Should you marry a penniless rush-matting weaver? Darling, it really doesn't matter what I think. You should make the decision for yourself."
"He left his wife in Finchley and ran off with his secretary? Who am I to judge other people? I have no comment to make."
"You drove for four hours and they only gave you sandwiches for lunch? Well, you're on a diet anyway. They're lovely people."
Or, "You want to move to the countryside, miles away from your mother, to a village miles from a synagogue, where no Jew has ever set foot, and raise my grandchildren? That sounds like a lovely idea. Bon voyage."
Can I be more specific in distilling eau de Jewish maman? I can tell you about my grandma Sybil, who, in her Willesden Green morning room, circa 1965, was consumed by a coughing jag. Sips of water didn't work. "Quick, someone give her a bite of apple." Red in the face, bent double with choking spasms, my grandma managed to put the apple to her ear, shake it to see if she could hear the pips rattle, and ask: "Is it Cox's?"
I can tell you about my great-auntie Marie, who was so keen to be prepared she put the toothpaste on the family toothbrushes the night before. I can tell you about my great-auntie Lily, who said to my Uncle Melvyn: "Have an apple, Melvyn." "No thanks, Auntie." "Have an orange." "No thanks, Auntie." "Alright then, have a piece of fruit." I can tell you about my great-auntie Ida, who, for 20 years before she died, used a soup tureen, a toast rack and a silver salver already labelled with the names of the grandchildren to whom she intended to leave them. I can tell you about my grandma Babs, who read Lady Chatterley's Lover but didn't realise which was the rude word. I can also tell you about my late mother, an Old Paulina who read history at LSE, recited Keats and Shelley to herself to soothe her soul when she was dying, who was accomplished at calligraphy, the nurturing of herbaceous borders, and petit point, and who fried gefilte fish in the garden in an electric pan attached to the lawnmower extension lead to keep the smell out of the curtains. I can tell you about my cousin Beverley; our mothers were two first cousins who married two first cousins, so both our grandmas were always at all the weddings at which we were bridesmaids. She fed her children tubs of imaginary food to keep them happy on outings to watch the kosher cows being milked in Barnet.
Do I think Jewish mothers are "more" than other mothers? Are we extra-double maternal with a diced carrot on the top, epic breastfeeders, exuders of bumper turbo-charged emotions other mothers cannot match? Do I think we have the monopoly on love, manipulation, guilt, blackmail or suffering? Of course I don't. Just like everyone else, we're happy to embrace the stereotype when it flatters and keen to reject it when it doesn't.
When my baby, my Saskia, the light and joy of my life, decided to spend her whole gap year in the land flowing with milk and honey, I went to Stansted airport to see her off. As she schlepped her rucksack through the departure gate, I couldn't help myself. Something primeval arose within me. At the top of my voice I shrieked: "Saskia. Know this. I love you more than any other mother at this airport loves her child. Now pull up your jeans: you don't want innocent Israelis to see your bottom."
'Friday Night Dinner', tonight, 10.05pm, Channel 4; 'Jewish Mum of the Year', Tuesday, 9pm, Channel 4; 'Jews at Ten', Tuesday, 10pm, More4Reuse content