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Insider and outsider jokes, also Jewish mothers - Input Junkie
October 8th, 2013
02:21 pm

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Insider and outsider jokes, also Jewish mothers
I recently posted about light bulb jokes for various religions, and said that there were insider jokes and outsider jokes, with the former being better.

On second thought, this is no doubt an oversimplification-- insider to outsider is a spectrum rather than a hard boundary.

Also, is "How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?" "Don't worry, I'll just sit here in the dark" an insider joke or an outsider joke? Well, I see it as insiderish-- I'm pretty sure I've heard Jewish people tell it.

It gets on my nerves a little because my mother was Jewish, but not like that. She had an attitude* of "I get things right, you keep getting things wrong because there's something wrong with you" which was extremely wearing, but she would have changed the light bulb without making a big deal** about it.

I've heard that The Jewish Mother is actually The Eastern European Mother. Anyone know whether this even begins to make sense?

*This is a formulation which satisfies me now. It may or may not be complete and correct.

**After I wrote that, I realized that "big deal" could be "tzimmes". Assimilation is also a spectrum.

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From:elenbarathi
Date:October 8th, 2013 06:54 pm (UTC)
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Ummm.... I have had tzimmes, though I'd forgotten the name till I clicked the link. It's a yummy recipe for this season, but I don't understand what means "big deal" could be "carrot stew"...? Am I missing a Yiddish pun here?

I had several close Jewish friends in my youth in New Jersey, and none of their mothers really seemed to fit the 'Jewish Mother' stereotypes. But then my friends were geeks like me, failing to fit the Jewish Princess role just as much as I was failing the WASP Princess role, so very likely their parents were also unusual, as were my own. I also had an Eastern Orthodox friend; her mother wasn't so 'Jewish Mother'-like, but her grandmother, OMG yes. So perhaps it really is more of an Eastern European thing than a specifically Jewish thing.

Or just that some mothers are nudzhes, whatever their culture. ^^

Edited at 2013-10-08 07:07 pm (UTC)
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From:nancylebov
Date:October 8th, 2013 07:12 pm (UTC)
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It was in the wikipedia link-- apparently "making a big tzimmes about nothing" is Yinglish, and no one knows why carrot stew is getting libeled in that way. Possibly it's because the carrot stew takes a fair amount of preparation.
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From:elenbarathi
Date:October 9th, 2013 01:49 pm (UTC)
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Aha, that makes sense. I never heard that before, but my Yiddish is sketchy at best.
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From:nancylebov
Date:October 9th, 2013 01:55 pm (UTC)
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Not to nag, but if wikipedia is correct, then tzimmes in the sense of emotional drama is Yinglish, not Yiddish.

You might like Born to Kvetch, a look at Yiddish in its cultural context.
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From:elenbarathi
Date:October 9th, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
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'Yinglish' is a neologism - a useful one, maybe, to make a distinction between using Yiddish words as slang in English, and actually speaking Yiddish.

I have only known one native Yiddish speaker - the grandfather of one of my middle-school friends was a Holocaust survivor; he didn't speak much English, but his Yiddish was close enough to German that I could understand him somewhat, and his daughter, my friend's Mom, spoke it back to him. I doubt that any of the other Jews I've known speak actual Yiddish, just that some of them use Yiddish words in English conversation now and then. It hadn't occurred to me that the words might not mean the same as they would in actual Yiddish, which has so many regional variations anyway that different meanings for words must be common.

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From:tod_hollykim
Date:October 8th, 2013 06:54 pm (UTC)
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As to the insider vs. outsider bit, yeah, insider better all the time.

The best example is Star Trek jokes/parodies. The best parodies were done by fans of the show- like the Saturday Night Live skit. And you could tell the fans from the non-fans with magazines like Mad and Cracked. At the time the parodies in each magazine were done, there were fans who did them at Mad, those at Cracked were not fans.

And then there were the fans who produced, yeeeears ago, the Star Trek/Gumbies (Gumbys?) parody. Not the green clay figure, the Monty Python Gumbies. With the Wellies and the corner-knotted handkerchiefs on their heads.
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From:sartorias
Date:October 8th, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
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I heard the Jewish mother from a Jewish mother, being wry. She wasn't like that, either, but she had moved to the west coast to get away from the fraught tangle of what she described as culturally mandated use of the weapons Guilt and Gratitude. She was also the one who told me, back in the mid-seventies, that someone should do a study on the children of Survivors because every one she knew either had to get away, or go insane. Of course that was one person.
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From:nancylebov
Date:October 8th, 2013 08:10 pm (UTC)
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Google search on children of holocaust survivors. They've been studied.

Edited at 2013-10-08 08:13 pm (UTC)
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From:sartorias
Date:October 8th, 2013 08:30 pm (UTC)
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Yeah--she said this in the seventies. I never thought she'd be the only one with the thought.
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From:ritaxis
Date:October 8th, 2013 07:28 pm (UTC)
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I knew an anthropologist who specialized in various kinds of American subcultures, including those of European backgrounds (speaking of insider v outsider jokes, he was a great proponent of insider anthropology, having also done the prerequisite field work on a Pacific island long before). He said that the thing he heard everywhere he went, no matter which culture he was looking at, was "In order to understand our culture, you have to understand the [Whatever] Mother," followed by a series of pronouncements about that particular type of mother which were rather similar in every case.
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From:kalimac
Date:October 8th, 2013 07:32 pm (UTC)
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As Dan Greenburg says in the original How To Be A Jewish Mother, "It is not necessary to be either Jewish or a mother to be a Jewish mother. An Irish waitress or an Italian barber could also be a Jewish mother."
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From:carbonel
Date:October 8th, 2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
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I first heard (read, actually) the Jewish mother light bulb joke in 1979, from a devout Catholic. He'd sent me some other joke that I don't remember, but I'd found it mildly offensive and not funny, and I'd called him on it. He offered me this one instead. Possibly because it was the first light bulb joke I'd ever heard at that point, I found it laugh-out-loud funny.
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From:gwendally
Date:October 8th, 2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
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"I get things right, you keep getting things wrong because there's something wrong with you" which was extremely wearing,

My Jewish mother started a sentence to me once with the words, "People wouldn't hate you so much if..."

I never heard the rest of that sentence. My mind was reeling. People hate me? So much? And my mother UNDERSTANDS?!?

I've always wondered how that sentence ended.

My mother was judgmental, critical, and held me to high standards. She never hesitated to make me suffer if it was for a higher good, like learning to play piano as a five year old (to train my brain) or writing 20 pages for a 10 page paper (for room for when she edited it down).

Other mothers don't seem as driven or as judgmental or as critical. Other mothers appear to use loving acceptance as part of their maternal toolkit. I may be wrong. I only know what *I* got.

I agree with you, though, that being a martyr wasn't something I witnessed. She was always astonishingly capable.
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From:siderea
Date:October 10th, 2013 05:29 am (UTC)
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Yeah, maternal affection is for weak, goyisher peoples. Come back with your Nobel or on it.
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From:nancylebov
Date:October 10th, 2013 07:06 am (UTC)
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For what it's worth, my mother had what seemed like a weird aversion to praise-- she said she thought it was condescending. Sometimes it is condescending, of course, but that didn't seem to fully explain what might be going on.

After reading Born to Kvetch, I concluded that she was carrying the cultural fear that praise leads to disaster, even though she didn't have the overt superstition.

Also, she went in for perfectionism, but didn't have the level of ambition (expected us to be professionals, but didn't go beyond that) for her children that a lot of Jewish mothers do. I'm not sure what was going on there-- maybe Litvak etc. background rather than Germanic?

Edited at 2013-10-10 07:08 am (UTC)
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From:gwendally
Date:October 10th, 2013 01:50 pm (UTC)
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Which I'm perpetrating, by the way. (I meant to write perpetuating, but, uh, Freud.)

One of my common mantras when raising my three kids was "Suck it up, Buttercup."

Too late to contemplate this now, I've got two young adults and a high-achieving 14 year old already warped by me.

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From:nancylebov
Date:October 10th, 2013 02:19 pm (UTC)
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Sometimes abuse gets healed over the course of multiple generations.

I haven't seen any books about this in general, but Ten Points is a detailed two generation account.

The author's grandfather was poor and abusive. The father solved the money part, but was flamboyantly emotionally and physically abusive. (Do not read this book while eating.) The author found a weird solution on the emotional side that I'm still contemplating.
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From:gwendally
Date:October 10th, 2013 02:35 pm (UTC)
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But is it abusive? That seems an odd label to put on it when we're talking about a style of love that drives you to excel. Different than what other people get/have, with its own challenges (and jokes!) but I don't think we need the pejorative connotation.
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From:nancylebov
Date:October 10th, 2013 03:38 pm (UTC)
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I think whether driving one's children to excel is abusive probably depends on a much of factors, and I spoke too quickly and generally.

I do know one person who hasn't accomplished a lot who says that he'd be delighted to create world peace and find a cure for cancer so long as it didn't make his mother proud of him.

And another who probably would have been much better off if his mother hadn't pushed him to become a doctor.
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From:gwendally
Date:October 10th, 2013 04:13 pm (UTC)
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Well, it goes the other way, too. My father remarried a woman who is kind and loving and accepting and her children (my step-brothers) are all significantly screwed up under-achievers who cannot maintain a relationship because - the horrors - women keep expecting them to behave better towards them than their mother taught them to behave towards her.

They have jobs, not careers or professions and that's fine, but a little bit of a push could have made a big difference in their buying power, which I know they would prefer from where they sit now.

At least they get to glow in happiness about how wonderful they are, since their mother told them so.

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From:nancylebov
Date:October 10th, 2013 04:57 pm (UTC)
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Possibly of interest: The Last Lecture, by a man whose family seems to have been achievement-oriented and not very affectionate, but who turned out well.

It's probable that there are fairly subtle issues of emotional connection and reality-orientation which make a big difference. And it probably matters whether parents and children are good emotional matches for each other.
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From:siderea
Date:October 10th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
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It can be abusive, and it can also be neglectful. One of the things I've been getting my head wrapped around is how much neglect I managed to survive as a kid. My parents where happy to pressure me, but support me in my ambitions, materially, not so much; when I was a kid I wasn't mispleased at the high expectations, I was frustrated and angry at the low level of opportunities. Meanwhile, they were self-congratulatory about what great parents they were for their "focus on success" at the same time they were perpetrating medical neglect[*]. It was as if they used their "principles" (if you can call them that) as an excuse not to examine their really serious and frightening failings to cover the parenting basics.

[* I was nineteen and in college when my mother first began to realize how much medical neglect she had been subjected to as a child (intrusive trauma memories triggered by dealing with my little sister's need for emergency dental work). She almost didn't survive her minority. I don't think she ever really cottoned on to the way she recapitulated that with me. Certainly not to the near-lethal extent her mother did with her, but, damn, something in her head went a little wonky whenever I needed medical care.]

There were ways my parents were tremendous parents. And there were ways they were deeply terrible parents. They used whatever successes I demonstrated as justifications not to have to be self-reflective or tolerate the slightest criticism.
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From:siderea
Date:October 10th, 2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
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Oh, well, yes, that's totally different. In our house, it was, "Suck it up, Cupcake."
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From:erratio
Date:October 9th, 2013 12:45 pm (UTC)
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I have a theory that most immigrant parents are the same in some important respects*, such as making their children feel guilty about the sacrifices and hard work their parents put themselves through so that their kids could have abundance, and how therefore it's the poor kid's job to anticipate their needs forever after.

My mother tries not to do the guilt trip thing, but it's still implicit in a lot of her behaviour.

*Also see: [Ethnic] Standard Time for a non-immigrant example of the same joke told over and over again in different subcultures
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From:siderea
Date:October 10th, 2013 07:18 pm (UTC)
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how therefore it's the poor kid's job to anticipate their needs forever after.

Not necessarily. This is a story I gather was from a 17th century Jewish (Sephardic?) mother's letter to her 10 children, which she wrote lest she die before she be able to impart all her wisdom to them. It stuck with me, because it seems better to capture what I have experienced of Ashkenazi culture. I tell it as I remember it:
Once there was a bird who built her nest high up on a cliff facing the sea, out of the reach of the waves, and there she laid her eggs and hatched her chicks, of which there were three. Then one day, there blew up a storm fiercer than ever, which raise towering waves so high they threatened the nest.

The mama bird took the first hatchling in her feet and flew out from the nest to try to lift it to safety. She said, "Child of mine, you are so heavy and I am so small and the waves are so big. Here I am risking my life for you. What shall you do for me?"

"Mother, I shall obey you and all things and never give you the slightest trouble."

So that one she dropped into the sea, and she returned to the nest. She picked up the next hatchling and strained her little wings to lift it to safety. She said, "Child of mine, you are so heavy and I am so small and the waves are so big. Here I am risking my life for you. What shall you do for me?"

"Mother, I shall wait on you all the rest of your days. You shall never want for anything in your old age."

So that one she dropped into the sea, and she returned to the nest. She picked up the last hatchling, and once again strove to bear one to safety. She said, "Child of mine, you are so heavy and I am so small and the waves are so big. Here I am risking my life for you. What shall you do for me?"

"Not a damn thing, ma. But as you have done for me, I shall do for your grandchildren."

And that one, she saved.

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