May 7, 2014

Book: Oh, the guilt

New book asks why you don’t call more often

‘The Jewish Daughter Diaries: True Stories of Being Loved Too Much by Our Moms’
Edited by Rachel Ament. Sourcebooks; 208 pgs., $14.99.

First, a few ground rules. If she’s cold, bring a sweater. Always keep your first-aid cabinet well stocked … with matzoh ball soup, preferably a batch she made from scratch, froze and dated for you. And if you’re going to go skydiving, bungee jumping or otherwise deface the face she gave you, don’t tell her about it until you’re safely on solid ground.

It seems everybody has one — a Jewish Mother anecdote. They come in a variety of shades and colors: the over-feeding mother, the worrywart mother, the “When will you settle down with a nice Jewish doctor and give me grandchildren?” mother, the guiltmeister extraordinaire. Rachel Ament had heard them all. The writer and Kentucky native always loved hearing and telling stories about Jewish moms, and so she emailed her favorite female Jewish writers and entertainers, asking if they would be willing to share. To her surprise, almost all said yes.

“The response was fantastic,” she recalls. “Most of the writers had never heard of me before! But they insisted they had to be in the collection, that their mom was the absolute craziest.”

From mothers who impersonate their daughters on JDate to mothers who send trays of blintzes to strangers when they hear they’re sick, the stories in Ament’s book, “The Jewish Daughter Diaries: True Stories of Being Loved Too Much by Our Moms,” are full of humor and heart, brimming over with unabashed, uninhibited, fierce motherly love. “I think Jewish mothers tend to live in the extremes,” explains Ament. “But inside these extremes is uncontainable love.”

The list of contributors reads like a who’s who of Jewish female comedy, with enough Friedmans and Jaffees to fill a JCC membership roster. From “Daily Show” producers and Cosmo editors to Mayim Bialik (of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Blossom” TV fame — and a neuroscience doctor to boot, her mother will be quick to remind you), the 28 contributors are a talented bunch of gals. With their schnozzes and shlamazels, their summer-camp consultants and Shabbat sing-alongs, the book reads like a Friday night happy hour: future Jewish mothers of America knocking back vodka cranberries and each insisting that their mom is hands-down the looniest, kookiest, most wonderful of all.

Despite this sense of one-upmanship, what emerges most clearly is a spirit of camaraderie. “We are all survivors here, and we are better for it,” they say, the years of nagging making them stronger, kinder, funnier humans. “I felt like there was this awesome universality about Jewish moms that I thought Jewish women should be embracing and bonding over,” says Ament. “Ever since the rise of the PC movement, we’ve grown scared to talk about our cultural identity at all. I don’t think we should be afraid of talking about traits and experiences that connect us as a culture. I also think it’s important to laugh at ourselves. We need to be in control of the joke.”

While this is a collection that trades in stereotypes, from the Yentas to the kugel pushers, the underlying current is universal. Ament hopes the book appeals to goys and Members of the Tribe alike. “I’m not a mother, but from all I hear, it is the most instinctive, powerful love there is. This leads to excessive mothering, which is found in all cultures. I think people from all cultures will be able to relate to the stories in the collection.”

In her introduction, Ament attempts to distill down to a thesis what is it that makes the Jewish mother unique. “What makes a Jewish mom stand out is not the degree of her love but how her love materializes,” she theorizes. “Love suffuses a Jewish mom’s every thought, her every behavior. She cannot rein any of it in. And when so much love blares so forcefully out into the world, the sentiment can’t help but be returned. America loves Jewish moms because they show us their entire selves. Honesty is infectious. Honesty combined with pluck and gumption is intoxicating.”

They may nag and guilt, police their daughters’ wardrobes and sign them up for speed dating, feed them to bursting and brag about their achievements to every grocery store clerk and manicurist they meet. But to have a mother who loves so fiercely and uninhibitedly, who worries about you constantly whether you’re 4 or 42? You should be so lucky.