Jewish Mothers in Kennebec County
by Kimi Kossler ’12 (January 2010)
The Jewish mother has become a “universally recognized metaphor for nagging, whining, guilt-producing maternal intrusiveness” (Antler 2). It is this stereotype of the Jewish mother that was the basis for many movies, plays, and comedy acts in the 1920s and 1930s. While it is easy to assume that this stereotype applies to all Jewish mothers, the Jewish children of Kennebec County chose to think of their mothers as women with “strong personalities” who were skilled homemakers and completely devoted to their children.
Rise of the matriarch
“She was the chief, in charge of raising children because my dad traveled a lot, as I told you, he was out a lot, mostly on weekends, so she was pretty much a single parent raising kids for the good part of it.”
– Bob Rosenthal
When Bob Rosenthal of Waterville was asked about his mother during an interview, he recalled that his mother was in charge of taking care of the family because his father was often away on business. The movement from a patriarchal society to a matriarchal society was not only witnessed in Bob Rosenthal’s family, but was a trend that occurred in most Jewish families throughout America during the interwar years.
The transition from a patriarchal society to a matriarchal society – matriarch meaning “a woman who rules or dominates a family, group, or state” – came with the arrival of Russian-Jewish immigrants to America (Antler 25-26). In New York City, as fathers start to travel through the Northeast peddling goods or working in factories, mothers are left in charge of the household. This shift from patriarchy to matriarchy occurs not only in Jewish families that live in the city, but also in the Jewish families of Kennebec County. While the Jewish fathers in Kennebec County might not have been working in the factories, they were often gone traveling, whether peddling goods or busy running their own business, making it difficult to spend time at home with their families. (See: Occupational trends.)
Ken Slosberg said that his grandmother “was an amazing woman” and that “she definitely was the matriarch.” Ken’s grandmother not only raised her children while her husband ran the family business, but she also took care of everything around the house, brought lunch to her husband and her son by foot regardless of the weather, and even worked at the family’s tailoring shop.
“She took anyone who was in need. That’s why I say she’s the matriarch of the community and family.”
– Myrtle Wolman
The Jewish mother was not only the leader of her family, she was also a prominent figure in her community. Whether the Jewish mother in Kennebec County was involved in one of the many Jewish organizations such as Hadassah, B’nai B’rith, and Sisterhood or even the Waterville Women’s Club, the Jewish mother was always trying to improve her community. (See: Civic engagement.)
In the workplace
In big cities, it was expected that Jewish mothers would only work on a temporary basis during times of economic distress, such as the Depression. During the interwar years as many Jews transitioned from working in the factories to working in the “white-collar strata,” married women gradually ceased involvement in economic activities and became full-time housewives. Jewish men were afraid that their own opportunity for social and economic upward mobility would be hindered if their wives worked (Morawska 101). This belief among Jewish men led to a stigma placed on those married women who worked during the interwar years. This caused women to seek out jobs that allowed them to maintain their appearance as the picture perfect ideal of “American domesticity,” such as part-time jobs or work as a baker or seamstress (Wenger 187).
Unlike in big cities, in small towns such as Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a married woman’s participation in the family’s economic standing was “both socially approved and an expected contribution to the realization of long-term family goals aimed at a decent middle-class standard of living” (Morawska 101). This ideology that Ewa Morawska describes in Johnstown is also seen in Kennebec County, where many of the Jewish mothers not only assume all household responsibility, but also work in the family business.
“We lived in an apartment above the store, so we were all involved in the day-to-day activities in the store, and especially my mother. She took care of the house and everything…and besides that was very active in the store.”
– Lester Jolovitz
Many Jewish mothers in Kennebec County, like Lester’s mother, Sarah Jolovitz, not only cooked for their family and cleaned the house, but also helped run the family business. This trend of Jewish mothers working to help support their family is evident through Ken Slosberg’s description of his grandmother:
“And when she was younger, she also helped run the store. She did all the tailoring… Also, they had apartments over the store and she would help maintain them. I remember her going in and tearing toilets apart and maintaining stuff there.”
– Ken Slosberg
Family sizes in Waterville
Starting around the 1920s there was a movement in the big cities, such as New York, to have smaller families; this means an average of two children per family. The typical Jewish family prior to this movement consisted of an average of five to ten children. This trend towards smaller families not only increased the mobility of the Jewish family, but it also shows how Jewish mothers wanted to be able to completely devote themselves to their children while still being able to improve the family’s social and economic standing (Wenger 194).
Analysis of Waterville census records shows that there was an average of three to four children per Jewish family in Waterville from 1900 to the 1930s. While there were families in Waterville that had five to seven children, the most common number of children per family was three.
The average number of children per Jewish family in Waterville was slightly higher than the average of two children per Jewish family in New York City. This could be because houses in Waterville were more spacious than in New York City and thus was able to accommodate the growth of larger families. It could also be because during times of economic downturn Jewish mothers in the city had to return to work in the factories or at a part-time job whereas in Waterville Jewish mothers worked in the family business, which provided them with a more flexible work schedule to accommodate the growth of their family.
The mother-child relationship
In movies from the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish mothers are often portrayed as willing to embrace the new styles and traditions while the fathers are often portrayed as strictly rooted in the traditions of the old country. The Jewish fathers refuse to accept the new world and its ideas, which causes a rift between the fathers and their children (Antler 28).
While the movies often portrayed extreme versions of the Jewish family, a similar but less extreme version of this trend was evident in the mothers in Kennebec County.
“My mother was much more open. And my grandmother was always accepting of whatever I did.”
– Ken Slosberg
The relationship that Ken Slosberg had with both his mother and his grandmother provide evidence to the trend of Jewish mothers’ willingness and ability to accept the new styles and traditions of America. By accepting the Americanization of their children, mothers were also able to form close relationships with their children and bridge the culture gap that formed between them and their newly Americanized children.
“She had a great sense of humor, and she and I, we’d banter around a lot. She knew exactly what I was thinking. Growing up was wonderful with parents…my father was a hard-working man, good father, and a little strict, disciplined. My mother always tried to protect us.”
– Lester Jolovitz
Once again there is evidence that suggests that because Lester’s father was gone working, his mother was not only the matriarch of the family, but she was also able form a close relationship with her son through her ability to overcome the culture gap between her and her son.
The meaning of food
Jewish mothers not only used food as a sign of love, but also as a way to ensure the health and growth of their children. Although many non-Jews could not understand why most Jewish mothers constantly forced their children to eat, Hasia Diner claims that the Jewish mother’s attitude towards food was because of their “pre-immigration encounter with hunger and America’s possibilities” (Diner 192). Ken Slosberg recalled that his mother and both his grandmothers loved to cook and enjoyed watching him eat.
“It would be unheard of to grab fast food or just grab a bite to eat on your own and not eat with the family. We always ate together.”
– Ken Slosberg
Jewish mothers also used food as a way to bring the whole family together. There was rarely, if ever, a time when the family would not sit down and eat a meal together. According to Diner, Russian-Jewish “foodways grew out of a particular context which connected food, sanctity, community, class, and the gendered nature of everyday responsibilities Jews bore to each other” (Diner 176). Lester Jolovitz’s mother would “spend all morning cooking” a meal from scratch because it was important for her to not only feed her family, but it was also her way to bring her family together after spending most of the day apart. For Jewish mothers food was the essential connection to all facets of Jewish life, it was not only used to feed their children, but it was also used to maintain their children’s knowledge of Jewish tradition and culture. (See: Religious life.)
Instilling a Jewish identity
One way Jewish mothers used food to instill a Jewish identity in their children was by following the dietary laws of kashrut. For Ida Levine’s mother, Gordon Wolman’s mother and Sumner Fanger’s grandmother, keeping kosher was a very important aspect to their Jewish identity. Although at times it was difficult to get kosher meat, all three women abided by the dietary laws of kashrut their entire lives. By preparing traditional Jewish dishes mothers also used food to teach their children about Jewish holidays and traditions.
“Our Jewishness came from, as I said, in the house.”
– Irene Friedman
For Jewish mothers in Kennebec County, the task of instilling a Jewish identity in their children was much harder than for Jewish mothers in big cities because of the lack of a strong Jewish community throughout the county during the interwar years. In Waterville there were never more than about fifty Jewish families at one time, which made it difficult to set-up a Hebrew or Sunday school for the Jewish children. (See: Population patterns.) This meant that until the 1950s, when Phyllis Shiro decided to setup a Sunday school, the Jewish children in Waterville relied on their parents or a tutor to teach them about Judaism. (See: Religious education.) Although Kennebec County did not have the type of Jewish community found in New York City, Ida Levine said that her mother “instilled Judaism in the family, she really did.” The transition to a matriarchal society and the lack of a strong Jewish community in Kennebec County contributed to the trend of mothers assuming more responsibility when it came to instilling a Jewish identity in their children.
Antler, Joyce. You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Diner, Hasia R. Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Morawska, Ewa T. Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Wenger, Beth. “Budgets, Boycotts, and Babies.” In Pamela Susan Nadell, ed., American Jewish Women’s History: A Reader. (New York: New York University Press, 2003). 185-200.
Friedman, Irene. Interviewed by Nicole Mitchell, January 16, 2010.
Jolovitz, Lester. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 10 and 21, 2010.
Rosenthal, Bob. Interviewed by Becky Muller, January 22, 2010.
Slosberg, Ken. Interviewed by Nicole Mitchell, January 19, 2010.
Wolman, Myrtle. Interviewed by Hasan Bhatti, Jaunary 21, 2010.