Read an Excerpt
"Oedipus, Shmedipus, as Long as He
Loves His Mother"
The Inescapable Hold
of the Jewish Family
Between Parents and Children
Three elderly Jewish women are seated on a bench in Miami Beach, each one bragging about how devoted her son is to her.
The first one says, "My son is so devoted that last year for my birthday he gave me an all-expenses-paid cruise around the world. First class."
The second one says "My son is more devoted For my seventy-fifth birthday last year, he catered an affair for me And even gave me money to fly down my good friends from New York. "
The third one says., "My son is the most devoted Three times a week he goes to a psychiatrist. A hundred and twenty dollars an hour he pays him. And what does he speak about the whole time? Me."
The intense connectedness of the Jewish family is no invention of modern Jewish humor. Its roots go back to the fifth of the Ten Commandments: "Honor your father and mother."Today people take it for granted that religion furthers family closeness; "A family that prays together stays together," a popular catchphrase of the 1950s declared. But, in fact, it was highly unusual to place respect for parents in a religion's most basic legal document. New religions generally try to alienate children from parents, fearing that the elders will try to block their offspring from adopting a way of life different from their own. In the United States, many religious cults are notorious for loosening, if not shattering, children's familialattachments.
Hostility to parents also characterizes radical, particularly totalitarian, political movements. Both Nazi and Communist societies instructed children to inform party officials of any antigovernment acts or utterances by their parents. In the Soviet Union, well into the 1980s, children who joined the Russian equivalent of the Boy Scouts took an oath to follow in the footsteps of Pavlick Maroza. During the 1930s, twelve-year-old Pavlick informed Communist officials of antigovernment comments made by his father, who was summarily executed. Outraged, the boy's uncle killed him. For the next half-century, until Gorbachev came to power, Pavlick Maroza was held up to Soviet youth as a model citizen, and statues of him were erected in parks throughout the USSR. One can only imagine the discomfort of parents who, taking their children to a park, were asked to explain whom the statue was depicting. "Pavlick Maroza," the father (or mother) would answer. "And what did he do, Daddy?" It must have made for some very unpleasant moments.
It is thus quite striking that from its very beginnings, Judaism placed so positive an emphasis on parent-child relations. Jewish humor, however, is concerned with the down side of this encounter, with what happens when the glorified relationship becomes too intense. Intimations of such an overintensity can be found in the Talmud. Some rabbis placed virtually no limits on filial obligations: "Rabbi Tarfon had a mother for whom, whenever she wished to mount into bed, he would bend down to let her ascend [by stepping on him]; and when she wished to descend, she stepped down upon him. He went and boasted about what he had done in his yeshiva. The others said to him, 'You have not yet reached half the honor [due her]: has she then thrown a purse before you into the sea without your shaming [or getting angry at] her?"' (Kiddushin 31b).
As if to ensure that children, no matter how well they treated their parents, would still feel guilty, the Talmud relates the story of a righteous gentile, Dama, who was about to conclude the sale of some jewels from which he would derive a 600,000 gold denarii profit. Unfortunately, the key to the case in which the jewels were held was lying beneath his father, and the old man was taking a nap. Dama refused to wake him, "trouble him," in the words of the Talmud. Of this same Dama, the Talmud relates: "[He] was once wearing a gold embroidered silken cloak and sitting among Roman nobles, when his mother came, tore it off from him, struck him on the head, and spat in his face, yet he did not shame her" (Kiddushin 31a).
So extreme and unending are the demands some talmudic rabbis make of children that one sage, Rabbi Yochanan, declared in despair, "Happy is he who has never seen his parents" (Kiddushin 31b).
In similar fashion, in the story about the three women in Miami Beach, the best way a son can "honor" his mother is by paying a psychiatrist a fortune to speak about her nonstop.
The linking of psychiatry and Jewish mothers is no coincidence. While Jews are overrepresented in medicine in the United States, in no other specialty is this more the case than in psychiatry (477 percent of what would be normal, given Jewish representation in the general population).
Large-scale Jewish involvement has characterized psychoanalysis, in particular, since its inception. Sigmund Freud selected C. G. Jung to be the first president of the international Psychoanalytic Association because he did not want psychiatry to be dismissed as a "Jewish science" (which the Nazis did anyway) and Jung was the only non-Jew in Freud's inner circle. "It was only by [Jung's] appearance on the scene," Freud claimed in a letter to a friend, "that psychoanalysis escaped the danger of becoming a Jewish national affair.
Jewish jokes about psychiatry almost invariably involve the family, and they have gone through two phases. In the earliest phase, they dealt with the inability of unsophisticated Eastern European Jews to understand the powerful new insights provided by psychiatry.
A mother is having a very tense relationship with her fourteen-year-old son. Screaming and fighting are constantly going on in the house. She finally brings him to a psychoanalyst. After two sessions, the doctor calls the mother into his office.
"Your son," he tells her, "has an Oedipus complex."
"Oedipus, Shmedous," the woman answers. "As long as he loves his mother."Jewish Humor. Copyright © by Joseph Telushkin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.