My father has explained his childhood obesity to me like this: living as migratory Jews across eastern Europe, he rarely wanted to eat the gruel his mother could afford to make, so she would physically grip his mouth open from the cheeks and spoon-feed him more calories than he ever needed.
That anecdote always struck me as deeply Jewish. It’s kind of funny, kind of sad, and a testament to the hilarious results of a mother who just cares too much. I can almost hear her chastising my father’s protestations: “What, you’d rather starve?”
This is the Jewish mother we know from punchlines reaching back to the Borscht Belt days. Seinfeld’s won’t accept the Cadillac he bought her; Woody Allen’s embarrasses him celestially in Oedipus Wrecks; Howard’s screams incessantly from another room in The Big Bang Theory.
“Excessive, overprotective, neurotically anxious and ever-present, the Jewish mother was a convenient scapegoat for ambivalent and hostile sentiments regarding assimilation in a new society, changing family dynamics and shifting gender roles,” writes Joyce Antler, author of You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother.
Though we judge them on the surface, at their deepest, these women endear us with a hint of vulnerability: I nag because I care, I feel neglected when you don’t call, I force-feed you gruel because you’re too young to understand malnutrition. Over the years, that vulnerability has been transformed, generally by male comedians, into the overbearing caricature we know today.
That might explain why it took a couple of women – Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the co-creators and stars of the critically acclaimed, and at times foul-mouthed, Broad City, whose third season debuts Feb. 17 and whose second was recently added to CraveTV – to shatter the stereotype with Ilana’s onscreen mother, Bobbi Wexler.
Though Bobbi has only appeared in the fourth episode of season 2, her time on-screen is near-revolutionary. The joke is set up typically enough: Ilana and Abbi arrive at a street corner to meet Bobbi, whose own mother just died, and who wants to take the opportunity to spend a day adventuring through Brooklyn with Ilana. “Of course she isn’t here,” Ilana gripes. “I knew we didn’t have to rush. This b—h is always late.”
The thing to remember is that Glazer and Jacobson are foremost modern, young New Yorkers dealing with drugs, jobs and sex; they’re explicitly Jewish, but their cultural backgrounds are as vague as Ilana’s sexual preferences. They do whatever they want. So it’s obvious that the flippant, free-willed millennial should resent her mother as much as any Jewish comic of the past century.
Instead, we hear the voice of Susie Essman (famous as Susie Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm) as the camera pans up to a slow reveal of Bobbi: “I can’t believe you beat me here,” she says, pointing to her daughter: “This b—h is always late.” With that, they break into sincere smiles and hugs.
That introductory moment completely shatters the entire Jewish mother trope. It’s not that Bobbi isn’t a stereotypical Jewish mom – she spends the entire episode ballistically kvetching, guilt-tripping Ilana and hunting for a good deal on Chinese knockoff handbags – but Ilana isn’t embarrassed by her. Instead she literally, immediately, embraces her, and they later walk down the street proudly holding hands. Ilana isn’t afraid of becoming her mother – she knows she already is. And she’s proud of it.
This shouldn’t be surprising for a show constantly praised for its progressive portrayal of feminism, race, class and sexuality. In a show that champions every type of womanhood, Bobbi is the winning kvetch.
In her final scene, she and Ilana are hugging again in public when a white man walks up and yells, “Hey! You’re blocking the whole f—g sidewalk!” They swiftly turn and berate him, swearing furiously until he awkwardly walks away. Then the two women get quiet, hold out their arms and hug again, confessing their love in public, in defiance of the world around them.