May 25th, 2010
02:09 PM ET

Jules Feiffer, Judaism and motherhood

In an interview about his new book, “Backing into Forward,” cartoonist Jules Feiffer observed, “The two things I knew I wasn’t going to write about was my mother and my Jewishness. And, of course, they became the central themes of the book.”

His mother is easy to find: Rhoda Feiffer is a main character of Feiffer’s memoir, cold, commanding, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Feiffer said she developed some of her personality by necessity, as Feiffer’s father Dave was a ne’er-do-well, a failure at business who gave the household over to his dominant wife.

Feiffer's Jewishness, however, is less overtly mentioned. But it is in the very air he breathes.

He grew up on a street in the Bronx that he describes as “except for two or three Italian families, rigorously Jewish;” Kaminkowitz’s drugstore was on the corner, “next to Horowitz’s vegetable store.” Many of his cartoonist heroes are Jewish - Al Capp, Will Eisner, Chester Gould - as well as a number of the men who drew comic book superheroes. (Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were Jewish; a number of writers, notably Michael Chabon, have compared the Superman story to that of the Golem, the fictional Jewish protector made from clay whose main legend dates back to the 16th century.)

But Feiffer is more what Jews – of which I’m one – think of as “culturally Jewish” instead of “religiously Jewish.” Feiffer begins one paragraph with the phrase, “Years before I lost my faith in God. ... ” Later, he remarks, “it took Gentiles or neo-Gentiles to make me a Jew; it took Jews to make me an anti-Semite. I defined myself by distancing myself.” So did his relatives – one aunt converted to Christian Science, a sister invested herself in left-wing politics.

Still, you can run but you can’t hide – and when Jewishness is combined with motherhood, there’s truly no escape. Feiffer talks about his years of therapy and how his mother worked her way into his strips, if only through the self-searching characters. There’s even one strip, from 1958, that Feiffer refers to as “what I believe was the first Jewish Mother cartoon.” (Jewish mothers soon became a growth industry. Six years later, Dan Greenburg published “How to Be a Jewish Mother.” Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” arrived in 1969.)

His mother was true to the caricature. Long after Feiffer had disproved her worries and become a famous cartoonist and playwright, his mother called him one day and asked, “Sonny Boy, is there anything I ever did to you that you resent me for?”

Feiffer hems and haws. He thinks about the pet dog she gave away. He thinks about one of her common phrases, “fall down on the job.” He finally tells her no, that he understands her concerns, that it’s OK. She won’t let go.

Finally, Feiffer says, “Ma, what does it matter, whatever happened, happened so many years ago and during such hard times, that I’ve long since forgotten and forgiven you.”

A five-second pause, and then Rhoda Feiffer responds, “Is that the thanks I get?”

“As I lay spread out on the floor for the eight count,” Feiffer writes, “I thought in admiration and pride, ‘My God, she can still do it!’ ”

- CNN.com Entertainment Producer

Filed under: Culture & Science • Judaism

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. EM

    "..anything I ever did to you that you resent me for?.." - I would've replied: "..yep, and they're the same things that I thank you for.."
    Not necessarily as a compliment though. Those 'things' taught me lessons; mostly, on how *not* to raise my own kids.

    While not Jewish, I have a Mother of exactly the same ilk (see? I even capitalized "Mother" .. what does that tell ya ..). Mind you, she is of old-country 'bohunk' European background, so the cultural basis is very similar. "Is that the thanks I get?" - oh boy, how many times did I hear *that*. Usually coupled with her mutterings of how much better her life would have been had she had daughters instead of three sons. Or more mutterings of how she could have become a famous writer or actor had she not gotten married and saddled with motherhood. The guilt, the guilt (ours, not hers!).

    Fathers aren't like that; at least not in the 1950s when I grew up. They mostly grumbled and kept to themselves. They were just as critical of us kids, mind you, just not as vocal about it as their wives. What a childhood, the 1950s. Glad it's over.

    May 26, 2010 at 5:54 am |
  2. rebecca r.

    oh, jewish boys and their mothers. is it ok that i'm a jewish girl and can relate? i think us yid chicks need a portnoy of our own.

    May 26, 2010 at 3:10 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.