Author Paula Wolfson and Photographer Lloyd Wolf: Making Mitzvahs [elan magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Pictured here: Pat Lunior and son Josh
Author and social worker Paula E. Wolfson and award-winning photographer Lloyd Wolf, both of Arlington, set out several years ago to shatter the stereotype of the overbearing, overprotective, zany Jewish mom who is driven to feed matzo balls to the masses.
The result is “Jewish Mothers: Strength, Wisdom, Compassion,” (Chronicle Books, 2000), a compilation of first-person stories and black-and-white photographs.
Among the 50 profile subjects are Auschwitz survivor Ethel Kleinman, Northern Virginia midwife Alice Bades, Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, Nobel Prize winning chemist Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and adoptive mother and breast cancer survivor Reena Bernards. Celebrity entries range from the late puppeteer Shari Lewis to violinist and composer Alicia Svigals.
Comedienne Lotus Weinstock, who performed on “The Tonight Show,” and “The Merv Griffin Show” in the 1980s and 90s, had this to say about being a mother:
“Raising a child in Los Angeles is very difficult ever since they lowered the official age of puberty to six,” Weinstock says. “When my daughter was three and a half, I caught her giving birth to her doll. I said, ‘Where you doing?’ She said, ‘enough with the questions-cut the cord!”
Paula recalls meeting Lotus Weinstock the night before the comedienne was hospitalized for a brain biopsy.
“Lotus was diagnosed with cancer in December 1996, shortly before we planned to meet, and very sadly she died in 1997. Having the chance to meet her, and her daughter who helped her through the interview, was a very special experience. Lotus was a bright, funny and very special lady.”
Stories of tragedy and triumph are paired with Lloyd’s stunning, sometimes haunting, black-and-white photographs. Lloyd, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Vogue, and People magazine, says he and Paula were determined to improve the negative stereotype of the Jewish mother.
“The image of the crazy immigrant Jewish mother is a purely American one, and I personally believe its roots can be traced to the Borscht Belt in the 1940s. Jewish comedians, such as Henry Youngman and Buddy Hackett, would have audiences roaring with jokes about their Jewish mothers doing funny, often silly things.”
Lloyd shares the story about a Russian Jewish immigrant who wanted to make gefilte fish for Passover. To keep the fish fresh until time to cook them, she let them swim around in the bathtub.
“That story creates quite an image,” says Lloyd. “It is at once funny and clever of her, but also a little sad. Of course, these [stories] played well because they were written for Jewish audiences on vacation in the Catskills, and these were inside jokes.”
The stereotype went mainstream, says Lloyd. “When the comedians appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ they told the same jokes, but somehow the punch-line seemed mean. Before long, Americans had a negative impression of Jewish mothers.”
Lloyd and Paula figured the best way to alter that stereotype was to have a broad cross-section of Jewish women tell their own stories, in their own words. It wasn’t an easy process. “Lloyd and I knew immediately that it was the concept to go with,” says Paula, a former staff member of Washington Jewish Week, “because we knew a book that represented Jewish mothers in a positive light had never been done. We wanted to set the record straight, to create a historically accurate, affirming book.”
But the initial idea turned off some potential candidates.
“Many women feared the book was only going to enhance the old Jewish jokes and didn’t want to be a part of it,” says Paula. So the collaborators perfected their pitch. Within a few months, they had persuaded several prominent Jewish mothers to be profiled. The more women they convinced, the more who wanted to be in the book.
Although they both had full-time jobs, Paula and Lloyd hammered away at the project in their spare time. Tasks included finding subjects and setting up meetings, then taking trips around the country to conduct interviews and take photographs. Thousands of hours were spent writing, editing and rewriting the text.
Finally, in May of 2000, the first printed copies of the book arrived. “It was like waiting for our baby to be delivered,” says Paula who celebrated the publication by opening a bottle of champagne she had been chilling for four years.
Although most of the 20,000 copies printed have sold out since then, Paula and Lloyd continue to promote their book, traveling around the country to give lectures and hang exhibits of the photographs in bookstores, art and photo galleries and museums.
“The 50 people we interviewed are so very dedicated to their families, communities and their country,” Paula says. “Yet, if Lloyd and I were to do it all over again and pick a different set of 50 women, I think we could easily convey the same message. For the most part, America’s Jewish mothers are a success story. Their individual lives reflect Jewish concerns, but their joys and struggles as mothers have a universal appeal.”
It turns out Jewish men have much to share, too. Paula and Lloyd are currently collaborating on Mensch, a pictorial of 50 Jewish American fathers due in bookstores on Father’s Day, 2005.