Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women

by Janet Handler Burstein
University of Illinois Press, $34.95, cloth, $14.95, paper

Under a cloak of academic analysis, Janet Handler Burstein has worked out a complex understanding of the relationships between Jewish American mothers and daughters. On one level, this is a discussion of the writings of Jewish American women writers—from the immigrant generations of Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska to contemporary writers like E.M. Broner, Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich. Along the way, Burstein also manages to create a maturational prototype specific to the Jewish American woman.

Though the ostensible subject of this book is literature, Burstein’s text is overlaid with the language of both psychotherapeutic and feminist theory. Burstein positions all the writers as “daughters” and sets them in relief against their mothers’ experiences. They grow up in sections called “Leaving Home and Mother”; “Centering the Devalued Mother”; “Mirroring the Mother: The Ordeal of Narcissism”; and “Restorying the Jewish Woman.” She is describing a complete cycle of dependence, growth and self-discovery.

In one telling passage, Burstein explains that she has not differentiated in her analysis between fiction and autobiography. And in her introduction Burstein connects the inspiration for this book to her own efforts at understanding her mother’s ambivalent relationship to a religion that would oblige her participation yet deny her equal status. No matter how often she tries to retreat into the language of the academy, her personal voice is never silent. Daughters, she writes at the end of her book, “have learned to hear beneath a mother’s certainties the courage of her confusions. No longer her translator or her mirror, they know that however distinctively they speak themselves they are also carrying forth her story.” The reader is rewarded with the recognition that this narrative is not only the story of the women we read, but also of the author and the reader as well.