How to Forgive Your Jewish Mother for Bugging You About Your Nose

Filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum proves that mother-daughter relationships can shift course, even late in life.

Madeline Bey

Get yourself a nose job. Straighten your hair. Find yourself a nice Jewish boy, for God’s sake, and get married already.

But Gayle Kirschenbaum will not heed her mother’s pleas. Any wonder they are constantly at each other’s throats?

“Look At Us Now, Mother!” Kirschenbaum’s latest film, is a touching and funny account of her attempt to make peace with the overbearing and super-critical mother who has caused her so much misery and pain. It’s a journey that involves many hours on the therapist’s couch and thousands of miles of travel.

“Do you ever feel you were born into the wrong family?” asks the award-winning filmmaker and television producer at the start of her feature-length documentary, which will be screened this weekend at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Next week, “Look At Us Now, Mother!” makes its way to Tel Aviv, where it will be shown at the Docaviv International Film Festival. It had its international premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival.

Mildred, the mother who stars in this film, is over 90 and still going strong. “She’s very outspoken, very smart, very politically incorrect, but usually what she says makes tremendous sense,” is how one of her mah-jongg partners describes her. “A piece of work,” says another.

The film makes use of a vast archive of home movies shot by Kirschenbaum’s father, as well as her own recently discovered childhood diaries, to tell the story of this highly fraught mother-daughter relationship. Mildred is a tough cookie, and it takes lots of prodding to get her to bare bits of her soul. But in the process, her daughter uncovers pieces of family history that help explain her mother’s harsh behavior and allow her to put the past behind her.

“No, lots of people ask me if it was a cathartic experience, but it wasn’t at all,” says Kirschenbaum, in a phone conversation from her home in New York. “I began reliving my childhood, and that was a horrific experience. I ended up becoming the wounded child again. If I knew in advance that making this film would be such a painful experience, I might not have done it.”

This is not Kirschenbaum’s first personal documentary. “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary,” a wacky film about her relationship with her dog, was broadcast on HBO and enjoyed wide media coverage.

Not that it impressed her mother. “After I was interviewed on ‘The Today Show,’” recalls Kirschenbaum, “my mother calls, and what’s the first thing she says? “Not ‘Hey Gayle, you did a great job.’ No, the first thing she tells me is that I need to take elocution lessons because I sound too Jewish. So I’m like ‘Mom, I am Jewish.’”

“Look At Us Now, Mother!” takes up where she left off with her previous short documentary “My Nose,” a film-festival favorite that followed her mother’s relentless campaign for her to get a nose job. “Whenever I’d show the film, people would just line up after and tell me the same things over and over — ‘I love your nose, don’t touch it, I can’t stand your mother, how do you talk to her, and let me tell you my story,” Kirschenbaum says.

Kirschenbaum eventually heard enough stories to understand she could use her own experiences coping with a difficult mother to help others. “I decided that I wanted this next film to be about forgiveness,” she says. “I knew that I had to teach people how to forgive.”

The nagging, disapproving mother is not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, as Kirschenbaum has learned. “I hear from other cultures —– Italian, Greek Chinese — similar stories about very dominating mothers,” she says. “So I’m not sure if we’re the only ethnic group that’s cornered the market on this.”

In Jewish and other immigrant cultures, she observes, the emphasis on a daughter’s appearance seems to stem from a strong desire to fit in. “For people like my parents, first-generation Americans, anything ethnic-looking or ethnic-sounding is not considered good. That’s why from a young age, my mother was having my hair professionally straightened, and then when my nose started to grow, it was a campaign that never ended for me to get it fixed. Forcing us to look Anglo was a way to protect us.”

But there was also a double message being put out, as Kirschenbaum notes. “On the one hand, everything Jewish about you is not good. But on the other hand, you absolutely must marry a Jew.”

“Look At Us Now, Mother!” will be shown at Docaviv on Thursday, May 14 at 8:30 P.M. and on Friday, May 15 at 6:45 P.M.