What is the concept of "Jewish guilt" supposed to mean and why is it so culturally pervasive?

I am a Jew and my whole family is Jewish. Literally my entire family. They’re New York Jews, too, the most stereotypical kind of Jew that there is. And yet whenever I see a reference to “Jewish guilt” I am completely at a loss. As in, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I was not raised with the idea that I’m supposed to feel guilty about anything, and nobody in my family strikes me as a “guilty” person. And none of the other Jewish people that I know seem to feel “guilty” about anything, either.

What is it exactly that Jews are supposedly guilty about? How did such an abstract concept become so entrenched in American cultural ideas about Jews? I’ll see stuff about this - usually from Jewish comedians - example, Jon Stewart’s book Naked Pictures of Famous People, which has a little comparison chart of Orthodox and Conservative and Reform Jews that has a “guilt” column which says “TOTAL” for all three of them - and I don’t even know what it means, let alone why it’s supposed to be funny.

Hell, there’s a fucking book called The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. As if this concept is supposed to be immediately recognizable and somehow uniquely related to Jews. Well, it is totally lost on me.

Sometimes I’ll also see references to “Catholic guilt.” I don’t know if this is supposed to be separate from “Jewish guilt” or the same deal, but similarly, I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

To me, the idea of “guilt” is way too abstract a concept to be thrown around as an example of an identifying feature of a culture, like “Jews love matzo balls, bagels, and guilt” or whatever. What is the deal with this? Where and how did this stereotype originate?

The only reference to Jewish guilt I know of is when comediennes talk about not living their lives according to their mothers’ wishes. I think there’s more guilt tripping than actual guilt.

I suspect that Woody Allen and various other comedians are largely responsible for perpetuating this stereotype in modern culture. It’s been a cinema trope for quite some time, and the idea has been around far before the first flicker shows.

As with all stereotypes, it’s dash of reality sifted into a mountain of parody. I don’t think it’s an insult so much as a self-effacing comic utility when used by people like Woody Allen or Jon Stewart. It’s a double edged sword and grounded in a common feeling among us goyim that Jewish culture produces mothers who care so much about their children that they can be a bit over the top. In return, they require the same doting and attention from their offspring, thus engendering a certain amount of guilt when an errant child neglects to stay in contact or breaks tradition by not marrying a nice Jewish girl.

Of course, we all know that not all mothers are this way, Jewish or not. Still, one can’t hear the phrase, “You never call, you never write… I worry,” without adding an exaggerated New York Jewish accent.

WRT “Catholic guilt,” the joke there is that virtually anything fun/pleasurable is classified as a sin, and therefore no Catholic can have fun without feeling guilty about it. (“This is great! I’m so going to Hell!”) Especially regarding sex and sexual practices.

As with the Jewish guilt stereotype, there’s a bit of truth and a lot of parody involved.

Can’t help you with Jewish Guilt, but I was supposed to be a Catholic, and while it didn’t take I did pick up a bit of the Catholic worldview.

It’s original sin. Catholics are very big on the whole idea of original sin, that we are all terrible dirty sinners and that we were born that way and that there’s not a damn thing you can do about it except spend your whole life apologising to God for being a dirty sinner. That’s basically the whole religion, right there.

And it’s no good arguing with God about how if the entire universe is his creation, then it’s his fault we’re sinners. Because God gave us free will, back there in the Garden of Eden, and we blew it with the whole fruit of the tree of knowledge thing. So we’re all tainted with Original Sin and the very best we can hope for is to feel really really guilty about about it, and then we might be forgiven.

So, an entirely different thing to “Jewish guilt”, which seems to come from a cultural stereotype rather than being built-in to the religion itself.

A lot of it comes from the stereotype of the Jewish mother, a domineering matriarch who uses passive-aggressive behavior to manipulate her sons.

“I’m not going to medical school, ma, I’m going to be in a rock band!”
“Ok, break you’re mother’s heart, what does it matter, I’ve only raised you these past 18 years…”

How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
“Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here in the dark.”

So Jewish guilt arises not from religion, but from the feeling that you’ve never pleased your mother. It’s a stereotype, but unlike most stereotypes about Jews it arises from within the community, so there’s a chunk of truth in there. Of course not every Jewish mother is like this.

In summary, Catholics feel guilt for things they’ve committed, Jews for things for things they’ve ommitted.

My Dad had a mom like this, so he made sure to marry a non-Jew. Unfortunately he married one with the exact same personality. :smack:

Interestingly, here in Israel - where the Jewish population is far more diverse than in the US - that kind of attitude is specifically attributed to *Polish *Jews. As most American Jews come from Poland and environs, that makes sense.

I think, however, that there is a religious component to Jewish guilt. Look at all the times in the Bible where God punished the Children of Israel for their misdeeds - I think that this approach leaves Jews with a nagging feeling that anything bad that happens to them is their fault. This, naturally, leads to a generalized, pervasive cloud of free-standing guilt.

Jews, IMHO, also tend to be a bit more introspective than other people.

I’ll just note that I’ve never heard of it. (Though I have heard of Catholic guilt and Jewish mothers.)

I remember, a while ago, being annoyed by the stereotype of Jewish guilt and determined to tell it like it really is.

Then I thought about my policy of preemptive apologies, and decided maybe I wasn’t the best spokeswoman for Jewish mental health.

So wait a minute - if ‘jewish guilt’ is just a NY comedy trope, what’s Yom Kippur about - why’s Judaism’s holiest day all about atonement ?

The Hebrew Bible is filled with it. A very large part of Jewish Scripture is about Jews punished by God for being unfaithful, and blaming Jews for their own misfortunes. It’s a very self-loathing body of literature at times. Like Allesan says, a degree of guilt is built right into Jewish theology.


Catholic guilt: feeling of remorse, self-doubt, or personal responsibility that results when a Catholic engages in “sinful” acts. It’s guilt that is self-imposed, because someone feels they’re not worthy enough in the eyes of God.

Example: you don’t call your mother that often, and you feel guilty because you’re breaking the commandment of “Honor your mother and father”, and thus being unworthy of salvation because you’re sinning in the eyes of God.

Jewish guilt: guilt that isn’t self-imposed, but rather brought on by another party, usually a parent or mate, often in an attempt to be manipulative. God usually doesn’t enter the picture.

Example: you don’t call your mother that often, and she makes you feel guilty for it, in an indirect, roundabout way. “I guess you’re too busy to call your bubbe. That’s okay. I’ll just sit here at home alone, with nobody to talk to. I’ll read a book. Don’t worry about me.”

Self-imposed guilt does occur as a part of Jewish guilt, but again God doesn’t enter the picture. It may be a feeling that you didn’t do enough to help someone when they needed it, or, among Holocaust survivors, that you lived while millions of others died, many better people than you in your eyes.

I swear, in all my 23 years of interacting with Jews I have never run across one of these stereotypical “Jewish mothers.”

Twenty-three isn’t very old or experienced, but be that as it may, these tropes come from Jews themselves, so there must be some cultural basis for them.

My late grandmother on my Dad’s side. Very much a worrywart, and she could lay down the guilt thick like a trowel.

I think that, for the Jewish mother paradigm, it usually involved some horrible, lonely death for the mother. Let me starve to death. Kill your mother by marrying the Shiksa. BTW, let me make you some chicken soup…The hyperbole.
It’s, I think, a carryover from the Jewish vaudeville/Catskill circuits, ergo, a dying creature. But, since only Jewish groups on television are the only ones to do it, who knows how the demographic will work out?


I am like a Jewish mother without the guilt. I know it’s wrong but I brought my son a hot meal many nights to his job and finally realized I was embarrassing him and stopped. I sometimes drop off meals at his house and am looking for a nice girl for him. It is really hard to stop this behavior. He called me on Saturday in pain. He got something jammed in a finger at work. I took him to the ER and went with him in the examining room. Sure enough he had a staff infection. I wanted to make sure he was alright. He has his own home and life but we are very close.

I think he gets a kick out of it and growing up his friends did. I have only guilted him a few times and it was something important. Like not showing up for Grandmothers birthday or something like that.

I’m only half Jewish – and on my fathers side no less! – and I never once had to ask what Jewish Guilt was.

I knew, I just knew. I interacted with my grandmother (paternal) and 2nd cousin (paternal), both New York Jewish Women (despite the former living in Orlando).

More than that, my father of all people tries to Jewish Guilt me. Doesn’t work, of course, because the amoral offspring of a goyum girl, but he tries.

A Jewish man calls his mother and he asks “How have you been?”

She says, “Oy, terrible my boychik, I’ve not eaten in 38 days!”

The man says, “Ma, why haven’t you eaten in 38 days?”

She replies, “I didn’t want my mouth should be full incase you called!”

THAT is Jewish guilt, and if you don’t get it (even in its exaggerated styling) then you’re from a different tribe than (I, me, I am?).

Oh, no: there’s sins of commision, ommision and thought. Depending on who you ask, Catholics are supposed to feel guilty for breathing too hard.

That’s the lite version, isn’t it? My mother isn’t even Jewish, but she and Grandma are total Guilt Queens…

“Oh, change the lightbulb! With my bones, you expect me to change the lightbulb! It’s easy to say, change the lightbulb! And you never come to visit, and it takes forever to find an electrician, so who, I ask who, is going to change the lightbulb, you expect me to take the ladder off the storage room and drag it all the way here and change the lightbulb, and what if I fall down, who will help me up, you never come, you never visit your poor mother, is this how I raised you, I raised you better than this, I did teach you manners, I did, and you never visit, now you expect me to change the lightbulb, what will be next, am I to come clean your house as well, should I come change your lightbulbs, I’m sure that girl doesn’t change any lightbulbs, you probably change them before they even get spent, what a way to throw money away. And you never call, and you never come, and meanwhile I have a lightbulb that needs changing and I’m here sitting in the dark SIGH
Notice that it would be said either on the phone (proving that you never call) or while following you around as you lug the ladder (because you evidently never come) and by someone who’d happily rearrange your whole house (apparently her bones don’t hurt if she’s reorganizing other people’s clothing and cooking pots). Plus, any room in their houses has at least 3 lightbulbs, so “sitting in the dark” is a mite of an exaggeration.

It’s not just killing your mother by marrying a shiksa. it’s more like “I survived Auschwitz but now YOU’re going to kill me by marrying that shiksa.”

The truth is, the survivors of the concentration camps, gulags, and ghettos were permanently scarred by the experience, especially in having separation fears. The vast majority were not at all introspective about it, and simply acted out their terror of loss by manipulating their children into doing what they felt was necessary to keep them close.

It’s ok to have a lot of sympathy for the origin of these fears – if 11 of your 13 siblings were murdered, you’d have some separation fears too – without giving in to the manipulation. But it is a challenge. And of course the children who didn’t break the cycle of manipulation consciously, mostly repeat it.