Eshuegra, ni de asucar es buena!
[Mother-in-law - even if she's made of sugar, she's no good!]
A shviger un a shnur in eyn hoyz zenen vi tsvey kets in eyn zak!
[A mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law in one house are like two cats in one sack!]
[You were once a bride, you'll be a mother-in-law; what you did will be done to you!]
Di shviger hot fargesn, az zi iz amol aleyn geven a shnur! [The mother-in-law has forgotten that she herself was once a daughter-in-law!]
* * * *
Mothers-in-law! No matter which language you say it in, they are universally reviled!
Actually, most of the enmity is directed towards the mother of the groom, "chamot" in Hebrew, as distinct from "chotenet" [mother of the bride]. The words for mother-in-law in Yiddish [shviger] and in Ladino [suegra / esfuegra / eshuegra] don't indicate the exact familial relationship, but it's clear from folklore the world over, and from folksongs in particular, that the mother of the groom is the problematic person.*
The most famous mother/daughter-in-law relationship in antiquity is that of Ruth and Naomi. "Entreat me not to leave you" "Whither thou goest" (Ruth I: 16-17) is one of the most beautiful pledges ever made of devotion and loyalty. Ruth gave herself completely to her mother-in-law, and was rewarded many times over – by being totally accepted as a righteous convert to Judaism, by having a book in her name, and, most importantly, by heading the line via King David to the Messiah. (See the Shavuot lecture for paintings of Ruth and Naomi). But Ruth paid a price that modern women would chafe at: not only did she obey Naomi unquestioningly, but the child she bore was considered to be Naomi's, not hers (Ruth IV: 16-17) If we look at the grudges against domination, interference and criticism that modern women bear against their mothers-in-law, we see that what rankles today is precisely the type of fealty which Ruth willingly submitted to. (See Apter or ברסלרמן).
Perhaps Ruth's and Naomi's relationship was eased because there was no longer a son/husband to stir up jealousy between the two women; furthermore, Ruth had chosen to turn her back on her own family and culture. In Itsik Manger's midrash [exegesis] - Medresh Itzik - the difference between the attitude of Naomi's two daughters-in-law is explained in terms of the families they were thinking of leaving behind: Orpah was needed back at home and had a new suitor waiting, while Ruth was leaving behind a life of violence and despair. This is rather a cynical way of looking at Ruth's decision to go with Naomi, definitely at variance with Jewish tradition, but from the psychological point of view it makes sense!
William Blake - Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab
Ruth's relationship with Naomi is an extreme example of filial obedience, but the daughter-in-law in traditional society was also expected to honour and obey her mother-in-law. We can see this in the mikve [ritual bath] song, Ya salio de la mar, la galana [The gracious one came out of the sea], where the bride awaits her mother-in-law's permission before "jumping into the sea". As Michal Held explains in an interesting analysis of the song (in Hebrew), the mother-in-law represents her son and the patriarchal family which the bride is entering. At the mikveh, the mother-in-law will examine the bride as a sexual object; she will also encourage her to take the first step towards marriage while secretly harbouring a wish that the girl will not survive the ritual and thus steal her son from her.
"Ya salio del mar la galana", sung by Algarabia
The period before the wedding was one of joyful preparation, but also filled with tension and rivalry between the two families, especially between the two mothers-in-law *. Los de la novia [Those of the bride] consists of a bitter list of grievances voiced by the groom's family. In the song Poco le das, la mi consuegra [You only give her a little, my in-law] (also known as El regateo de las consuegras or Bueno sai biva la coshuegra), the groom's mother accuses the bride's mother of not providing her daughter with a large enough dowry. Another accusation of miserliness against la madre de esta novia [the mother of this bride], concerns the wedding feast, which she is traditionally expected to provide. She apologizes for the paucity of the meal and promises to provide a more sumptuous feast at some vague future date. Las suegras de ahora [modern mothers-in-law] are regarded as spineless, because they do not exert any influence on their children's morals.
There was no escaping the influence of the mother-in-law in traditional family life, whether in Sephardic or Ashkenazi culture. The frequency of family rituals and festivals meant that there were endless opportunities to rub up against one another. The situation was exacerbated even further if the bride moved physically into her mother-in-law's territory, with little opportunity to turn to her own family for comfort. Many folksongs in Yiddish and Ladino describe the resentment that she felt: see, for example, Mi suegra, la negra [My mother-in-law, the shrew], or the song about the bad mother who was impossible to please: Oy vey, mame, vos zol ikh tun? Ikh hob a beyze shviger, hot zi mit mir tsu tun. [Oh dear, mother, what shall I do? I have an evil mother-in-law who's dissatisfied with me]. The new bride had to contend with a burdensome work load and constant harassment: Mi nuera, mi nuera [My daughter-in-law] tells about a mother-in-law plotting to test the bride's loyalty to her husband. She yearned for the good life she had had in her own parents' household - Cuando yo en ca de mi padre [When I was in my father's house] - and contended with her inlaws' derision in her new home - En mi guerta vey mama [In my garden, see, Mother]. However, there was no-one to turn to: Far vemen zol ikh shrayen? [To whom can I cry out?] In most cases, she was encouraged to mollify her inlaws: Beshas di shvigerl vet geyn fun shul, azoy zolstu untertrogn dem gildernem shtul. [When the mother-in-law comes home from synagogue, you should bring her the golden chair]. It was only by means of magic that the young bride could escape: she would turn herself into a goldene pave [golden peacock] or ask the peacock to send a message to her parents.
"Mi suegra, la negra", sung by Yasmin Levy
Variations upon the cruel mother-in-law theme have been sung in European ballads for hundreds of years (see note below), and the plaints are echoed in both Ladino and Yiddish. The Ladino romansa - La mala suegra [The bad mother-in-law] (or Dolores tiene la reina [The queen has pains]) - tells about a young queen who returns to her parents' palace to give birth. When her husband comes home, his mother incites him against his wife and he resolves to kill her. Different versions end in different ways. Most versions cite proverbs, such as: "La 'sfuegra con la nuera siempre se quisieron male." [The mother-in-law and the bride always hate each other]. In a Yiddish folksong on a similar theme, a mother-in-law refuses to send for a midwife when her daughter-in-law is about to give birth. The song ends with the mother, sent for by the son-in-law, finding her daughter dying (or already buried). In another Yiddish folksong reminiscent of the Anglo-Scottish ballad "Lord Randall" (Vu bistu geven, tekhterl mayne? [Where have you been, my daughter?]), it is implied that the daughter-in-law has been poisoned.
"Lord Randall", sung by Ewan McColl
There are some songs about good inlaws, but these are few and far between. Two examples are In rod arayn [In a circle] and Shviger, a gut helf aykh [Father-in-law, a good day]: these are dance songs, and probably refer more to the wedding than to any subsequent relationship. The wedding, of course, was a joyful occasion at which all the inlaws got introduced to each other in a spirit of good will. We see this in the circle dance from Sarajevo sung by Flory Jagoda: Yo kun la mi suegra, yo sto kontente [I'm very pleased with my mother-in-law]. Dancing the "sher" at a wedding was a good way to forget the evils associated with one's mother-in-law; even better was to drink a glass of yash [spirits]. Warshavsky, who paints humorous pictures of family members in many of his "folk songs", shows the mekhutonim geyen [inlaws walking]: Uncle Mendik strutting like a turkey, sister Freydl spinning like a top, Uncle Eli patting his stomach – all dance in honour of the bride and groom! In Ashkenazi weddings, the two mothers-in-law dance a broygez tants [dance of anger], with one of the ladies miming offence while the other tries to mollify her, and eventually they make up in a sholem tants [dance of peace]. Finally, the klezmer band would drive all the inlaws home: Firn di mekhutonim aheym.
Once the wedding was over, life with mother-in-law began in earnest, and the bride needed all the support she could get. The fact that there were a few brides who could count on their mothers can be seen in a folksong which is still popular today: "Mekhuteyneste mayne," says the bride's mother to her counterpart, "Tomer vet ir zayn a shlak, a beyze shviger, iz mayn tokhter oykhet an antikl!" [My in-law, if you're a shrew, a nasty mother-in-law, my daughter is also no slouch!]
The “ballad of the evil mother-in-law” is a folk song in many parts of Europe, with numerous regional variations (Stein 1979). Seemann (cited in Stein 1979: 7-8) writes as follows: “There are numerous European folk songs describing how havoc is wreaked for the family due to the hatred which the mother-in-law fuels against the daughter-in-law who has come into her life. According to such songs, she attempts to poison her son’s bride with the welcoming drink; or she sows lethal seeds of discord between husband and wife through malicious slander; she slowly torments her daughter-in-law to death with her tyrannical personality; or she contributes to this death by failing to provide assistance in need. She also attempts to achieve her criminal goal through the use of magic: She prevents birth, so that the eight-year-old twins finally have to be cut out of her daughter-in-law’s body, or she transforms the young woman into a tree and orders her son to cut the tree down."” … The motive of exploitation in particular is repeatedly varied: The son has to leave the house and asks his mother to take care of his young wife: She does the opposite, however: She forces her to do heavy work or perform menial services, or gives her bad food and bad clothing (Stein 1979: 8). In another variant, the young woman changes into a bird after ordered to do heavy-duty field work by her mother-inlaw and flies to her relatives to tell them all her woes. The mother-in-law’s influence on reproductive failure is also dealt with in an epic fashion: The mother-in-law does not help with the birth; on the contrary: She places a monster into the cradle instead of the child (Stein 1979: 9), or she attempts to inhibit the birth through magic (Stein 1979: 10).
Note: Most of the Yiddish folksongs mentioned on this page come from the article by Rothstein, below. The Ladino songs come from a variety of sources.
Apter, T. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law: Friendship at an impasse.
Cooper, A. & Gordon, S. M. (2011). Shvigern / Mothers-in-Law. Part 3 of a four-part article: "He Beat Me Black and Blue: Yiddish Songs of Family Violence". Jewish Daily Forward (originally in Lillith, Spring 2011).
Gummere, F. B. (2009). The Popular Ballad.
Levine, J. A. (2010). Yiddish dance songs (Tantslider). Journal of Synagogue Music, Vol.35.
Rothstein, R. A. (2004). The sad lot of women in Ukrainian and Yiddish folksongs.
Seeman, E. & Wiora, W. Deutsche Volkslieder mit ihren Melodien, Vol.4: Balladen.
Stein, H. (1979): Zur Herkunft und Altersbestimmung einer Novellenballade: Die Schwiegermutter beseitigt die ihr anvertraute Schwiegertochter. Helsinki (Academia scientiarum Fennica).
Voland, E. & Beise, J. (2004). The husband's mother is the devil in house. MPIDR Working Paper.
Weich-Shahak, S. (1989). Judeo-Spanish Moroccan songs for the life-cycle. Jewish Music Research Centre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
ברסלרמן, ש. יחסי חמות-כלה.
הלד, מיכל. בין הנהר לים - ניתוח תרבותי ספרותי רב רובדי של שיר חתונה יהודי-ספרדי מהאי רודוס. בתוך: דבורה רוט: העיצוב הספרותי של תרבות הלאדינו ועולמה בפרוזה העברית העכשווית.
רפאל, שמואל. לדמותה של החמות בשיר העממי בלאדינו. ממזרח וממערב, ז, תשס"ד, ע' 162-163
* In-law Relationships
The terms mekhutn / mekhuteyneste (in Yiddish) and consuegro / consuegra (in Ladino) imply mutual relationships: my mekhuteyneste or consuegra is the mother of my child's spouse. (The Yiddish word comes from the Hebrew: mechutan / mechutenet). These terms don't have an equivalent in English: the term "in-laws" is much too wide and inclusive of all members of the extended family.
In Hebrew, the mother of the groom is referred to as "chamot", as distinct from "chotenet" (mother of the bride). The words for mother-in-law in Yiddish (shviger) and in Ladino (suegra / esfuegra / eshuegra) don't indicate the exact familial relationship
In Yiddish (and Hebrew), the word kale (kalah) refers to both the bride and the daughter-in-law and khosn (chatan) refers to both the groom and the son-in-law. However, Ladino distinguishes between the actual bride and groom (novia / novio) and the new daughter-in-law and son-in-law (nuera, elmuera / yerno).
All in-law relationships are characteristically rocky, as can be seen in the following Yiddish proverb: Er est nisht, nor er frest; er trinkt nisht, nor er zoyft; er shloft nisht, nor er poft. [He doesn't eat, rather he gobbles; he doesn't drink, rather he guzzles; he doesn't rest, rather he oversleeps]. (The first verb in each pair refers to humans, while the second refers to animals!) A Spanish folksong in the Chad Gadya tradition - Estaba la rana cantando debajo del agua [The frog was singing under the water] - also ends up denouncing the son-in-law.