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A Tale of Three Jewish Daughters - Arnold Tweed

A Tale of Three Jewish Daughters

Arnold Tweed 

Fathers and daughters have a special relationship, but we can only guess its nature by the ways it is expressed. Filial love, and hate, have been the topics of myth, legend, literature, drama and real life and are as popular now as ever. To illustrate the complexity of these bonds I will use two examples: one from Shakespeare, and another from my own experience. This is not to suggest that the mundane, day to day, slog of a physician’s life is the stuff of Shakespearian drama, but the themes of drama are universal and therefore touch us all.

The tragedy of Shakespeare’s King Lear is well known. Lear had three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The play begins with Lear’s announcement that he intends to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his daughters. But first they must declare their love for him. This was Lear’s first tragic mistake, and set the stage for a poisonous contest among his daughters for his love (and land).  Lear’s folly became the most famous of Shakespeare’s tragedies; and his daughters’ treachery led to tragic humiliation, not restful quiet, for the aged king. The motivation of daughters, in expressing their love for an aging parent, has ever since been suspect.

There are many variants on this story; one which I have encountered is of medical interest. Though not, of course, as tragic or dramatic as Lear, it is an example of human nature in action and is best observed on a medical ward that provides terminal care. Because my earliest experiences are the most vivid, I have always considered this as A Tale of Three Jewish Daughters. One example will suffice. Mr. Goldberg was an elderly gentleman in the advanced stages of metastatic cancer. He had been managing poorly at home, mainly because he was a widower with no immediate support, and he had developed several complications related to his disease and its treatment. The specific nature of these need not concern us. Finally, he was admitted to the Chronic Care Unit (today it is more correctly called a Palliative Care Unit) to stabilize his condition and adjust his medication. I was not his primary physician, in fact I had just attached myself to the unit temporarily to learn something of palliative care. One thing I learned was that palliative care is as much about managing the family as managing the patient.

Mr. Goldberg owned a small retail business in an older part of the city. Although he was an active supporter of community charities and his Synagogue, he was not of that stratum of society whose names adorn the donor boards of hospitals and museums. I would describe him as one of the unpretentious, reliable and generally unrewarded keepers of the community. His business had a reputation for quality goods, fair prices and customer satisfaction. He wasn’t exactly King Lear but he was a solid, respected citizen whose opinions were sought more often than they were offered. We would often spend extra time with him on rounds, because talking with him was a pleasant interlude from more sober duties. It was thanks to this rather singular rapport that we attained some insight into the disruptive behaviour of his daughters.

On about the second day of his stay in hospital his three daughters arrived in the city. They had grown up here and part of the reason for Mr. Goldberg’s present modest circumstances was that he had sent them all to the best finishing schools. They had married well; their husbands were very successful litigation lawyers; and all now lived in the United States. Each of the daughters checked into a different hotel and each dramatically announced her arrival by phoning the head nurse on the ward. Each gave the nurse instructions to call immediately should there be any change in her father’s condition and to have the attending physician phone her immediately with an update on her father’s treatment.

We rarely saw these daughters. They came and went fleetingly and took pains to avoid each other. However, they more than compensated for their lack of physical presence by their monopoly of the telephone. The calls would begin about 10 a.m. when the first, usually the elder, would call with a prepared list of questions, then the next with an almost identical list, and ditto the third. The questions were detailed and about specific aspects of his treatment: what were his latest lab results, had his last laxative been effective, what time the specialist would see him today, please have that specialist phone her as soon as he finished. The same ritual was repeated in the early afternoon, in the late afternoon and in the evening. It seemed that each new bit of medical information was a prompt that led to more questions and demands.

We all agree that patients’ relatives should be kept informed, but this was going too far.  The nursing staff and the house staff were going mad; they were on the telephone so much of the time that patient care, including that of Mr. Goldberg, was suffering. A polite suggestion that the ladies appoint one of their number as contact person had absolutely no effect on their behaviour.

In desperation, we finally confided in Mr. Goldberg. Normally we don’t burden patients with this sort of problem, but we were at our wits end and had exhausted the usual methods of persuasion. We began very delicately by noting that his daughters were very attentive and they must have been very close to him since they spent so much time enquiring about his treatment. He just shook his head a little sadly and looked thoughtful for a few moments. “The truth is,” he said, “I haven’t seen much of them in the past 10 years, not since their mother’s funeral. They’re busy with their own lives and they never did get on very well with each other. They were always trying to outdo each other and haven’t changed. Sometimes they listen to me but they want to hear it from the top.”

He was describing typical sibling rivalry. Like the daughters of Lear, these three were competing for their father’s love, not for material but for emotional gain. Each carried a burden of guilt for her parental neglect; each was determined to prove that she was more loving than the others. The fact that they barely spoke to each other compounded the problem but that was not unusual. The key to their management was their common fear that another might get an advantage.

Their father was a willing conspirator in the plan. They were offered exclusive access to the specialist on-call for, but only as a group of three and once a day, and on condition that all telephone enquiries stop. They accepted. The meetings usually took an hour but all three came, and it finally released the nurses to deal with the real issues of patient care.

I am intrigued by the origins of this behaviour. If we view it as another variant of the  father/daughter relationship, is it the result of nurture or nature, upbringing or heredity? My early encounters with three-daughter rivalry suggested to me that this was a product of nurture and fit the stereotypical image of the Jewish-American princess who had been nurtured by a guilt-inducing typical Jewish mother. But in today’s world these stereotypes are harder to find and have less resonance, and this hypothesis has become less plausible. There have sometimes been two, not three, daughters (but always daughters) and not all were Jewish. Though satisfactory from a visceral standpoint, my original conclusion does not stand up to the evidence, even though Jewish daughters have been the most interesting.

To satisfy my curiosity I checked the anthropological origins of these cultural stereotypes. The stereotypical Jewish mother is undoubtedly the 20th century creation of a few anthropologists and a legion of American comedians [1, 2]. The origins can be traced to a cultural study of Eastern European Jewish communities (shtetl) by the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), which was financed by the American Jewish Committee. The publicity and popularization of this study is generally believed to be the foundation for the Jewish mother stereotype. However, much of Margaret Mead’s research work is now controversial and the comparison between the 19th century European shtetl and 20th century urban America is problematical. Nevertheless, the stereotype has been popular and has been enlarged and exploited by many (largely Jewish) American entertainers, including comedian Jackie Mason, Ida Morgenstern in the Mary Tyler Moore Show of the 1970s, and recently as Cora’s mother, Mrs. Levinson, in Downton Abby.

The Jewish-American princess is another fantasy product of American culture, largely a caricature invented by post WWII Jewish writers and entertainers. Some view it as a male chauvinist depiction, but female Jewish comedians, such as Sarah Silverman and Barbara Meyer, have also capitalized on its popularity. Both stereotypes, though firmly ingrained in American folklore, are thus largely cultural myths without substantial scientific validity [3]. In case my reader has lost the thread of this discussion, it leaves the nurture theory dangling and the Three Jewish Daughters a construct of my imagination.

If we discard the nurture theory and assume that sibling rivalry between sisters is a universal and multi-ethnic behaviour, its origins must be in nature. It must be an inherent, evolutionary trait common to all female Homo sapiens. In evolutionary terms, daughters, being less valued than sons, are forced to compete fiercely with each other for their father’s love and for the resources necessary of their survival. The most successful thrive, reproduce, and pass the genes for this trait to their female offspring. This firmly roots the behaviour in the realm of nature, not nurture. Competition among sisters is not only natural but necessary. Father, being the provider, is the obvious object.

Nowhere in his repertoire does Shakespeare portray a Jewish-American princess. He offers no distracting, nurturing excuses for the selfishness of Goneril and Regan. It is assumed, without comment, that they were simply playing out the roles assigned to them by nature [4]. Did Margaret Mead (and a generation of American comedians) disprove Shakespeare?  I think not, the Jewish-American princess may be amusing, but Lear’s daughters have been with us longer. Any father blessed with two or more daughters, especially if they are Jewish, should go to the original source and carefully study Lear. Avoiding Lear’s mistakes may be his best chance for happiness.

Mr. Goldberg died three weeks later, after I had left the ward. His last words to me were, “Doctor, do you think I spoiled them?” I couldn’t answer, but they were all with him when he died. Did we bring them together or was this a modern version of the triumph of Cordelia over Goneril and Regan? In the end the bonds of parental love may overrule the satisfaction of out-manoeuvering your sisters, and love may triumph over greed and jealousy. Perhaps Shakespeare got it all wrong.


  1. Bazelon, E. A brief history of the Jewish mother. [Web page] 2007; Available from:
  2. Antler, J., You never call! you never write! : a history of the Jewish mother. 2007, Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. xii, 321 p.
  3. Stereotypes of Jews. Available from:
  4. Asimov, I., Asimov’s guide to Shakespeare. 1st ed. 1970, Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.

Author: Arnold Tweed

Retired anesthesiologist living in Toronto, Canada.