Real Jewish Mothers

May 9, 2009

7 min read


Mother's Day is not a Jewish holiday; it's a brilliantly contrived marketing tool. But try telling that to my mother.

Here's a newsflash for you: Mother's Day is not a Jewish holiday.

In fact, in my humble opinion, it's not a holiday at all; rather, it's a brilliantly contrived marketing tool that created a whole new reason for millions of us to transfer cash directly to Hallmark, flower shops, and hotels offering Sunday brunch specials.

But try telling this to my mother. She lives for Mother's Day. I suspect that she would not think it overdone if my brother and I somehow managed to stage the entire Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on her street, in her honor. (Well, maybe a little overdone.)

The truth is, though, even a cynic like me has to admit that a day set aside to honor mothers isn't a bad idea. It's really quite a good one.

Trite though it sounds, your mother gave you life. I guess I owe her a card after all.

But every day should really be Mother's Day. Each and every morning, we should pause for a moment and reflect on all that our mothers gave us. She carried us for nine months, got stretch marks, and then went through that whole labor thing. Trite though it sounds, your mother gave you life.

I guess I owe her a card after all.

Of late, some years after a decade-long mood swing left me surly and churlish from 12 to 22, I've come to a new appreciation of my mother.

It's something that everyone always tells you: "When you're older, you'll see how wise and wonderful your parents are." Alas, I am indeed older. And now, sometimes the sense of awe and gratitude I feel for my mother can be almost oppressive.

My mother is a real Jewish mother. I mean, really a Jewish mother.

Now, for reasons I've never quite figured out, that term -- Jewish mother -- is largely a negative one in American parlance. And I consider that astonishing.

I know what we're schooled on: The screechy shrew on Seinfeld (like, yeah right, George was Italian…...), Philip Roth's twisted caricatures, or the blue-haired joke punchline sitting in the dark because her son won't fly cross country to change a lightbulb. Could anything be further from the reality of Jewish motherhood?

An example: A friend here in Israel has a mother who is a proud and committed Zionist who is full of pride that her daughter has chosen to build her life in the Jewish state. Due to grandchildren and other commitments, there's no way she'd ever move here, but she tells everyone how much she sheps nachas from her "brave Israeli daughter."

One day, out of the blue, that mother tells her daughter to start looking at real estate listings in Jerusalem, reducing her daughter to tears. Her mother is going to help buy her an apartment. (In Israel, only the very wealthy are able to buy apartments without help from their families.)

My friend was dumbfounded.

While her mother is proud of her decision to live in Israel, they both know that she would like nothing better than for Proud Israeli Daughter to move home, preferably into a house right across the street. It's not that Mom cares any less about the Jewish state -- she just wants her daughter to be nearby. And it's not like her mother is a terribly wealthy woman. She was going to dip into the money she'd managed to save after a messy divorce.

"Why shouldn't I have the pleasure of watching you enjoy your inheritance?" the mother explained.

"But why?" asked her daughter.

"Because it would make you feel more settled," her mother said, in words clearly thought out. "And because then I would feel like I had some role in strengthening Israel too…... I would be helping you, but I would be helping the whole nation."

This benevolent gesture is one that is totally contrary to her own best interests: She would be helping her daughter put down roots thousands of miles away from her and making it that much more likely that her grandchildren would grow up far away from her. But she wanted to do it regardless, to help her daughter, and to take her part in building up the Jewish state.

That's a Jewish mother. Forget about the vile, misogynistic caricatures of Western pop culture. My friend's mother is a descendent of Sarah, of Rebecca, of the countless Jewish women who were women of faith and strength, of selflessness, who were focused on long-term goals -- and not just their own, but what was good for their children and, grandiose though it sounds, what was good for the Jewish nation, their extended family.

My mother's love can be suffocating.

On a recent visit to the states, I saw a movie with my parents in which the main character, a mother played by Jodie Foster, leans over her sleeping daughter and whispers something to the effect that she loves her so much that she can't breathe. My mother looked at me knowingly.

Like the paragon of a Jewish mother that she is, my mother's love can be suffocating. It is powerful and all-consuming; it is like a third presence when I am in a room with her. I know that there is nothing she would not do for me.

My mother has never claimed to be perfect, and we now have a running joke about she can't wait to come visit so she can irritate me. Half of the photos of every visit are of me rolling my eyes at her embarrassing me in one way or another.

And yet I can spend entire evenings telling friends stories of my mother…... not of her pratfalls or doofy statements (which she has in spades, of course), but of her valor, of her bravery, of the myriad ways in which she has filled the corners of my life with a sense of being loved, the way she has made me feel supported and believed in, the way she has given me the confidence to do things others couldn't, the strength she's given me to survive times more trying than I thought I could bear.

We are different in the extreme. She is someone who preferred bright pink lipstick where I go for muted browns, blue mascara (I joke not) when I wore none, who was a cheerleader when I was a feminist, who bursts into tears as soon as she sees me in an airport while I laugh and say, "Um, Mom, you're supposed to cry when I leave."

Her life hasn't been easy and she's made plenty of mistakes, but she raised me to be someone who could learn from them. And she was there to hold me when I still made the same ones.

She's been able to accept that the choices I've made in life aren't necessarily the ones she would have made, and they haven't always been ones that made her life any easier. But she's also made clear to me that, whether they're easy for her or not, she's proud of me.

I live half a world away from her, but not a day goes by that I don't feel a tug of longing for her, or a fleeting thought that I want to tell her something.

It's a strange truth that parents always love their kids more than the kids love their parents. They put so much into us, give us so much, that the bond they form with us is far deeper than anything we could feel back. It seems we can never appreciate them enough.

I still think that Mother's Day was created by Hallmark. But you know what? Mothers -- mine first among them -- deserve it, and how.

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