Are Chinese mothers elbowing out Jewish mothers in the “super-crazed, ambitious, drive-your-child” department? How did we let this happen? I thought that Jewish mothers were firmly planted in the top slot of wild parental determination. Are we sliding? Do you think Jewish mothering has changed? Is this a good thing? Is there an accepted model for Jewish mothering?
Amy Chua is grabbing headlines with her shocking revelations of hours of compulsory, epic-long piano practices, harsh treatment for B+ grades, not to mention ongoing merciless sleepover deprivation meted out cruelly to her children. Everyone’s got something to contribute in the way of Amy Chua’s instant notoriety. You’ve got the pro-Chua team, as in, “She knows what she’s doing! Why didn’t I do that?” versus the con-Chua team — “she is cruel and inhumane,” with varying degrees ranging from “she is damaging her children” at one end to “she has denied her children real life experiences” at the other. What’s a mom to think?
And what then is the Jewish angle in all of this? We are used to being the ones grabbing the headlines in the area of psychotic mothering. Do I hear Sophie Portnoy rolling over in her grave? Is that Marjorie Morningstar’s mom chuckling up there in heaven, giddy with delicious schädenfreude as the attention deflects from tomes dedicated to the demonization of Jewish mothers en masse, shifted over to a whole other ethnic group? Say it isn’t so! I wish I could — but as with many other matters in this world, the Chinese are pulling ahead. Woe are we.
On second thought, let’s be glad. The glory days of Jewish mother mocking are over — let the word go forth — no more Jewish mother jokes! On to the next exploitation of an immigrant stereotype! Thank you, Ms. Chua, for dethroning us! Jewish mothers of the world, it is safe to come out, we have been relegated to the realm of the normal — it was only a matter of time.
Now would be a good time to pause and regroup. Most of us were not thrilled with the archetypal Jewish mother of popular culture and its fading away gives us an opportunity to recast ourselves. What is Jewish mothering? Is there such a thing? Where would we go to find it?
Let it not be left to the Ayelet Waldmans of the world to set the new Jew tone to mommy redux. It is time to hit the collective refresh button and locate a workable image of Jewish mothering that will resonate for the 21st century.
Who knows four? Four Jewish mothers who can speak across times and continents — four mothers whose lives speak to the needs of the future, the challenges of the present while having lived in the past? A composite sketch is in order, as we peruse the pages and pictures from the past to pinpoint Magnificent Moments in Matriarchal Mothering; Four Foremothers, with four big Jewish ideas in Jewish mothering.
First, Your Voice. As God exhorts Abraham to follow the advice of his wife Sarah regarding a precarious domestic situation — details of which we will not enter into here — God Almighty adjures Abraham, to shema bekolah, listen to her voice. The first tenet of mothering: Find your voice and do not hesitate to use it. This new mothering upon which you are embarking must be an authentic expression of your own deep beliefs; as such, they must be voiced and not passive aggressively communicated through folded arms over the chest and side-swiping comments.
Second, Your Search. From whence has come that voice, one might ask? As Rebecca experiences her challenging pregnancy, she goes lidrosh et Hashem — to seek answers from God. This short narrative teaches an important idea: Answers are not simply found. The action required of us is lidrosh, a determined search that involves doggedly seeking answers, sometimes from a Higher and Deeper place than we may conventionally turn to. To raise Jewish children, a spiritual quest is in order. What are your deep beliefs and how will you pass them on to your children? When did you last set aside time for study and contemplation?
Third, Your Tears. The prophet Jeremiah depicts mother Rachel crying for her lost children. This is not an easy undertaking. We may be tempted to make light of all the mothering shenanigans, but this is serious stuff. Raising up the next generation of Jews cannot help but be fraught with drama. Pictures of self-sacrificing Jewish mothers be they, Hannah and her seven sons of Hanukkah or mothers whose children were grabbed from them during painful moments in Jewish history, mothers who poignantly adjured, “Gedenk du bist a Yid” — “remember, you are a Jew” to their young sons as they were conscripted into the Tzar’s army, or mothers who sent their children on the Kindertransport rescue mission to Great Britain from 1938–1940, these loom large in our Jewish minds. Though we live in blessed 21st-century times we cannot help but harbor uncertainties about our children’s continued engagement in Judaism. It may take a leap of faith, but fear not, God assures Rachel, be comforted, your children will return.
Fourth, Your Appreciation. Upon the birth of Judah, matriarch Leah declares joyfully, “This time I will thank God.” The name reflects a very special gratitude. Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, says, “From the day that God created the world there was no human who thanked Him, as it says ‘this time I will thank God.’”
Leah is the first person to walk this earth to turn to her Maker and say a simple thank you. She teaches us gratitude. Her motherly “thank you” becomes the name Judah, the name of the Jewish people. It took a Jewish mother to teach the world appreciation — let its lesson not be lost on us. Through all the rush of carpools, bedtime bedlam and morning meshugas, don’t forget to slow down and say a quick thank you for all the blessings tumbling around you. In days of ours where the life of rush and the tides of cell phone rings, texting and Facebook postings bring a feverish pitch to life, we need to say a Leah’s thank you for all we have as messy and as complicated as it may be — it’s ours.