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Jewish Mothers vs. Mothers Who Happen To Be Jewish

‘The Jewish Daughter Diaries’ paints an often-predictable portrait of Jewish moms. My own family’s history is more complicated.

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The author’s mother and grandmother, c. 1948. (Courtesy of the author)
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My grandmother, Esther Rose Graff Saltzman, was born in the United States in 1912, the eldest daughter in an immigrant family with six children. She married young, then separated young, when my own mother—her only child—was still a baby. They lived with my grandmother’s parents in a modest house on Lowell Street in Peabody, Massachusetts, a tannery town north of Boston. The family was poor and irreligious; my mother and grandmother shared a bed throughout my mother’s girlhood.

Last month, over Passover, my grandmother died. She was 101.

A woman I know dedicated a book to her late grandmother, “whose courage saved whole worlds.” (Her grandmother’s pluck helped her survive Vichy France.) I had been thinking about that dedication before my own grandmother died—though I had misremembered it being about “creating universes,” which made a lot of sense to me: A child is born, and a vast story filled with hope, expectations, realities, disappointments begins to unfurl. Now it occurs to me that a second universe is also created when you become a parent. Your own expectations shift and multiply, too, for yourself and your child.

My grandmother was deaf, a result of having contracted influenza as a small child. In her day, the pedagogical thinking had it that the hearing-impaired should learn to lip-read and speak, to try to be “normal.” Above all they were to avoid drawing attention to their handicap with sign language. I remember hearing that, in school at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, she and her peers would have their knuckles rapped with rulers if they were caught signing and that they had to wear socks on their hands to discourage such communication. (My grandfather was deaf, too, from an early bout with meningitis; my mother’s hearing is fine, but growing up with disabled parents made her, at times, ashamed about her origins.)

In some ways, because of her handicap and her inability to communicate easily with the rest of us, my grandmother seemed to me to be unlucky. But her life was long, and much of it seemed joyous and full. She was a tremendous flirt; could be blunt to a fault; made delicious sour-cream coffee cake, chicken soup, and chocolate chip cookies; took bus trips to Foxwoods Casino; taught me to play Rummy 500; was an excellent seamstress (she worked in a leather factory sewing jacket pockets) who gave me three leather coats she had worked on; and visited us around the country and the world. For much of my childhood she lived with us in Newton, a suburb just west of Boston, helping maintain a bustling household with two working parents. Come Saturday nights, she would head downtown to Boston’s deaf club to play cards, kibitz, and dance.

When I last saw her, two weeks before she died, she asked, “Where’s the baby?” My baby. She didn’t say his name. She didn’t say mine, either. She might not have remembered them. What she remembered was the fact of a child, that fact that her grandchild, who as a girl snuck into her bedroom at night to watch Falcon Crest with the closed captions turned on so as not to alert my parents with their no-TV-on-school-nights rule, had given birth to and was raising a new member of the family. With that question, she ripped holes in the long shadow cast by her diminished mind and health. Being a parent and being a child—sides of the same coin—were primal elements of her identity. That’s true for all of us.

“I’m a good mother,” my mother said to me two weeks ago, patting herself on the back. She had come to stay to help me care for my 17-month-old son who had gotten sick the day of my grandmother’s funeral and had since given me his bug. Usually when my folks visit, I forfeit my bed and head for the couch. This time, because I was sick, she’d offered to sleep on the couch. The next night I came home from work and dinner was ready. That day she had gone shopping and chosen some new clothes for me—all of which, amazingly, I liked. She is a good mother, I agree. She raised four children, worked full-time, and got a PhD. I remember she hugged me and cried when she broke the upsetting news that I would have to switch schools after 6th grade since my folks would no longer be able to swing the tuition at the day school I attended once my oldest sibling started college. Though she had a Reform confirmation as a girl, it was only at age 72 that she decided to learn to chant Torah and have a bat mitzvah. In many ways she mothered her own mother, helping her move several times over the years, navigating Social Security and Medicare on her mother’s behalf, visiting often. She only retired last June, at age 77, from a long career in social work. She is, as she has admiringly called me, “a brick.”

After my grandmother’s funeral, my mother said that my grandmother used to tell her not to cry when she died. The message—go forward. Don’t be sad. It was not self-deprecating advice. It was simply practical, and totally unrealistic in the face of your mother’s death. But the utilitarian approach that my grandmother tried to impress on her daughter and that my mother, in her way, also embraces has benefits I try to temper and adopt as a mother. I want to acknowledge my pain or my joy but not get stuck by them. I want my child to be able to do that, too. Like my grandmother, I make my child chicken soup—her recipe, in fact. My mother is on assignment to tell me how to make meatballs. And, like both of them, I’ll hug, kiss, and joke with my boy, now and always.

In an interview, a friend of mine said: “When people ask me if I’m a black writer, or just a writer who happens to be black, I tend to say that it’s either a dumb question or a question which happens to be dumb.” To me, the question of Jewish motherhood is similarly obtuse. Does being Jewish make me the kind of mother I am? Being Jewish is part of who I am, certainly, and it’s a part of my identity and history that I want my child to share and in which I want him to take pride. But I don’t think being a Jewish mother is unlike being a Baptist mother or a Catholic mother or a Greek Orthodox mother. Pardon my treacle when I assert that love and family override these sectarian differences.

***

“Love suffuses a Jewish mom’s every thought, her every behavior. She cannot rein any of it in.” So writes Rachel Ament in the introduction to The Jewish Daughter Diaries, a new collection of essays by writers and comedians published just in time for Mother’s Day. Except for the Jewish part, I agree. My grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my own dedication to our families is unyielding and expressed as best as we are able. I’m hardly sold, though, on the idea that any of that conviction has to do with being Jewish. It’s insulting, in fact, to all the devoted mothers out there who are something else.

The Jewish Daughter Diaries for the most part comprises short ditties extoling the quirkiness of beloved individual mamas. Lauren Greenberg’s signs her up for JDate. Emmy Blotnick’s seems to lack impulse control, hurling insults everywhere. Gaby Dunn’s mother forwards cautionary emails warning of ubiquitous peril. The repetition of clichés frequently made my eyes glaze over: Jewish mothers are passive-aggressive. They constantly call to tell their daughters to hurry up, get hitched, have a kid. They worry. They push food on you. They worry more. Often diminutive in stature, they are a feisty bunch! They leave kooky messages on your answering machine. They worry even more.

While it’s true my own mother has her quirks (for one, an avowed love of David Bowie—a phenomenon based on a single song and an Ian Buruma essay that I have documented elsewhere), I don’t attribute the unique contours of her personality to her ethnic or religious background. Call that naïve if you wish, or self-hating. But essays that rely on ethnic typing (“A sign of aging for Jewish women is taking on some of your mother’s trademark attributes”) betray lazy thinking and sloppy writing. Jewish mothers come in many forms, as my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences (and mine) attest. We are not all semi-affluent, Loehmann’s-pushing busybodies setting you up with your second cousin. The fact that this collection creates such an impression is a shortfall—it suggests a facile approach to discussing motherhood and dishonors the robust and varied experience of mothering (sure, of smothering, too, if you need it to be so) in the Jewish world. Even in the world of comedic writing there must be a higher bar.

Fortunately Ament has solicited a few stand-outs in her anthology: Deb Margolin’s charming description of laughing hysterically with her mother at Bloomingdale’s; Nadine Friedman’s compelling examination of her own miscarriage and her late mother’s multiple sclerosis, which caused her to be “involuntarily demoted from mother-nurturer to child-invalid”; and Meredith Hoffa’s resonant desire to “parent with my parent,” an impossibility since her mother died. She wonders, is such a desire strange?

Having been lucky enough myself to be able to count on my own family to help care for my child in sickness and health and, what’s more, to share in the joy he brings every day, I say the answer to her question is a definitive no.

***

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Jewish Mothers vs. Mothers Who Happen To Be Jewish

‘The Jewish Daughter Diaries’ paints an often-predictable portrait of Jewish moms. My own family’s history is more complicated.

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