The “Jewish mother” is a cultural icon. Her overbearing love and constant fretting over her children are staples of late-night comedy. If the Jewish mother stereotype tells the story of Jewish assimilation in America, it casts women as secondary characters not to be taken seriously. This Jewish mother was born in the American imagination of the mid-20th century. She is an immigrant, or the daughter of immigrants, now comfortably middle-class. Her hopes and dreams live exclusively in her children’s future. There is a whole category of Jewish jokes devoted to “my son, the doctor,” after all.
Motherhood, prior to having to contend with the gender confines of the 1950s, has always been a noble job in Jewish tradition. The home, traditionally the mother’s domain, plays a key role in Jewish life, ritual, and continuity. On Friday evening, it is the mother of the home that lights the Shabbat candles. In some households, Eishet Chayil is sung in her honor:
A woman of valor who can find?
For her price is far above rubies.
A mother’s love is a theme that transcends time, culture, and place. “My Yiddishe Mamme”, an ode to the selflessness of mothers, was written in 1924 and became an instant hit. For decades, stars have covered the song:
I know that I owe what I am today
To that dear little lady so old and gray…
Today’s Jewish mothers (and non-Jewish mothers of Jewish kids) are cut from a different cloth. While we love our kids just as much as the storied “mammes” of the Olden Days, we are much more engaged in the outside world, setting examples for both our sons and our daughters. Today we’re as likely to say “My daughter, the doctor,” as “My son, the doctor.”
Celebrate this Mother’s Day by reading to your kids. Introduce them to young Anna, who, thinking she is nothing like her mother, learns how very much alike they really are in A Heart Just Like My Mother’s. And in My Name is Aviva, a mother passes on to her daughter the life lessons she learned from her own mother, completing the circle from generation to generation.
If you are still blessed to have your mother living, give her a call and remind her how much she means to you. (And don’t mind your kids’ sticky fingers and messy kitchen after they bring you breakfast. Hugs all around. Happy Mother’s Day.)