Becoming A Jewish Mother

I have three children now. The eldest, now an eighty-nine-year old woman, leans against my body, hair flattened against her skull, the water of the shower spilling over both of us. She looks up into my face with gratitude and whispers, “You’re my best mother.” I rest my palm on her check and say nothing.

Janaea, my firstborn, is a forty-one year old entrepreneur and artist. No longer a dancer and choreographer in New York, she has become a brand-new wife in a small country town. Now, instead of crowded classes and rehearsals in either overheated or damp studios at less expensive off-hours, she teaches in the local YMCA and is developing a community wide school for dancers and musicians.

Alison, my youngest, is an associate professor of economics. Students, faculty meetings, her own research, a new partner, and their life together take all her time, energy, and passion. Both my girls work hard, and live with care and attention. Now I am a mother to my own mother and to both of them. But in this piece I return to the earlier years, when I was a child raising children, excavating the meanings of a complex tradition while identifying my own Jewish values, stumbling and righting myself over and over again.

I was a good girl, enacting the precisely circumscribed roles designed expressly for middle-class Jews of the 1950’s. At eighteen, I thought that I had chosen to become a wife and a mother. I knew with unexamined certainty that mothering would bring a sense of connection satisfaction, and adulthood. I would have children who would unequivocally love me and be, without hesitation or ambivalence, cherished in return. I still believed that love was enough to create happy endings.

Within the first years of my marriage, I found myself trapped in a too-small world of husband and children. Home and garden. Errands and entertaining. My home bulged with furniture, rugs, china, toys, and clothes, dwarfing me, taking on a life of its own. I began to move in smaller and smaller circles. From the stove to the table. From the carpool to the market. Shepherding my daughters to friends’ houses to play in their well-equipped backyards. Fueled by amphetamines, then easily available, and necessary to maintain the requisite thinness that I believed defined elegance and sophistication, I grew more and more restless.

An inevitable divorce became final when I was twenty-five years old and my daughters were four and six. The three of us moved from a sprawling suburban home to a very small apartment in New York City, which was quickly inhabited with my worries. Worries about getting a job, about stretching the food budget, and guilt about the possibility I had made a terrible mistake and was ruining my daughters’ lives. My parents protested that my ex-husband had been a good man. A “catch.” What was wrong with me? I was a divorced woman with two children who had no one to look after them when I went to work. Everyone knew that little girls who wore house keys around their necks had selfish and bad mothers. In l963 Jewish women didn’t neglect their children by putting their own lives first.

I took a job as a medical office manager, and the three of us settled into our new routine. We left together each morning, the girls on their way to school and me to work. Both carried door keys so they could let themselves into the apartment after school to begin their homework and wait for me, rushing through the door carrying groceries for our dinner several hours later. We perched at the butcher-block counter for our meal and I reviewed their completed homework. After I read bedtime stories and tucked then into their bunk beds, I whispered the final good night, rinsed out my nurse’s uniform and white stockings, polished my white shoes to prepare for the morning rush, and fell across the bed exhausted. When the alarm rang at 6:30, I arose to repeat it again. And again.

The weekend was consumed with cleaning, a week’s work of laundry, and inexpensive adventures for my two little girls. We attended story time at the museum, rented rowboats in Central Park, and watched bread rise in neighborhood bakeries. I never wanted them to know how little money we had and created what I hoped were exciting activities that masked my constant struggle to survive. At the end of the month, one daughter would be selected to choose a color for Sunday dinner. They never noticed that the meal was potatoes, rice or spaghetti masked with food coloring. Often I would steal a candle to make my little offering more festive.

Our lives were not mirrored anywhere in the Jewish world in which I had been raised. There, wives stayed at home to care for their husbands and raise several children, much as my mother and her mother before her had done. Yet now, I was surrounded by very different Jewish mothers, women who sat together on the benches in Washington Square Park as our children played together. Some were working at outside jobs, others were raising children at home, but all were involved in political activism. Women like these were unfamiliar to me. Men talked about politics. Some, like my grandfather even organized to fight the bosses and what he described as “the crooks that ran everything.” But I had never been exposed to women who were involved in politics except to have a carefully stated opinion. Saturday night dinner parties allowed married women to agree or disagree with the most recent Walter Lippman or James Reston column in the New York Times. That was politics in my marriage. Now, I found myself drawn to these eager women and listened carefully to their conversations.

Within months, our lives became intertwined as I became more involved in my daughter’s school PTA. Each meeting was filled with heated and often bitter arguments about the merits of busing black children out of their neighborhood schools into primarily white communities. Feelings ran high, divided almost evenly along racial lines, and the city grew polarized. I, along with my new friends, joined the Harlem Parents Committee in an attempt to support the painful, complex and ultimately unsuccessful effort to integrate our neighborhood school system. We marched. We picketed. We held press conferences. We tried to counteract the public perception that pro-busing parents were all black. I was one of the few nonblack mothers on the picket lines that ringed the school. All of the white women, as it turned out, were Jewish.

The political momentum accelerated when my daughters and I joined the first demonstration against the war in Vietnam. As we marched down First Avenue, 300 strong, my daughters kept their eyes straight ahead, pretending to be oblivious to the eggs, red paint and jeers flung at them. They were both proud and frightened, the former all I noticed. I tucked my daughters under my arm or into strollers for the political demonstrations that were a growing part of our lives. When Janaea was eight years old, she sold Vietnam moratorium buttons in Washington Square Park, her jaw thrust forward with the urgency and importance of her task. Within weeks, she announced that she would no longer salute the flag during homeroom period since the pledge was not true. There was no freedom and justice, she insisted, and until there, was, she would not participate. Her teacher tried to persuade my stubborn child to change her mind, but she would only agree to stand silently along with her class and keep her hands at her sides. Freedom and justice were daily words in our lives—daily Jewish words.

In third grade, Janaea’s best friend had become the teacher’s scapegoat. She returned home one afternoon to angrily and tearfully announce that the teacher was mean to Celie and that it wasn’t fair.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “It isn’t fair to act like that with anybody, especially when you are in charge, like a teacher.”
My daughter’s eyes widened, and after a pause she asked, “So what should we do?”
Hers was the natural question since she already understood that if something was wrong, you must do something. We had, in her short life, already marched, demonstrated, picketed, and written endless postcards to our legislators, always addressed and stacked up beside the hall table. Doing something wasn’t new to her, but doing something about her own life was.

We sat down at the kitchen table, just as my grandfather and I had done when I took a problem or question to him. We looked at the situation first, “one the one hand, “ then “on the other hand” as he led me gently to new ways of thinking. I had always felt respected, very nearly like a grown-up, as he helped me solve the problems I brought to him by introducing me to the ideas of complexity and multiple points of view. When we finished talking about my own concerns, he would lean back, clicking the sugar cube against his teeth as he sipped his glass of tea, and carefully explain the unjust world of bosses and their treatment of workers—of which we must always remember we were a part. I learned his deeply Jewish lessons about the workings of power, the pain of injustice, and the necessity of fairness well. Now, I would teach them to my own daughter.

“What do you think you could do to help Celie?” I began.

“Maybe I could tell the teacher she’s being mean and unfair?” she offered tentatively.

“That might work, but what if she gets angry at you?” I asked, trying to push her thinking forward.

“Then I’ll tell the principal?” she whispered, chin beginning to quiver.

“What do you think Celie would want you to do?”
“I don’t know. She pretends she doesn’t care, but I saw her crying once in the bathroom.”
We strategized together, examining ideas and possibilities, looking at the pros and cons of each. We finally concluded that she would talk first with Celie, then with Celie’s mother and me. Days later, Celie’s mother and I sat on a bench along the back wall of the principal’s office while the girls carefully lowered themselves within the big armchairs in front of his massive walnut desk. He was bewildered by this unpredictable shift in his expectations, and attempted repeatedly to talk past his pupils directly to us across the large room. We kept referring him back to the girls sitting in front of him, and finally he grudgingly spoke to them. They explained what was going on in the classroom, why it wasn’t fair or just, and what he should do to make the teacher stop. The teacher was indeed chastised, and for both girls, their first experience in righting their own wrongs, and making their own justice was a success.

In what little time was left of my evenings and weekends, I volunteered at the Urban League to act the part of a wife in a white couple pretending to look for an apartment, one that would be abruptly off the market when, within hours, a black couple attempted to rent it. More meetings followed, with picket lines increasingly the outcome. Several nights a week, my daughters fell asleep on hard folding chairs in church basements or across piles of coats thrown over the beds of crowded apartments. More and more often they did their homework on the kitchen table of a stranger’s apartment, trying to concentrate over the din of heated debate in the next room.

I had become a Jewish mother who sat at oilcloth-covered kitchen tables, talking excitedly about the next demonstration, meeting, newsletter. I was learning that to be a good Jewish mother meant to speak up and to open up a big mouth. A good Jewish mother taught her daughters to fight back.

In l971, when Janaea was fourteen, she returned from the library with a flier announcing a women’s consciousness-raising meeting the following week.

“Go ahead, mom. It’ll be interesting and maybe you’ll make some new friends” she encouraged.

That evening, I sat in a circle on a faded shag carpet and discovered, as my daughter had years before when she “stuck up” for Celie, that I could act in the service of my own struggles, my own diminishment as a woman. I had found women’s liberation.

Within weeks, I was a founding member of the newly developed Women’s Studies’ Collective. I read, I studied and I listened as circles of women examined the ways they had been socially constructed as female. I was unlearning a painstaking education that had trained me to enter a muted life filled with rules, admonitions, and endlessly appropriate behaviors. I was developing a political vocabulary to define myself and my own history.

I enrolled in a degree program designed for working adults the following fall. Now I was becoming not only a Jew who acted in the world, a Jew like my grandfather, but the kind of Jew who studied, a scholar like my grandfather had been before he came to America and had to become a tailor. I was working full time, going to meetings but stuffed small bits of time to study into the late night and early morning hours. My mothering filled the few available moments that remained. Our mealtimes were random and often forgotten in the demands of term papers and deadlines. My daughters were neglected in the service of my studies, lost in the shuffle of meetings and demonstrations. There was not enough time to talk to them, to play with them. There was simply not enough time for me to have both my own life and to help them towards theirs. While they witnessed a mother living with passion, vision and commitment and those lessons have not been lost on them, I know they paid a high price for my divided attention.

Did my daughters long for a traditional Jewish mother who would greet them after school or at the end of the day with a warm smile and the reassuring tradition of milk and cookies? They never said. I know it was not easy for them to have a hungry, ambitious, often inattentive mother. They were frightened, sometimes lonely, and didn’t have enough time to be children.

I remember a faded snapshot of my mother in her twenties perched on a stool in a café in Cuba, smiling delightedly into the camera. She, too, had wanted more. She hungered to see the world beyond Newark, New Jersey. Beyond the early marriage her sister had made, beyond the babies, the repetition, the limitations. How she wanted her hungers to be mine. How she wanted me to complete her interrupted dreams. I have. And how I longed for my daughters to share and further my own. I wanted them to fill their days with activism, study and friendship. And so they have.

Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories: Acts of Love and Courage (eds.) Siegel and Steinberg-Oren. The Haworth Press, 2000