Becoming a Jewish Mother
Some Jewish mothers are born; others have Jewish motherhood thrust upon them
As Mother’s Day approaches, I recall my first stumbling step onto the path of Jewish motherhood.
My son was still in utero, and as my due date approached, my obstetrician asked me, “So, are you having a bris?”
My parents had been lobbying for a bris on humanitarian grounds, arguing that it was widely known that a bris was much more humane than a hospital circumcision. Little did they know, I was seriously considering not circumcising him at all, also for humanitarian reasons. My husband, who is not Jewish nor any other religion (having been raised by an atheist and a lapsed Quaker), was amenable either way, so the decision fell to me.
In the end, the decision to have a bris – my first decision as a Jewish mother – was the result of cowardice more than principle. I simply could not shoulder the responsibility of being the first woman in generations to break the covenant with God.
The bris was wonderful and awful, but mostly awful. My father had undergone open-heart surgery just four weeks before, but he flew up in for the bris anyway. Despite his obvious exhaustion, he was clearly overjoyed to serve as sendak (godfather). I had the feeling he felt he was witnessing an occurrence he’d hardly dared hope for: the return of his prodigal progeny to the Jewish fold.
The mohel, however, was a different story. He hadn’t been our first or even our second choice (apparently, it was a busy week for mohels). He offered no sweet words honoring the new baby nor welcoming him to our family’s branch of the tree of life. Curt to the point of rudeness, he shouted over the baby’s cries that every time we circumcise a Jewish child, we are getting revenge upon the anti-Semites who wanted to crush us. Roaring out his litany, the mohel radiated hostility, frightening my mother-in-law so much she hid in the kitchen
The mohel ignored me except to issue orders (“Mom, we need a clean diaper here!”). It was just as well, because I was seething at the realization that before he left, I’d be paying this paranoid, patriarchal putz $300 for frightening my guests and treating me like a servant. Was Jewish motherhood going to destroy everything that I, a 37-year-old feminist with a Ph.D. in women’s literature, an iconoclast who eschewed organized religion and chafed at masculine presumption of authority, believed in?
So, when the mohel said to me, his face a cross between a leer and a sneer, “So I’ll see you in another nine or 10 months?,” it was all I could do not to snatch up the nearby broom and knock him off the porch.
That was nearly the end of me and Jewish parenting.
I was born Jewish to Jewish parents, but I never really felt Jewish. I was seven when my family moved to a small college town in northwestern North Carolina. We were smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, with no other Jews within a 50-mile radius. No synagogues, no JCC, no sisterhoods or NCJW – just Baptist churches. Lots and lots of them.
Not surprisingly, I felt Judaism had no relevance to my life and nothing to offer me but isolation from my peers, whose social lives centered on church services and events, summer bible school, and tent revivals.
My parents were naturally distressed by this and made sporadic attempts to interest us in Judaism. During my rebellious adolescence, my mother – no slouch when it came to dishing out the guilt – favored scare tactics. She’d say, “You can pretend you’re not Jewish all you want, you could marry a goy and have goyishe children, but when the Nazis come, they’ll take you away all the same.”
“Mom,” I’d say. “The Nazi’s aren’t coming. That won’t happen here.”
“Ha!” she’d say. “That’s exactly what the Jews in Germany thought!”
Not surprisingly, I found little inducement to join any community at all.
Fortunately for this reluctant Jewish mother, the bris was not my last interaction with the Jewish community. After one particularly taxing day at home with my newborn, I took out the binder of information sent home with me from the maternity ward at Hillcrest Hospital. There was an announcement of a new moms’ group at the Mt. Sinai Hospital campus in Beachwood. Every week, a half dozen or so new moms gathered on the carpeted floor of a conference room, their newborns sprawled on blankets for some “tummy time.”
Not all the moms were Jewish, but many of them were. After our meetings, we’d go to Beachwood Place to browse sale racks at Baby Gap and Gymboree and to feed our babies in Nordstrom’s elegant family lounge. The Mt. Sinai mothers’ group was like the pebble tossed into the pond; from it innumerable ripples spread, each bringing me and my son further into the Jewish community.
I befriended two women in the group who were native Clevelanders and had extended networks of family and friends. They were generous with their information and ideas, so when I began thinking about some part-time day care, Jenny and Amy steered me toward a Russian immigrant family who became an integral part of our life in Cleveland. Edita and her sister Khlava each ran a day care in their homes and were affiliated with Jewish Day Nursery. They were smart women who genuinely liked children and kept abreast of child development issues, training and licensure requirements.
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of good day care in the life of a working mother. Edita’s house became my son Sascha’s second home, and her mother and mother-in-law became his surrogate babas (grandmas). Under their care, Sascha received Old World Jewish mothering. When I picked him up, they’d tell me proudly how much kasha and borscht he’d eaten, how long he’d slept outside, and how much fresh air he’d gotten. Then, regardless of the season, they’d bundle him up as if for a Siberian winter and put him in my arms.
From Edita’s family I learned about the lives of New Americans who had come to Cleveland in the 1980s and 1990s with the sponsorship of many Jewish individuals and agencies. One month, I helped Edita study for her American citizenship exam (she passed easily). Her older sons, students at Fuchs Mizrachi, knew more about Judaism than I did, and from them I first heard the Hebrew words for things I knew only in Yiddish: kipah (yarmulke), sevivon (dreidel), levivos (latkes).
The ripples continue to extend. I visited Jewish preschools with the same two moms who had told me about Edita. I wandered the classrooms, no real goal in mind. But my friends showed me how a Jewish mother shopped for a preschool: by peppering the director with questions about the length of naptime, the amount and timing of meals and snacks, the toileting policy, the disinfection of sleep cots, emergency evacuation plans, alternate play space for when it rains, and host of other details I’d never have thought to ask about.
I learned as much about Jewish holidays from Sascha’s preschool as he did. He learned holiday songs, and he taught them to me. We went to Kid’s Shabbats at the JCC, drank grape juice and ate challah, and sang the songs we’d learned.
Without our experience at the JCC preschool, it’s unlikely that I would have thought to send Sascha to The Agnon School for kindergarten. I did visit several private schools, but no place in the world is as suffused with the spirit of Jewish motherhood – a sense of nurturance and heimishkeit (hominess) – as Jewish day schools. At my first parents’ meeting at Agnon, the topic of food came up. What happens if my kid loses his lunch ticket? What if I accidentally send a dairy lunch on a pareve day? After a few minutes of free-range anxiety, the director of admissions assured us: “Don’t worry. There are 62 Jewish mothers working in this building. We’re not going to let your children go hungry.”
I learned the motzi by volunteering for lunch duty; I visited area temples as a chaperone on field trips. I learned Hebrew songs at the all-school Kabbalat Shabbats to which parents are invited, and for a year I took “Hebrew for Agnon Parents” at Siegal College next door.
A year later I began writing for the CJN. For someone who grew up without any notion of what Jewish community can be, Cleveland’s is amazing. It’s often the only safety net distraught parents, mothers in particular, have. And as safety nets go, ours is a particularly beautiful one, intricately woven over time by many generations. Its warp and woof have been fortified by lives both famous and unknown, by edifices built and torn down, by neighborhoods and congregations that have gathered and dispersed.
If we’re lucky, we use this safety net we call community every day and never even notice it.