Joyce Antler teaches American Studies at Brandeis University and is the author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. Below Antler imparts some Passover wisdom in an article made for sharing with your mother. For those of you celebrating, “L’shana ha’ba-ah b’Yerushalayim.”
While Jews everywhere in the world sit down to their first seder tonight to relive the story of the Exodus from Egypt, many will participate in a new ritual, sipping from a cup of water in honor of Miriam, prophetess and sister of Moses, who helped nurture the Israelites during their long journey in the desert. Moses’ and Miriam’s mother, Jocheved, is often forgotten in this freedom narrative, but she exemplifies the caring and nurturance common to Jewish mothers who hovered over their children–sometimes in the background and disguised, as was Jocheved–but always concerned with their children’s safety and security.
Jewish mothers have gotten a bad rap–especially in recent American culture–and they emerge mostly as comic caricatures: manipulative, whiny, guilt-inducing, and overprotective. It’s easy to imagine the Jewish mother hovering over her children–holding the spoon and urging them to take one more bite. But there’s an alternative stereotype: the Jewish mother as an emblem of unstinting love and nurturance, the Jewish mother as represented by Jocheved. Defying Pharoah’s edict, Jocheved was willing to float her baby’s basket on the water as a means to his rescue. Along with Miriam, the midwives Shifra and Puah, and Pharoah’s daughter, the women who make the Passover story possible, Jocheved stretches beyond the boundaries of her specified role in the culture and intervenes to save her child’s life.
Not every mother must make such a fateful choice. But even mothers’ less terrible choices can loom very large–when to hover in the foreground of her children’s lives, when to stay in the background and support them indirectly, how much of her own career or interests to sacrifice for theirs. Her interventions may change as the child’s needs and her own level of emotional and material comforts change, and so she may move in and out of the work force, and her children’s lives, depending on strategic assessments.
Yet rather than credit Jewish mothers, and all mothers, for their craft and skill in molding these patterns of nurturance, often on an individual and emergency basis and in precarious situations–we tend to blame, criticize, and mock them. But the dominant, negative, and nearly ubiquitous stereotype of the Jewish mother doesn’t fit the positive way Jewish women see their own mothers– or how they see themselves as mothers. Nor does it fit the facts. Historically, the Jewish mother’s goal was to make her children self-reliant, not to infantilize them. Whenever we acknowledge Jews’ great success in America, we should credit the Jewish mother and the many ways in which she modeled strength and resiliency for her children.
In many ways, today’s newly famed ‘helicopter” mother who hovers over her children and is on call 24/7–self-sacrificing, overprotective, deeply embedded in every aspect of her children’s lives–resembles the fabled Jewish mother caricature. Unfortunately, she too is blamed–and she blames herself– if she doesn’t give up everything for her child or, on the other hand, if she is “too involved.” This double-bind can only result in a harmful dose of guilt–not so much induced in the unappreciative child–but in the mother herself who doubts her own skills and internalizes the ridicule showered on her. If we have learned anything from studying educational achievement and social well-being, it is that mothers’ presence in their children’s lives is vital. Yet mothers too often become scapegoats for larger social ills and targets for misogyny.
Part of the difficulty lies in finding the positive phrases for warmth and caring–the other side of the stereotype. Could it be that the Jewish mother’s “nagging” was just “another form of love-making?” asked a researcher working with anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict on a post-World War II study of the Jewish family. Yet despite good intentions, the Mead-Benedict study, and the many that followed, portrayed the Jewish mother according to a recurrent one-note pattern: nagging, whining, suffering, and excessively overprotective.
When we roll back the outer surface of how Jewish mothers have been portrayed throughout American culture, we see that just as in the Exodus story, their ministrations have been critical to their offspring’s –and their communities’–survival. Their stories, like Jocheved’s, must be brought to the forefront of how we understand women’s myriad roles and the entire panorama of cultural change. Despite their largely negative press, today’s helicopter moms, carefully supporting and encouraging their precious young, are leaving their own positive imprint on the historical record.