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Passover and Mom

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.”

You Never Call You Never Write

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Mindy

    Chag Samaeach!!! What a wonderful article on moms. Cheers to helicopter mommies for all of their love and support!!!

  2. Mae Rockland Tupa

    EXCELLENT article!
    At this years Seder we had a special cup of water for Miriam, as well as a feminist Orange on the Seder plate.
    Next year we will add something for Jocheved……hmmm…how about a saucer under Miriam’s cup to pick up the drips…fits the theme;-)
    History depends on point of view and who writes it. As more women become respected historians , Moms finally get their place in the sun. Thank you!!

  3. Rochelle Ruthchild

    Bravo to joyce antler for her wise observations on the jewish mother stereotype, her nuanced approach to this very significant topic, and the neat way in which she has connected current attitudes towards jewish mothers to the passover story.

  4. Vicki Gabriner

    My mother and I have switched roles. Now I am on call 24/7 as she, approaching her 96th birthday, all marbles in order, but the body not quite so, recently moved to an “independent living with amenities” space around the corner from me. Over the years, there have been times when we have been quite separate, usually by my choice, not hers, and other times when we have helicoptered over each other (she over me in my younger years, and now I over her). I am profoundly grateful that she and I have been able to come full circle. Joyce, I know when I share your words with my mom they will, as they have for me, shed sweet light on our mother-daughter relationship, and the centrality, for too long ignored, of the mother-daughter relationship in the great liberation story of Pesach. Chag Sameach!

  5. Carole Kessner

    The opening paragraph of this blog suggests that daughters should share this with their mothers. Since I am a mother of daughters who are mothers, I shall share it with them. There is much wisdom in Joyce Antler’s Passover Derash, and I am eager to learn how my grown children will receive it!!! Now,if only I had read this in time for Passover. . . . As they use to say in Brooklyn– Wait till next year.

  6. Rebecca

    Good point Carole. I guess since I am not a mother yet, reading this post made me think of my own mother. Let us know what your daughters think!

  7. Kim

    Wow! Very potent message!
    You have added new breadth and spirit to my religious observance. I will undoubtly include and honor Miriam and Jocheved in future Seders.

    I also identify with the “helicopter mother” and hope that my children will appreciate it and when it is their turn wear it as a badge of honor. Let’s correct the misconception together.

  8. Lois

    Great info! I read from your blog about the cup for Miriam and her mom at our Passover sedar, and some of the men actually listened. Thanks so much for posting this information.

  9. Rachel

    Perhaps a toy helicopter on the seder plate might be in order?

    Thanks for an excellent article, Joyce.

  10. Doris Friedensohn

    Dear Joyce:

    Passover, so dependent on the unstinting labor of the Jewish mother, seems like an ideal time to launch your new book! I wish you the very best!

    My own “position” on matters Jewish remains in the very wry corner. I confess, happily, to marking the beginning of this recent Passover in Portugal — with suckling pig. The seder continues to be one of my super unfavorite Jewish celebrations – – possibly because more than the joy, I remember the anxiety attached to my mother’s efforts to do it right and please her mother and her brothers, the serious males — about matters Jewish – – in the family.

    For decades, I cooperated, waiting eagerly for the moment when my cooperation would no longer be required and I could give a pass to the whole enterprise. (I’ve recounted this experience in my food memoir, EATING AS I GO: SCENES FROM AMERICA AND ABROAD, in a chapter entitled “The Penultimate Passover.”)

    Since the spiritually inclined members of the younger generations in my family are Buddhists, I’m off the hook forever.

    Of course “forever” is an unreliable word. I’m still willing to believe that the seder is a larger, better community experience than my memories allow; and I’m certainly willing to believe that (Jewish) mothers and daughters are connected more richly than their interactions over any particular ritual may suggest. In fact, thinking about your book, the Passover season, and this issue prompted me, just yesterday, to send a special donation to a foodbank I support in honor of my mother.


  11. […] Lauren Antler to quiz her mom. Below is what Lauren found out. Be sure to read Joyce’s Passover post and check back everyday this week for […]

  12. […] we posted a Q and A with her daughter, comedian, Lauren Antler. Last week Joyce wrote about Passover. Today she weighs in on the marathon of […]

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  14. Rebecca G.

    I guess there is no one of age in this group that can speak from the experience of dealing directly with a parent who hovers. there’s no problem with being a loving and nurturing parent, but too much is suffocating. i can speak first hand. I’m home from college for the summer and am not even halfway through and already want to kill someone (me or her). I guess the best analogy that can be used is: a baby needs food and water. too much will make them fat and malnourished; but too little will make them starved and dehydrated. at both extremes death is the outcome.

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