A Jewish Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day isn’t a specifically Jewish holiday — or, to put it more bluntly, the goyim celebrate it, too — although that fact may come as a surprise to many Jews, for whom jewish mother and babydealings with our parents are a fundamental part of everyday life, of relationships with other people…and, of course, of our humor.

(Before I jump in, let me do a small shout-out: to my own mother, who tirelessly supports me in all my silly projects, including emailing me detailed thoughts about each MyJewishLearning featured story as soon as it’s posted — sometimes before I even have a chance to read it. Love you, Mom.)

The excellent A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book has several blessings for Jewish mothers. There’s a “Mother’s Early Morning Prayer,” a Supplication for Mothers for Tisha B’Av, and a prayer in the voice of Hannah. The book includes an entire section of prayers for mothers to say, including those to recite at a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, as a child goes into the army, and, oddly, a prayer for mothers-in-law to recite at the wedding of her child.*

Peculiarly, although there are several prayers for Jewish mothers, the book offers no prayer to Jewish mothers. Does that mean that we’re constantly praying? Or does it mean — as my mother’s insisted all along — that our society really does take mothers for granted?

Of course, as a compendium of Jewish thought, MyJewishLearning.com has some great articles on the subject — both serious and less-than-serious. Dr. Paula Hyman offers a great analysis that has plenty of both in “Battling Stereotypes of the Jewish Mother“:

When I was growing up, the last thing I wanted was to be a Jewish mother. Not that I planned to be childless. It was just that I feared that as I acquired children I might also acquire the characteristics of the stereotypical Jewish mother–in particular, a domineering personality and a neurotic over-involvement with my children, a kind of obsession with mothering that American culture found alternatively ludicrous and destructive.

Read more >

What’s especially interesting about our article is that it points out the remarkable difference in Jewish motherhood between the Old World and the New: “It is only in the molly goldbergpast generation that the Jewish mother has emerged as a derisive character,” notes Dr. Hyman. In Eastern Europe (for those of us whose families came from there), Jewish mothers were Type-A personalities. Check this out (emphasis mine):

Eastern European Jewish culture did foster an intense style of mothering, which was reinforced by the physical and psychological insecurity of life in the shtetl and later in the immigrant ghettos. Not only was it a style of mothering appropriate to its surroundings, it also served to equip the children for survival, even for success, in an environment that was often hostile.

Totally fascinating, right? And bizarrely true. Read the rest of the article to see what happened once motherhood hit American shores.

And, as for the question of what prayer to say for Jewish mothers: It’s always appropriate to pray to God in thanks for something — or for someone, of course. But one of my rabbis used to say, when you somebody cooks you dinner, it’s not enough just to say the blessings before and after food. You have to thank God, of course, but you also have to thank the person. So we can, of course, make up our own prayers in gratitude for our mothers — but that’s no substitute for just calling up your mother, or writing her or Skyping or just stopping by, and simply saying, “thank you.”

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* It is odd, considering that Shulamit Eisenbach, the author of the mother-in-law’s prayer, composed it on the eve of her son’s wedding. You’d think that a woman would want to recite a mother’s prayer on that day, or a “my-kid-is-getting-married” prayer, right? Instead, the prayer she offers is poignant, yet still strange: “Grant me favor in the eyes of my sons-in-law and my daughters, and grace with my sons and daughters-in-law. Let me see no flaws in them, nor hear any faults…” (Full text, if you want to read it, in the book.)

Posted on May 5, 2010

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