There were two models for motherhood in my sprawling family: my great-great-aunt Riva and my great-grandmother Clara.
My great-great-aunt Riva was praised for being a true Jewish mother. There were many stories about her, but here is the most famous one. Once, at a dinner party, she brought in her infant son Abrasha to show him off to the guests. Little Abrasha promptly peed in her soup. She ate the soup.
“Riva ate that soup! That’s how much she loved her son!” my grandmother commented.
Needless to say, Abrasha grew up a mama’s boy. Never married. Never moved out from home.
My great-grandmother Clara on the other hand had many flaws. The biggest flaw was her selfishness. She would sneak out of the house, go to a farmer’s market, buy a quarter pound of cottage cheese and a few strawberries (an expensive delicacy in Russia) and indulge in them alone while sitting on a park bench.
“She ate them alone!” my grandmother lamented.
Ever since I was a small child I wondered which kind of mother I would become. I aspired to be a self-sacrificing Riva, but I worried that I’d end up like Clara. (I just loved good food too much.)
I think I became a mix of two. I’m very involved with my children (sometimes to the point of smothering), but I also have a life of my own, and I do indulge in sneaky pleasures. I still haven’t figured out the right amount of Rivaness or Claraness that would make an exceptionally good mother, but I tend to experiment with that in my fiction.
I create characters who follow either Riva’s or Clara’s model, push them to the brink of bad motherhood and see what happens. Let them figure it out. Nobody will suffer, except for their fictional children.
How much pleasure was allowed? Wasn’t too much sacrifice suffocating to the child? I certainly wasn’t a true Jewish mother by my family standards. And even though I denounced them in my head, I still felt a lot of guilt in my heart. I was uncomfortable and confused.
Then I came up with a solution. In my novel The Scent of Pine, the main character is an unhappily married mother of two. She loves her children, but she is longing to find love.
Let her figure it out.
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Some folks are born with the balabusta gene and others are not. It’s that simple. If you didn’t happen to grow up where the term balabusta was freely thrown about, let me try to define it for you. I say “try” because Yiddish is a language that requires paragraphs of explanation for one tiny word. Nu, let’s give it a go.
In the glossary of my first cookbook I define a balabusta as the perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities.
My grandparents were blessed with the balabusta gene (like most everyone from the old country), which comes along with natural cooking instincts that sense exactly what’s needed to make a dish sing. Yet, like twins, it skipped a generation or two and I was born clearly defective in this area. As my grandfather would say to anyone that would listen, “she’s no balabusta.”
For most of my life, it didn’t matter. As far as my mother was concerned, I was destined to become the first Jewish woman president of the United States, and I would have a squad of chefs preparing my state dinners anyway. My dad would kinda show me on the sly how to scramble an egg and how to turn on a stove, skills he deemed useful in emergencies. (That and how to replace a carburetor.) But the lessons (both kitchen and car) didn’t take.
I did my best to learn once it became important to me. That’s code for “I got married and Hubby asked me ‘what’s for supper?’” Funny, he never mentioned he’d be expecting dinner on our dates.
He was in for some inedible awakenings. But I saw how important it was to him, so it became important to me. I was gonna become the balabusta of the century, come hell or high water.
So I experimented and Hubby choked down every morsel. After a couple of years I had this thing under my belt (and on my hips). At last, I crowned myself a “Balabusta” (well no one else was gonna make me kitchen royalty).
But neither Hubby nor I was ready for the sudden emergence of Extreme Balabusta. I’m sure it was the result of one of those hormonal domestic frenzies; it happened just before I had a baby. Like a culinary Madame Curie, I spent ten straight hours making 60 quarts of chicken soup and froze them in individual 2-quart containers. Then I made 120 carrot muffins and froze them in bags of 8-10. Next I produced 4 challah kugels, and a huge brisket (frozen in 3 separate portions), and 90 meatballs (frozen 10 to a container), and 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (also portioned and frozen). We’re talkin’ really hormonal. My mother-in-law looked on in disbelief as I had humongous pots (almost as big as my humongous belly) bubbling on all 5 burners. There was 12-quart vat in which I was mixing my muffin batter, and enough ground beef to compete with Kosher Castle (that’s the Jewish Burger King).
So I had a freezer full of homemade goodies that lasted well into the year. But by the time the baby was three months old, I had to reactivate that balabusta mechanism which had gone dormant. I actually had to cook dinner.
And as Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again.” I discovered that I had not endowed myself with a genuine balabusta gene; I had simply copied it by artificial means. I had to drag myself back into that kitchen, with Hubby prodding me along as my ever-hopeful cheerleader.
It was time to start over.
A few weeks ago I was asked to give a keynote address at a middle school. My ever-proud Jewish mother insists on attending. As I’m waiting to be called to the stage, the principal and I start talking. He finds out my mom is in the audience. She’s been a teacher in his district for over forty years. He asks if he can go on a tangent before he introduces me. His eyes light up when he says the word tangent.
During his introduction he asks my mom to stand up and then he announces that she’s a Holocaust survivor. People applaud. This is the worst thing ever. It’s like pinning a bull’s-eye to my mom’s forehead. (If you don’t know, she’s the one in my book who reminds us each Hanukkah just as she wraps our menorah in an old rag and hides it in a mop bucket underneath the sink, “Don’t tell anyone your Jewish. They will find you. They will kill you. You will die.”) In some way, I know this is my fault. I’ve breached not only our family contract, but something more – I’ve put her survival at risk.
From backstage, I imagine my mom hunching over and figuring out how to make an exit. Finally, she stands up and runs out of the school.
When I call her afterward she says she’s sorry she couldn’t stay.
“The problem with being Jewish is they make you do stuff,” she says. I’ve heard this before. She’s quoting her favorite Jewish author, Eliezer Sobel. Whenever she wants to prove a point she turns to a certain page in his book “Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken.”
To make matters worse, Sobel is my friend, so whenever she quotes him it’s like she’s spooning on the Jewish mother guilt. “Eliezer says there are prayers for everything – upon rising, upon going to the toilet, upon eating fruit, upon smelling a new smell, upon seeing a deformed person, for baking challah, for building a sukkah.”
I mostly tune her out and this gets me thinking about the 614th commandment that was added to our already long list of commandments that reads, “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories……They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish……They are forbidden escape into either cynicism … and a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him.”
My mom says she doesn’t care about doing stuff anymore. She says she’s leaving that up to me and my nephew, Cody. She calls us The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists. Continue reading