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Beyond the Stereotypes…

Jewish Mothers: Strength, Wisdom, Compassion
interviews by Paula Ethel Wolfson, photographs by Lloyd Wolf, forward by Anne Roiphe
Chronicle Books, $29.95

Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories
edited by Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, MSW, Ellen Cole, Ph.D. and Susan Steinberg-Oren, Ph.D.
Haworth Press, $59.95, $24.95 paper

Two spellbinding new books demonstrate once again the extraordinary range of women encompassed by the term “Jewish mother.” One is both overwhelmed and, as Anne Roiphe adroitly wrote, “humbled,” at the accomplishments of the women presented in these two books. We see women from widely diverse religious and educational backgrounds whose lives intersect around the experience of being Jewish mothers. Both books forcefully counter the usual stereotypes regarding Jewish mothers and Jewish women.

Wolfson and Wolf’s book, which would make a great gift for almost anyone, is presented in a visually stunning coffee-table format, with a full-page portrait of each woman (often a revealing family portrait), along with a summary of Wolfson’s interview. Each interview describes some special aspect of this woman’s life, along with expositions on being a mother, on her own mother’s contributions to who she is, and how being Jewish affected her. I felt uplifted after reading this book, dazzled by being able to meet Dr. Carolyn Goodman, psychologist, activist and mother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman; Rebbetzin Hannah Weinberg, who ran a telephone for abused Jewish women out of her home for more than 20 years; Rabbi Avis Miller, who studied to become a Conservative rabbi while raising five sons; and Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who teases her children that her story is that of “Bronx housewife makes good.” Not all of the women are famous, and include a switchboard operator, a nurse-midwife, a mohel, a girl scout leader, attorneys, musicians and singers, comedians and philanthropists.

There were great variations in the relationships of the adult daughters to their mothers. Dr. Margaret Nachtigall, an obstetrician-gynecologist whose mother is a reproductive endocrinologist, writes, “I idolized my Mom. While we were on family vacations, my parents would spread out this big sheet at the beach and instead of reading us junk, they would read us the case review in the New England Journal of Medicine.” I was touched by the gentleness that many women displayed in discussing more difficult relationships with their mothers. Roni Toporovsky, a graphic artist, wrote, “It is hard to talk about my mother because she is deceased and I want to honor her memory…  My mother was of another generation and she had trouble understanding me. However, I know that she loved me.” When I finished the book and put it back on my coffee table, I felt great pride in being a Jewish mother and meeting these Jewish women.

The book by Siegel, Cole and Steinberg-Oren is a deeper, more nuanced exploration of the complexities of being a Jewish mother. Edited by three psychotherapists, there is more attention to layers of ambivalence in the tripartite roles of being mothers, being daughters and being Jewish. The essays are longer and explore more fully particular issues, such as responding to anti-Semitism in the school and in the community, being the mother of a lesbian daughter, being the non-Orthodox mother of a child who chooses to become Orthodox, being a lesbian mother to children, dealing with one’s child being autistic, having one’s son in the Israeli army, and dealing with domestic violence.

The authors express themselves with a stark honesty, and the outcomes are therefore not always the typically “happy” ones. For example, one woman writes about her involvement in politics while raising her children. “My daughters were neglected in the service of my studies, lost in the shuffle of meetings and demonstrations. There was not enough time to read, to talk, to play. There was not enough time for me to have both my own life and to help them towards theirs. Yet, they witnessed a mother living with passion, purpose, vision, and commitment. Those lessons have not been lost on them.”

Another woman, disabled by multiple sclerosis, writes of the guilt she felt not being able to care sufficiently for her daughter, and of her plan at one point to kill herself when she felt there was no more hope. A third woman writes of her pain at being rendered invisible by being a divorced, childless woman in the Jewish community. After asking her “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” there appeared to be no more questions to ask.

This book is peopled by seekers, by women who are intensively working to define for themselves their roles as Jewish mothers, and who are simultaneously involved in great acts of tikkun olam, repairing the world. For many of them, becoming a mother was the time when they reevaluated their Jewish identity. The essays in this book, although demanding at times, will cause you to think.

Nechuma Liss-Levinson is an author and psychologist in private practice. Her latest work is a play, “The Girl Who Fed Ants.”