The Suffering of the Jewish Mother

The combination “Jewish Mother stereotype” generates 47,800 results on google. But what, exactly, does it mean? The definition on Wikipedia, drawn from Margaret Mead’s research on Jewish Shtetl life, describes a Jewish Mother as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”

The Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel

Oh dear, that’s not me, is it? Am I the stereotypical Jewish Mother? I’ve given birth to two beautiful and smart children and so I’m a mother. My mother is Jewish, and that makes me a Jew according to Jewish law. But though I’m Jewish and a mother, I’m not sure I’m ready to submit to the stereotype. Is it my destiny to be an overprotective, manipulative, and overbearing mother?

Of course, I am overprotective. I spoil the children with gifts and sweets, and I don’t get half as much respect from them as I would like. I know I am a dominant force in my children’s life, but I’d rather not consider myself overbearing. I hope I don’t guilt them into behaving the way I want them to, but even as I write these words I can see my son’s contrite face after he has done something that disappointed me. And my conscience produces a ton of pangs, that’s for sure.

Treats for Eden’s birthday

My mother did not hover over us, nor was she more overbearing than my friends’ parents, or prone to generating enormous guilt. Every year, however, there was one day on which she amassed enough guilt to last a year: Yom Kippur. My mother religiously fasted on Yom Kippur, refusing even water. Wandering around the house, her head aching, wan-faced and near fainting, she made all of us feel guilty about every single bite of food that came into our mouths. As Yom Kippur wound up, she’d sit with a cup of tea and some toast, the image of righteousness.

Celebrating the last night of Hanukkah

I was never able to fast. An uncontrollable hunger, the likes of which I never experienced on normal days, seized me whenever I contemplated fasting, preventing me from skipping even a late dinner on Yom Kippur eve. My sister sometimes fasted in an effort to decrease her feelings of guilt about our mother’s suffering. My brother, who never ate unless food was placed directly in front of him, probably never noticed the pressure, and my father, who claimed (and still insists to this day) that he doesn’t need to fast because he never sins, appeared to consider my mother’s Yom Kippur agonies an expression of insanity best ignored.

To this day, I’m certain my mother’s purpose in suffering so much while fasting was entirely altruistic: she wanted to ensure that we all of us were written into the Book of Life. We felt the pain of her pain, and I guess, for the purposes of the Book of life, it was enough.

Comments are closed.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109