Are You Eating Enough?

How I Learned To Love Being A Jewish Mother

Some parts of the stereotype are actually wonderful.

by Cat Bowen
Originally Published: 

Though I fit the bill, I have never much liked the caricature of the Jewish mother. From Sylvia Fine on The Nanny to Howard Wolowitz’s always-heard-but-never-seen mother on Big Bang Theory (and many more) the Jewish mother in popular culture is dramatic, demanding, and passive aggressive. She is obsessed with their children to the point of suffocation. She is a little toxic and the pastiche has become so ubiquitous, that it is perceived as fact by Jews and gentiles alike.

Recently, though, I’ve come to see a grain of truth in the stereotype; I recognize a few common traits shared by the many Jewish moms I have loved and been loved by — and those things are kind of magical.

Historically, Jewish mothers fed their families holiday meals from almost nothing. They encouraged their children to get a good education so that they wouldn’t have to worry about the bounty of their own holiday meals. Jewish moms kept the traditions alive, because, let’s face it, if we left that entirely in the hands of the dads, they’d still be looking for the Seder plate, and we’d have to make an entirely new holiday built around the year that dad remembered where he put the Afikomen. These women kept it together, kept celebrating and loving their families even when faced with impossible odds. The Yiddish Mama was a fierce protector, the most loyal of mothers and wives.

It felt like too much mothering for the modern world.

As times changed and we moved out of shtetls and made it to the other side of the Shoah, those same characteristics that made 19th century Jewish mothers so exalted, became overbearing and ridiculous. It felt like too much mothering for the modern world. But I don’t think that it is. I am a Jewish mother. Hell, I am a Jewish mother from Brooklyn. I gave my kids biblical names and sent them to Hebrew school. I make Shabbos dinner every Friday night, and I check my kids’ homework. I hug them and kiss them, and ask them about the future. I have one now in high school and one in middle school — the future is almost here for me as a mother. I want them to be prepared.

I want my children to know that I care about them. I want them to remember that I took an active role in their lives, and tried to set them up to be the best version of themselves. I don’t care what careers they choose, but I do want them to be resilient through all of the ebbs and flows of life. A hundred years ago, that might’ve looked like encouraging your child to become an accountant (the world always needs accountants!); today it means I teach them how to use a Google calendar, and how to balance their books if they choose to become an independent accountant.

There’s so much talk about how Jewish mothers expect too much from their children, and how they never learned to manage expectations. To me, there is comfort and security in knowing that there is always someone there who sees you as your best self. I think that having someone who expects you to try your best is encouraging. I’ll never expect my children to fail. Will they? Of course. Lord knows I’ve failed at plenty. And when they do, I’ll be there cheering them on, giving them hugs, a shoulder to cry on, and if they want — an assist. As long as I draw breath, they will always have someone who believes in them with their full chest. They’ll always have someone who can say “I knew you could do it, honey. I am so proud.” An expectation isn’t always a demand. Sometimes, it’s faith. And if Jewish people, and especially Jewish mothers, have anything in spades, it’s faith in good things. We know bad things happen, and we prepare for them, but we have faith that there will always be good.

As for who my children choose to create a family with, I’d love for them to be Jewish, but I know that isn’t always reasonable. Their own father, my husband, is Catholic. But I will still encourage them to remember their traditions, because they are not just acts of faith, but the preservation of our legacy, and acts of resistance, profoundly jewish values that I hope they carry with them forever and pass on to their own children.

So here I am, a Jewish mom, building a new kind of Jewish community with my kids. A celebrant of traditions who also embraces the new. I am leaning into encouragement and learning. I am leaning into the power of family and love. I’ll light candles and say prayers, and expect my children to succeed in life. I may occasionally nag, but what mother doesn’t? I may at times be a lot, but I never want to be not enough for my children.

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