Two Jewish mothers are having dinner in a restaurant.
The waiter comes up to them and asks, “Ladies, is anything all right?”
That’s my favorite joke. Recently, I read that your favorite joke says a lot about you. And as a therapist, which means I’m a keen student of the human condition, I was both intrigued and disturbed by the prospect of what this joke says about me personally.
Naturally, it’s about suffering, never deriving too much enjoyment from anything, of course. The long-suffering Jewish mother. At the time when I read this idea about your favorite joke saying something about you, I was pregnant with my now 2-year old daughter, on the verge of becoming a Jewish mother myself.
So I had to ask myself, what is it with Jewish mothers and suffering? Why do they, or I guess more aptly, we, love it so much?
Which leads me to another joke I love:
Why don’t Jewish mothers drink?
Because it dulls the pain.
Indeed, anything that might dull the pain in any way feels like anathema to many a Jewish soul. I remember thinking a troubling thought once while waiting for the light at a crosswalk; but if I stop worrying, who will do it? As a Jew, as a woman, and as a mother, something feels momentously important about this effort of shouldering the pain and burdens of the world.
This reminds me of the telegram my mother sent. It read:
“Begin worrying. STOP. Details to follow. STOP”
Naturally I have to think about my own mother as I consider these issues.
Not long ago we were having lunch and talking about a cousin of hers with whom she had grown up who had died suddenly. The conversation rolled around to other deaths – her father, her mother, her sister. My mom is still grieving these losses, and is still angry about them. She blames various people and forces for taking away her loved ones with a fierceness as fresh as if it happened yesterday. In that conversation, I recognized something really important about my mother’s suffering. To her, I believe, it represents her unending love, her sense of injustice perpetrated and wrongs done to her kin. To let go of her suffering, anger, and grief, I imagined, might feel like letting go of that devotion, which would be tantamount to an unforgivable betrayal.
Which leads me to yet another joke:
What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish Mother?
Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go.
So, she doesn’t let go. And perhaps there’s a wish that by holding on for dear life, by some magical alchemical process she will take on the burden of all the pains her children could ever feel. This is a key task of her job, one of her sacred burdens as a Jewish mother.
The job of the first-generation immigrant Jewish mother was mainly one preoccupied with survival of her offspring, which manifested in the form of meeting basic needs and assuring safety. My grandmothers, both of whom came to this country from Eastern Europe in their youth, worked to make a home for my parents. They cooked, sometimes very well (in the case of my mother’s mom, Ida), sometimes poorly (in the case of my dad’s mom, Miriam). Grandma Ida made costumes for Halloween and Purim. They kept houses and children clean, and generally prevented their children from killing one another. They gave all the right admonitions, worrying over my parents until well into adulthood. My mother and older half-sister lived with my grandparents for a while, and my mother remembers coming home one night after midnight to an incensed Grandma Ida sitting beside a lone lamp asking my mother if she knew what time it was.
These women knew about deprivation, presumably knew what it was like to not know where their next meal was coming from. They knew about lack of safety – their families fled their homes for a place they had never seen, never to return or even possibly hear from their countrymen ever again. It was their job to anticipate their children’s needs, because from their experience, the difference between this meal and the next, between one extra sweater and two, could literally have meant the difference between life and death back in the old country. Those critical matters of survival could not be left to chance, and certainly couldn’t be left to something as unreliable as the child’s own assessment of his or her needs.
This reminds me of that time my mother called to me out the window.
“Rifkele, come home!”
“Mama, am I hungry”?
“No, you’re cold!”
So it’s no wonder my mother is constantly worrying about making sure Molly and I have what we need and are safe from the dangers of the world. To be sure, I’ve learned how to identify and meet my own needs, and am passing this critical skill on to my daughter.
So the work of a Jewish mother feels deeply tied to providing. To filling empty cupboards and bellies, and in so doing filling the Jewish mother’s own soul. But in the age of Amazon, which can provide whatever I desire at the click of a button, what, then, is the role of the Jewish mother?
Here is what I know:
My suffering cannot alleviate my daughter’s pain. No matter how much I wish it to.
My daughter wants for nothing – our refrigerator and cupboards are always full, and we are clothed and warm (as warm as we need to be in southern California, anyway).
My daughter is generally safe, but I know I cannot protect her from everything, and that the pleasures and dangers of the world are hers to experience and learn from.
So, if my primary job as her Jewish mother isn’t to suffer, or provide for her, or protect her from the world, then what is it? What can I give her beyond what prior generations of Jewish mothers strove to give their children, and that was the very best they had to give? Indeed, what they gave served its purpose, which was to ensure the survival of their offspring.
The best thing I can think of is that I can follow her. I can see her for who she is and what she really needs as a unique person, totally new to this world. I can delight in her. I can bear witness to her pain even though I cannot take it away. I will keep making sure the fridge is full and that she is warm enough, but more importantly, I will follow where she leads.