I recently visited my parents in Boynton Beach Florida. One of the reasons I was excited to go there is I knew without a doubt it would give me some good material for this blog. For those of you with New York Jewish parents -or any East Coast Jewish parents – living in Florida, you know what I mean.
The Jewish mother/grandmother archetype, is becoming more and more of a rarity and in danger of extinction I think. There are those of us in mine and succeeding generations that are Jewish by birth (and may even practice – I don’t) –and who are also mothers as well. But I’m not so sure those two words – “Jewish” and “mother” go together nowadays ” in the same way they have in the past to create what many know to be, and what countless movies and tv shows and comedians depict as the stereotypical protoype of the classic “Jewish mother – or that they ever could. Different times create different archetypes, I think. My grandmother and great aunts were classic, living in tenements in New York and hanging out windows to watch over their collective brood, ministering to their husbands, clear in their roles as cook and caretaker and worriers and hand wringers extraordinaire. Worry was considered holy in our family and something to be taught and learn. It was/is a sign of love. And no one could do it better than my grandmother could.
Family get-togethers were a loud and running commentary on politics, other people, other people’s kids, food and mostly what was wrong with all of them. The word should could not be overused. In fact it seemed it was our birthright to determine what was right for everyone else and what they should do, how they should act and more so what they shouldn’t be doing and how we knew better and never would do the thing that we determined they shouldn’t be. We were not taught that interrupting was rude. In fact not much was considered “rude” – except when other people did it of course. Talking over one another was the norm, almost somewhat expected. Like a sign of affection and comfort that we didn’t need to put on airs. Loudness was necessary and did not seem to bother anyone. Except me sometimes and my brother maybe. I was an extremely shy kid and me and my brother were often the only children, so we generally said nothing. There wasn’t’ much opening anyway for someone smaller and with a softer voice who hadn’t acquired such opinions or the ability to speak them louder than people much bigger and louder than they were.
Beyond the “kvetching”, I did learn a lot however about other things –most notably about politics – it being a prominent topic of discussion. Even when I thought I wasn’t really listening or fully able to comprehend, somehow, beliefs about concepts of social and governmental responsibility and lingering New Deal ideals about the role of government in caring for the old and the infirmed and the otherwise disadvantaged were getting programmed in. Please understand, no one was wanting any free rides or to rely on anyone else. These were hard working, extremely proud working class people taking responsibility for themselves and their families. Some had really struggled through the Depression and survived. But their strident sense of personal responsibility was balanced with a recognition that we were all part of a larger community and it seems to me now -if my adult recognition of childhood interpretations serve me correctly — that there was a fervent, unquestionable belief that it really was part of government ‘s job to help people – that they were almost like a partner, a part of our larger family, our ultimate patriarch and caretaker.
But here’s the bottom line. In those rooms, in those apartments, in those tenement buildings where we gathered to “kvetch” and share and talk politics and gossip and where the smells of homemade soup and brisket (overdone) and chocolate cake and mothballs and that distinct grandma’s apartment smell enveloped us in our gathering, there was love amongst the ruckus. In fact the ruckus was love. There was lots of it. The Jewish version. And the Jewish mothers were the guardians of it all, the non-designated stewards shepherding their Jewish mother version of love. The only way they knew how, having been taught by their own mothers and grandmothers who came over on crowded boats for promises of a better and freer life. I was the youngest of the three generations deep of women in those tiny kitchens where we pretended to wash and dry dishes but really were passing stories and love through the generations.
My own Jewish mother and her counterparts were evolved from the steroetype of my grandma’s generation. They were marginally influenced by the emerging women’s movement. Some of them did work mostly as secretaries (as my mother did in a junior high) or in part-time jobs. They learned to drive. A few of them even got divorced. They went to “beauty parlors” on Saturday and many expressed their personality and sophistication through their fashion sense. But, to me at least they still had that distinctly Jewish mother stamp. Jewish women are not wimps by any mean. They have no problem telling you what they think or feel. No repressed feelings here. Inability to express ourselves is not our issue even if its done in that less than overt – shall I say – um- even passive aggressive way that lets one know how we feel by somehow making it their fault! I think thats what they call “guilt”? How do Jewish mothers do that??? I recently saw a Piers Morgan interview with Barbara Streisand about her recent movie “Guilt Trip”. He remarks to Ms. Streisand about her role as Jewish mother to a grown son and comments on a scene where she is asking him a bunch of questions. Piers Morgan notes how she asks questions that are not really questions to her son but rather fairly biting comments that never require or get an answer from her son. “How do you do that?” he says to her somewhat puzzled and confounded – “And by the time you are done he is obliterated!” They both laugh. I laughed too knowing exactly what he meant and what she was doing. “I don’t know” replies Ms. Streisand. “It’s just in my DNA”.
So the original intention for this blog was going to be a story from my trip to Florida about my parent’s broken printer and the uncanny way it came to be fixed and what I learned. I knew I would have “stories” from my Florida visit with parents for this blog. It was a foregone conclusion. I was looking for something funny with a lesson of course. But instead a bigger “story” came out. The one about my culture, the one I grew up with, the one I knew – and I guess – a little bit about my own “DNA”. Who knew?? Even though I’m not quite the same as my grandmother, or my mother and have the imprint of a different generation. Even though I am not hanging out windows to check up on my children, I check on them and “follow” them by “friending” them and “texting” them – my windows to their world. And even though my children are only partly Jewish (by birth, not religion) and I don’t practice Judasim as a religion or spiritual practice– I guess I am after all still a “Jewish mother” and I suppose then that maybe they still do exist to some extent. I care, I worry, I “kvetch”, I love sometimes with some overprotection, and okay- sometime I produce a small amount of guilt, but just a small amount…. And I say “Oy” a lot. It expresses what no other word can for so many situations. I’m a Jewish mother, always will be. From a long line of them before me. Its just in my DNA.