The Jewish Mother Thing

  

boys licking chocolate off their messy facesI remember standing with a few friends after my oldest son was born. We were talking, as new mothers do, about how hard parenting can be, how scary. We were comparing neurotic-helicopter-mom moments, laughing at ourselves.

I shared a story about taking my son to the doctor when he seemed to have a fever. “His temperature is high!” I’d cried to the pediatrician, who only chuckled knowingly and said, “Well, maybe you want to unwrap some of these blankets when he’s indoors.” Of course my son was fine, just overheated.

I blushed telling this story. My friends grinned. They had the same stories, of course.  About cutting food up (choking hazards!) into tiny bits too small for the kids to actually pick up. About perceived rare (thanks, WebMD!) skin conditions that turned out to only be heat rash.

But I remember, in the middle of all the laughter that day, someone said, “Well, who can blame us? It’s the ‘Jewish Mother Thing.’ We’re supposed to be anxious and neurotic!  It’s in our DNA!” The laughter continued, and then we probably all had some coffee, or wine.

As the years have passed (10 of them), I’ve gone back to that moment a lot. Because it turns out that as a parent, I’m not especially neurotic. I’m the mom who often shows up with junky snacks, when other people have baked gluten-free, organic muffins. I’m the mom whose kids shower once a week. My boys walk around the neighborhood unattended, own pocketknives and occasionally we forget to eat dinner.

Do these things mean I’m not a Jewish mother? Of course stereotypes are flawed, inexact, problematic. But when I joined a Jewish Mom group on Facebook and saw the effort other Jewish parents put into the details of summer camp selection, perfect birthday cupcakes and finding the best specialists, I found myself wondering, and feeling a little… different. Outside the norm.

It never occurred to me until I saw so many Jewish Mothers all in one place that I might not be one, in the traditional sense. But of course this is absolutely logical, because I never had a Jewish Mother. My own overworked mom, raised Catholic in California—regularly left me at the library until after the doors were locked (it was fine, I sat and read on the steps). She didn’t make kugel and she didn’t speak in Yiddishisms. I rode public buses and did my homework (or didn’t) without anyone ever looking at it. I survived, and learned, I guess, how to parent a little haphazardly, with spit and tape. I learned how fine things usually are, in the end. I learned to avoid stress whenever possible.

But does this mode of parenting make me somehow less Jewish?

Here’s the thing—I am a Jewish mother. I know I am. Because I’m raising Jewish sons. And maybe what the rising intermarriage rates suggest is that we’re going to see a shift in the “Jewish Mother Thing” in the near future. Maybe the next generation of Jewish mothers, raised themselves by women from a more diverse array of religions, regions and cultures, will be less similar, less careful, a little less neurotic. Because they don’t have this “Jewish Mother” stereotype in their heads.

Or maybe not! Maybe all mothers are anxious sometimes and the “Jewish Mother Thing” is a fiction, a narrative we’ve crafted as a culture, a way of embracing and forgiving ourselves for our neurotic maternal impulses; a myth we perpetuate.

In any case, I want to take a moment today to honor us all.. This week, for Mothers’ Day, I want to say to ALL the Jewish Mothers of the world, Yasher Koach! Good job on your perfectionism, or your relaxed attitude. Good job on the homemade cupcakes, or the Ho-Ho you stuck a candle in at the last minute. Good job on remembering the dental appointment, or forgetting and rescheduling it because you took the kids for a hike that day instead. Good job on raising a diverse world of wonderful Jewish kids who will strengthen and alter and carry on our tradition. I’m proud of us all.

What to Eat on Lenten Shabbat

  

Shabbat dinner during LentI had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.

Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?

Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.

I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lent—something about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)

I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”

I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”

Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”

Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?

She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
We hang up the phone and I text her. “Any restaurant recommendations for good Catholic fish?”

She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”

Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.

I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Problem solved. We had fish. And I even tried my hand at a fish-shaped challah. Because if you can’t braid your challah into a fish on lent, when can you?

It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.

How I Chose Judaism for My Interfaith Family

  
Jillian with her sister and mother

Family tradition: Jillian (top) with her sister and mother on her grandfather's boat in Ipswich, MA after clamming, circa 1992

“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.

When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.

You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.

When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.

Jillian at her ordination

Jillian (second from right) with her sister, mother and father at her ordination from HUC-JIR Rabbinical School in 2012

While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.

And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.

My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at jillianc@interfaithfamily.com). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.