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Mothering My Jewish Mother

Sarah Seltzer

Last week, a few days before Mother’s Day (and my mom’s birthday, which always falls at the same time of year), I stood on the street near Morningside Park in Upper Manhattan with my mother, venting and kibbitzing. I was on my way home from work, she had biked up to say hi. I was cranky, she was eager to see her daughter. It had been a warm day but a breeze was beginning to blow in, and she looked at me. “Let’s keep walking,” she said. “You’re getting cold.” “I’m fine,” I replied. “Mom you’re getting cold! Just say it!”

“Fine,” she said. “But it would make me feel better if you zipped up your sweatshirt.”

So it goes with Jewish mothers. I never thought of my adventurous, athletic and artistic mother as typically Jewish, but when she presses a sweater on me, or she wants assurance that her lasagna is my brother’s favorite food — or when, during the period when my building had a receptionist, she would drop off a loaf of bread in the lobby — her rich cultural heritage as a Jewish mom is impossible to not see.

Neither is it as I make my way through the essays in The Jewish Daughter Diaries, edited by Rachel Ament, laughing and cringing at so many of the anecdotes– fretting, feeding and “over-loving” are the big commonalities that bridge all the divergent personalities described by the essayists in the book.

I loved the book, but my Mother’s Day epiphany, perhaps even more appropriately for our era, came from a listicle. During the run-up to Mother’s Day I was struck by another, shorter, testament to the power of Jewish motherhood that circulated through my office (at a Jewish women’s org): “25 signs you’re becoming your Jewish mother.” We were all reading the list, by Amanda Scherker, and laughing. And so were our mothers.

Not all of the items on the list rang true to me, but some did. And the last one encapsulated how I’ve been talking to my mom this year with such precise accuracy that I felt humiliated about becoming a cliche myself.

“Suddenly, the tables have turned. She really just should be seeing her doctor more, and if she thinks power-walking is going to keep her healthy into her eighties, she is just NUTS. One day you’re going to have kids and you’d really really appreciate it if she stuck around.”

Yes I’ve been using the final line, the old “I’d appreciate it if you stuck around to help me with my kids” line, quite a bit. More than she’s been guilting me about having grandkids. (My mom doesn’t just power-walk, she runs, and bikes, and skis… too much in my opinion! Relaxing is healthy, too! You can’t fall or break a bone on the couch!)

My destiny awaits me. I’ve always been a fusser over my friends and family, but I’ve noticed my emergent yiddishe mama side take shape upon entering my 30s. Suddenly, every time my husband leaves the house late, I say, “Keep your wits about you.” And the instinct to mother reared its head that day in the park, as my mom and I parted ways and the temperature dropped. “ Mom,” I suddenly said, horrified, “You’re not dressed warmly enough! You’re going to catch a chill!” “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m wearing a fleece… and I’ll call you when I get home.”

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