Toward an inclusive celebration of Jewish motherhood
What does it mean to be a Jewish mother? It’s Mother’s Day, and the way this secular holiday is celebrated in the Jewish media reveals a range of beliefs and attitudes towards Jewish motherhood and the role of women in the Jewish world.
On one end of the spectrum, Mother’s Day is an opportunity to recognize Jewish mothers as unsung heroes of the domestic sphere—as the cherished, revered, spiritual, and moral compass of their nuclear families. This is exemplified in a new commercial for Wissotsky Tea called “Tribute to the Jewish Mother,” shared with us via Twitter.
Obviously, this video by Shmuel Hoffman was intended for an Orthodox audience. It was commissioned by the Ptex Group, Wissotzky’s ad agency in Brooklyn, New York. While it recognizes the dedication and hard work of religious Jewish homemakers, which should be recognized and valued, it is limited by its reductive definition of Jewish motherhood. The whole story of Jewish motherhood is so much broader than that.
Jewish mothers are both religious and secular, traditional and non-traditional, and the diversity of their experiences should be both acknowledged and honored. This was our goal in contributing to Uriel Heilman’s “Salute to 12 Jewish moms for Mother’s Day 2012” at JTA.
For example, this list recognized Bella Abzug, mother of two who was the first woman elected to Congress and a staunch women’s rights supporter, Bessie Hillman, another mother of two and Chicago union organizer who became known as the “Mother of American Labor,” and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who did not let the label of “mother” stop her from becoming a well-known sex therapist.
We could also add to the list women like Betty Friedan, who many consider the “mother” of American feminism—a distinction she earned after her groundbreaking book, The Feminist Mystique shook up the status quo—who was a mother of three who went on to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fight for equal rights.
We could also add Blu Greenberg, who raised five children and founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), becoming the “mother” of Orthodox feminism. Beverly Sills is another Jewish mother worthy of recognition. Credited with bringing opera into the lives of a new generation of Americans who couldn’t distinguish an aria from a coloratura, she also faced her challenges as a mother, with a daughter who is deaf and a son with cognitive disabilities. And how could we omit Joan Rivers, the acid-tongued comedian currently starring on the mother-daughter reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?
This year, Mother’s Day hits us in the midst of important conversations about what it means to be a woman without children. Katie Rophie’s latest piece in Slate asked if childlessness is still taboo, sparking heated discussion about the the right to be “childfree” and the stigma women who are childless by choice—or otherwise—still face. For example, read Chanel Dubofsky’s response on the Sisterhood and Adaya Adler’s response on Role/Reboot.
This discussion challenges us to expand our definitions of motherhood to include women who do not have children. Women like Henrietta Szold, who rescued thousands of children from German and other Nazi-infested European lands, sending them under the banner of Youth Aliyah to a new life in Palestine and earning the gratitude and love of an entire generation. How about Debbie Friedman, who for the last quarter century has been the “mother” of contemporary Jewish music? JWA’s own Ellen K. Rothman does not have children but is easily the mother of our office, always sure to ask about our lives outside of work (and each winter reminding me to get my flu shot already!). As we can see, one does not need to have children of their own to be the mother of an organization, a community, a movement, or a people.
So, this Mother’s Day, let us move towards a more inclusive celebration of Jewish motherhood—honoring Jewish women with or without children for their work and dedication balancing various modes of caregiving with a broad range of commitments and achievements that take place both inside and outside the home.
Deborah Fineblum Raub, consulting communications manager at the Jewish Women's Archive, contributed to this post.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "Toward an inclusive celebration of Jewish motherhood." 9 May 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 31, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/toward-inclusive-celebration-of-jewish-motherhood>.
While weÌ¢âÂã¢re remembering amazing Jewish mothers with attitude, IÌ¢âÂã¢m excited to share with you the story of a remarkable woman you probably havenÌ¢âÂã¢t heard of. Combine Cleopatra and Hillary Clinton. YouÌ¢âÂã¢ll have some idea of Salome Alexandra, the real-life Queen of the Jews. She was called by her grateful people Shalom-Zion, the queen of the peace of Zion. After the Maccabees, Judea remained independent for only 77 years. Shalom-Zion was on the throne for 37 of those years. She was married to a grandson of the Maccabees. Imagine a woman ruling Judea when women had the legal status of slaves. Egyptians and Syrians invaded. Civil war broke out between the commoners, who were followers of the Pharisee rabbis, and the wealthy Sadducee nobles and priests. Meanwhile, Shalom-ZionÌ¢âÂã¢s family life was a mess: 27 years of stormy marriage to the bloodthirsty alcoholic King Alexander Janneus. Her sons turned against her. Her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetakh, head of the Sanhedrin, was sometimes her ally, sometimes her bitter opponent. Yet, probably because of her influence, R. Shimon made one of the earliest rulings granting increased rights to divorced women. Together Shalom-Zion and Shimon ben Shetakh midwifed the Judaism of the rabbis Ì¢âÂÛÏ the Judaism that survived the destruction of the Second Temple and is still practiced today. You can read all about this genuine Jewish heroine in my new historical novel, Queen of the Jews, available on Amazon.com. Look under my name, Judy Petsonk.
In reply to <p>While weÌ¢âÂã¢re by Judy Petsonk
Thanks for sharing, Judy!
Salome Alexandra is actually featured in JWA's online encyclopedia of Jewish women. We're excited to learn more about your book.
I would like to nominate for a childless-mother-with-attitude Anna Beck, 86, a member of the Highland Park, NJ, Minyan. In 1941, when she was 15, Hungarian soldiers occupied her home town, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. In winter of 1942 Ì¢âÂÛÏ the coldest winter on record Ì¢âÂÛÏ 800 Jews and 375 Serbian residents of Novi Sad were killed on the spot or marched to the frozen Danube where they were killed. AnnaÌ¢âÂã¢s mother and grandparents were among those shot and pushed into holes in the ice. Before the rifles reached Anna and her sister Vera, an order came to halt the massacre. Anna and Vera fled to Budapest with their extended family. In 1944, when the Germans invaded Budapest, Anna and Vera were able to get false Aryan papers from their Zionist youth group. Each found a factory job and a bed-for-rent (Ì¢âÂÒa bed, in a room where two beds were rented to other people,Ì¢âÂå Anna explains. Ì¢âÂÒI got a couch Ì¢âÂÛÏ with springs so worn out and noisy I didnÌ¢âÂã¢t dare get up at night to go to the bathroom or I would wake everyone.Ì¢âÂå) HereÌ¢âÂã¢s how Anna remembers that Yom Kippur: (In a small restaurant in Budapest Vera sits at a table sipping coffee. Anna enters triumphantly, waving a newspaper in her hand.)
ANNA: I see from the newspapers that tomorrow is Yom Kippur. One thing is sure: I am not going to work on our holiday.
VERA: And how will you explain your absence in the factory, if I may ask? They may suspect something.
ANNA: Why should they? Everybody is entitled to be sick once in a while.
VERA: And what about the landlady? Or the roommates? They will know that you are not sick. What are you going to tell them?
ANNA: Nothing. IÌ¢âÂã¢ll leave the house at the usual time and come back at the usual time.
VERA: You arenÌ¢âÂã¢t going to roam the streets for ten hours, are you?
ANNA: Not quite. Some of the time IÌ¢âÂã¢ll spend in our usual coffeehouse, and some of the time IÌ¢âÂã¢ll spend in the temple. I saw one near the park where we usually sit - you know, next to the food market.
VERA: This is sheer madness. You cannot go to temple without wearing a yellow star.
ANNA: I can if I am exempted from wearing a star. There are several thousand Jews who have gotten such an exemption.
VERA: And they have papers to prove it. All you have are papers, some of them, by the way, rather fishy, saying that you are a Christian. And what is a Christian doing in a synagogue?
ANNA: No one will ask this question, I guarantee. They granted free movement to Jews for the High Holidays in order to impress the Allies. They are not going to spoil this impression by raiding the synagogues.
VERA: Wishful thinking. I wouldnÌ¢âÂã¢t bet my life on it.
ANNA: Nor would I. But IÌ¢âÂã¢ll be very careful. If I see a commotion or a goyish-looking person at the entrance of the synagogue, IÌ¢âÂã¢ll simply not go in. And IÌ¢âÂã¢ll seat myself near the exit, so that if I notice a commotion inside the synagogue, IÌ¢âÂã¢ll quickly slip out. But I really donÌ¢âÂã¢t believe there will be any trouble. By the way, they say that Regent Horthy is asking for a truce. So his people will be on their best behavior, especially now that the Russians are pounding at the gates.
VERA: The Russians have been pounding at the gates for half a year. And what is the result: German occupation, deportations, yellow stars, the worldÌ¢âÂã¢s worst Nazi laws and Nazi behavior.
ANNA: True, but the worst types have now been kicked out of the government and the atmosphere has eased.
VERA: Things are changing from one day to another. ItÌ¢âÂã¢s stupid to gamble, especially now, that salvation is so near. God will forgive you if you donÌ¢âÂã¢t go to the synagogue tomorrow.
ANNA: He better... The question is not whether HeÌ¢âÂã¢ll forgive me, but whether IÌ¢âÂã¢ll forgive Him. HeÌ¢âÂã¢ll have a lot of explaining to do tomorrow. Now itÌ¢âÂã¢s His turn to atone.
VERA: So why risk your life to go to the synagogue if you are so skeptical?
ANNA: ItÌ¢âÂã¢s difficult to explain it, but I must go. I owe it to Mama and Omama and Otata... and to all the others who were murdered because they were Jews.
VERA: Mama would not approve of it. She was always so fearful for us... ItÌ¢âÂã¢s just your foolish arrogance. You have to prove to yourself that you are not cowed. Big deal!
ANNA: Perhaps you are right, but only up to a point. Because itÌ¢âÂã¢s not so much a question of pride as it is a question of nostalgia. Yom Kippur used to be the most beautiful day of the year for us, wouldnÌ¢âÂã¢t you agree? Remember how we, all twelve of us, freshly washed, combed, all dressed up, smelling of fine soap and eau-de cologne, kissed and hugged each other before going to temple?
VERA: And then spend the whole day in the synagogue listening to the service, and praying for forgiveness... And also scanning the womenÌ¢âÂã¢s galleries and the menÌ¢âÂã¢s benches from time to time.
ANNA: And those beautiful melodies! (Hums.) BÌ¢âÂã¢rosh-ha-shanha yika-tevun...(Hums) UvÌ¢âÂã¢yom tzom kippur yey-hateymun...
VERA: You are a hopeless romantic. What about those long boring stretches of prayers read in silence or in a humming sort of way, and the endless Torah readings, all murmured in Hebrew, which nobody understood. We were dying of boredom, it was suffocatingly hot. A few women usually fainted because of the heat or because of the fasting. Since most of the adults usually bought just one seat, we children had to stand almost the entire time.
ANNA: True, but when we got too bored and too hot, we went out to the temple yard to meet with other children for a promenade, and some gossip... I always loved the holidays so much... And those mournful melodies were so uplifting.
VERA: And what about me? What would I do if something happened to you? Promise that you are not going to the temple! Please!
ANNA: Okay. I promise. (Kisses VERA very tenderly.)
VERA: And I promise that IÌ¢âÂã¢ll take the afternoon off. LetÌ¢âÂã¢s meet at three oÌ¢âÂã¢clock and spend the day together.
The next morning in front of the synagogue. Some Jewish-looking men and women are entering the temple, and some are standing in front of the entrance. ANNA cases the place and then goes in. She positions herself at the end of the row closest to the exit. The temple is about three quarters full; the service is proceeding as usual, perhaps a little more subdued. The woman next to Anna shares her prayer-book with Anna and does not ask any questions nor does she look surprised that Anna does not wear a yellow star.
Early afternoon in a small city park. With children in school and adult men at work, the place is rather deserted. ANNA and VERA are sitting on a bench drinking yoghurt and eating bread and grapes with great gusto. Vera takes the food remnants to the garbage can when a SEEDY MIDDLE-AGED MAN walks up to her.
SEEDY MAN: I say, why donÌ¢âÂã¢t you wear your yellow star?
(Anna runs up to Vera.) ANNA: What are you talking about?
SEEDY MAN: You know damn well what I am talking about. You cannot fool me. I know a Jew when I see one. Wait Ì¢âÂèÏtil I fetch a policeman and have you arrested.
ANNA: Wait Ì¢âÂèÏtil I fetch a policeman and have you arrested.
SEEDY MAN: For what, if I may humbly ask?
ANNA: For being drunk in public and molesting respectable Christian maidens. You should be ashamed of yourself!
SEEDY MAN (Sneering, but with much less conviction.): Christian maidens indeed! (He curses under his breath, and walks away.)
ANNA: We shouldnÌ¢âÂã¢t look as if we are fleeing, because he may turn around. We will wait a few minutes and then walk away at a very leisurely pace, amidst a lively conversation. (Giving a kiss to VERA.) You arenÌ¢âÂã¢t scared?
VERA: (Ironically.) IÌ¢âÂÛÏscared? Why should I be scared?
ANNA: I must admit, it was a close shave.
VERA: By the way, I didnÌ¢âÂã¢t notice that he was drunk.
ANNA: Neither did I. It was, as they say, a working hypothesis. And it worked.
After the war, the two sisters went to study in Belgrade, where Anna got a degree in chemical engineering. Thereafter they emigrated to Israel, where Anna worked in the Agricultural Institute. After earning a Ph.D. in chemistry, Anna won a postdoctoral fellowship to do research at Stockholm University. Another one-year post-doc took her to Berkeley, CA. Then she wrote to her hero, Leo Szilard, asking for a job. Ì¢âÂÒI liked a satirical book heÌ¢âÂã¢d written. I didnÌ¢âÂã¢t know anything about nuclear physics or the atomic bomb,Ì¢âÂå she said. But he enjoyed her hutzpah and hired her. Ì¢âÂÒHe didnÌ¢âÂã¢t even ask me what I knew.Ì¢âÂå Her career had various bumps. She taught at Cooper Union Engineering Institute, while getting a library degree at Columbia. Then she came to the Rutgers Institute for Alcohol