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Your Personal Catchphrase
Mom with a View

Your Personal Catchphrase

What do I want to be known for?


In Ethics of Our Fathers, most pieces of advice from our sages are prefaced with the words “he used to say.” These are not like the “quotable quotes” that our teenagers are fond of putting in their high school yearbooks – things like” Is it lunch yet?” “Who wants to get me an iced coffee?” “I’m ditching today” or “Bananas? Ooh; gross.” Rather these expressions constitute wisdom for living, specifically that particular sage’s credo.

They were more than words he lived by, they were words he embodied. They were a description of his essence – be it judging others favorably, opening his home to Torah scholars or seeing the good in everyone.

That idea gave me pause. Is there a saying that embodies who I am? I’m afraid my kids would say that my quotable quote is “I got in on sale.” But I hope that if they really look at my life to see what I represent, they would see something deeper and more meaningful (and I hope they won’t tell me if they don’t!). I hope when they write “she used to say,” there will be wiser words than “I’m starting my diet tomorrow” to follow. But it makes me think. What do I want to be known for? Am I making sure that my life is a reflection of that?

When I wake up in the morning, do I run to check my emails or to say my prayers? When I’m on the phone, am I careful not to speak negatively about others? Or do I just chat away, oblivious to the Torah’s prohibition of gossip? How about my time? I have always been moved by the idea that our forefather, Abraham, “came with his days.” The commentaries say that means he lived every moment to the fullest. That’s how I’d like to be, but am I? How much down time do I rationalize? (Do I really need that much rejuvenation?!)

I sometimes wonder if I was the star of a Reality TV show (no, this is emphatically not a fantasy of mine) and a camera followed me around all day, what would it see? Would the film reveal the person I imagine myself to be or a much paler imitation?

When one of my daughters went for her high school admissions interview, the principal asked her in what way she would like to emulate her mother. I let my imagination run free? “I would like to be kind like her” “I would like to open my home to guests like her” “I would like to care about the Jewish people like her”. But that was not her answer. “I “I would like to collect tchotchkes like her” said my sweet young daughter.

Well that wiped the smile right off my face. And although I attribute some of that response to nervousness in the face of an intimidating high school principal, I was not happy. I certainly don’t want that to be my “she used to say”! It’s definitely not what I want to embody. And I don’t even think it’s true. Yet…

It was a wake-up call. I have to live my life like I mean it. The ideas and values that I say are priorities have to be demonstrably so. Even in stressful situations, my children should be able to say “She tried to do what’s right” or “She wanted to help the Jewish people” or “She worked hard and used every moment wisely and well.” (I can dream, can’t I?)

I don’t want my Mishnah to be about clothes or food or the material world. I want it to be deeper and more meaningful. I also don’t want it to be, she used to scream, “Get out of bed now; it’s time to go to school” or “Clean up you room; it’s a pig sty.” Rather my credo should express a calm and gentle demeanor (more dreaming).

Maybe it’s enough if it just reflects the effort. She used to say, “We just have to keep trying. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We just have to keep growing. And we have to always ask the Almighty for help.” I know it’s longer than the one line of our Sages, than the pithy statements of Ethics of Our Fathers – but maybe the Almighty will cut our generation a little slack since we’re not as wise or accomplished as our leaders of old.

January 21, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 11

(10) MABSH"Y, January 31, 2012 2:07 PM

My mother, z"l

My mother, z"l, used to say, "Stealing is stealing, whether it's five cents or a nickel". Yes, that's not a misprint. We good-naturedly ribbed her for her misspeaking (she meant to say "dime"), but it became much more memorable that way, and a catchphrase for our family. But more than a catchphrase, it become ingrained in us. Honesty, integrity -- always make sure that you only take what's rightfully yours, and return something that was mistakenly given to you. Words that I have lived by, and that I have taught my children. Although she left this world 32 years ago at the age of only 52 (I was 16), her words continue to resonate to this day.

(9) Anonymous, January 27, 2012 5:06 AM


(8) Simi Dougan, January 25, 2012 12:53 AM

Catch as catch can

Gee, Emuna, interesting question. I always love reading your articles, you make me laugh and think. For those people that don't know, tchachekes are collectibles, usually odds and ends, but they can have a theme. There was a time I used to collect tchatchkes, now I have so much stuff to get rid of, I can't bear the thought of having more. Sometimes, someone gives me something though, and that I find hard to get rid of. I'm big on sentimental value. If I had to pick a catch phrase, it would probably be "What can I do to help?" I grew up with a grandmother that was always doing things for others, she was an excellent role model. I find that almost wherever you go, someone needs a hand with something. It usually only takes a minute or 2, sometimes longer, but the smile you get in return is so worth it. It also makes me feel like I did that little extra something, to make this world a better place. All the Best, Simi

(7) Grandma Carol, January 25, 2012 12:20 AM

A Great Article

I'm not Jewish, but I have family and friends who are and I really get alot out of these articles. I want to tell this author that her point has been well-taken by me and it most certainly will make me become more aware of what I do as well as what I DON'T do. I really connected with Ms. Housman's comments! I'm learning that what I treasure may not be things my family will even want. So, I'm beginning to look at what I have displayed everywhere and yes, there is a story with each one. My daughter once suggested I take a photo of everything and then 'get rid of it'! I was shocked to even consider this, but lately I'm beginning to understand her minimalist thinking. I love taking photos and reducing what I have through her suggestion will also allow me to 'tell my story' about each item! I love being able to develop a new attitude and path about my life and this one is a HUGE one. Thanks again to the author!

(6) Anonymous, January 24, 2012 7:07 PM

It's in your nature, not in you catch phrase

What are tchotchkes??? I also had a very humbling experience with my daughter. I opened my fortune cookie, and it said something like “You want to help other people.” My daughter laughed and said, “Of course, everybody wants to help other people!” I should confess that I don’t really help people that much, though I do want to. I should try harder. My point is, your kindness and care for Jewish people is so ingrained in you and your daughter’s nature that she does not even see the need to speak of it.

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