The stereotypical Jewish mother gets a bad rap.
They practically force-fed their kids… (What’s a nine-letter Jewish word for mealtime? “Eat, eat, eat!”)
…inflict guilt: (How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, I’ll just sit here in the dark.)
…and are obsessed with money and status. (A Jewish mother was asked how old her kids were. “The doctor is six and the lawyer is four.”)
There’s nothing funny about the underlying negative stereotypes behind these jokes. UrbanDictionary.com defines a Jewish mother as someone “who is overly uptight, protective and complains a lot.”
That doesn’t sound like most Jewish mothers I know. I would describe the ones I know as nurturing, hard-working, spiritual, sharing a common desire to create a Jewish home to transmit the millennia-old tradition with which we’ve been entrusted.
Jewish tradition has plenty of inspiring role models to choose from.
Jewish tradition has plenty of inspiring role models to choose from. Time and time again, it was Jewish women – especially mothers – who sustained us through dark times.
Sarah, our first matriarch, showed how Jewish moms can make our homes a special place. Each Friday evening at sundown, the Midrash relates, Sarah would kindle Shabbat lights in the tent she shared with her husband Abraham and son Isaac. Miraculously, those Shabbat lights never went out and burned all week long, illuminating Sarah’s family and bathing it with holiness and light. When the end of the week came, Sarah’s lights would finally go out, just in time for her to kindle to them again.
After Sarah’s death, Isaac married Rebecca, who was noted for her kindness and generosity. Rebecca moved into the tent and once again the Shabbat lights she lit glowed all week long.
Jewish women I know try their best to bring the same sort of radiance into their own homes today. “If I don’t do it nobody else will,” a good friend recently told me, explaining that she was thinking of experimenting with lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evenings. Her husband was less interested in tradition and her kids were very young. If anyone was going to bring Jewish ritual and spiritual pursuits into their home, it was her. She started lighting Shabbat candles each Friday and the tradition quickly caught on. Her daughters loved lighting candles with her, and the family soon started having Shabbat dinner together too.
When I see Jewish women working to instill a love of Judaism into their kids, I sometimes think of Yocheved, the mother of Moses. She was a fearless midwife who, along with her brave daughter Miriam, defied Pharaoh's evil decree to murder Jewish baby boys and instead delivered babies in secret, saving and protecting them from Pharaoh.
When Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses and took him out of the Nile, Miriam was watching nearby and came out of hiding, asking the princess, “Shall I go and call you a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) Pharaoh’s daughter assented, and Miriam fetched Yocheved, Moses’ very own mother.
As Jewish mothers, it’s up to us to impart the meaning and joy of being Jewish to the next generation.
These early intense years that Yocheved took care of Moses shaped the man that Moses would become. Years later, when he was an adult, living as a royal prince of Egypt, Moses nonetheless considered himself a Jew and was moved by the plight of his fellow Jewish slaves. His life in the royal palace did nothing to dampen his feeling of kinship and belonging to the Jewish people.
This is the legacy of his Jewish mother. No matter our lifestyle, our level of religious observance, our background or degree of Jewish knowledge, we are given the holy task to instill in our children a glowing sense of Jewish pride and a desire to claim their precious inheritance of being part of the Jewish people.
It’s time to reclaim the title “Jewish mother” and wear it as a badge of pride. Thousands of years after our matriarch Sarah, we still bring the light Shabbat into our homes. Thousands of years after Yocheved, we still work to instill Jewish knowledge and pride in our kids. As Jewish mothers, it’s up to us to impart the meaning and joy of being Jewish to the next generation.