Jewish Mothers Aren’t Tigers

A “Jewish” Haiku circulating on the Internet:

Testing the warm milk
on her wrist, she sighs softly
But her son is forty.

May is mother’s month, revolving around Mother’s Day, just past. This year, a new kind of mother has taken center stage. She’s Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” whose severe methods of demanding achievement from her children opened a national parenting debate. Reports about her have appeared in all the news media, some attacking, some praising her unbending rules. These rules included never allowing her two daughters to have sleepovers or play dates, to watch television or get a grade lower than an A. Published in January, the book became an instant best seller.

Inevitably, Chua’s version of the Chinese mother has been compared to the stereotypical Jewish mother in parenting techniques (more about that in a moment). But nobody seemed to focus on the very different receptions given the Chinese mother phenomenon and that of the Jewish mother. As far as I can remember no representative of the Jewish mother ever appeared on the cover of Time magazine, as Chua did, or was noted among its 100 most influential people of the year, as she was. For decades, the Jewish mother was presented at best as a joke, and just as frequently as a destructive force in the lives of her sons. In recent years, she has almost disappeared from the scene, less vilified and viewed more often through a nostalgic lens.

Why the different attitudes to these mothering types?

The roots are historical. Over time, the loving, self-sacrificing “Yiddishe mama” image of the early American Jewish immigrant family morphed into the negative portrait of a nagging, domineering mother. Male writers and comedians of the 1950s and 1960s felt a need to pull away from the traditional Jewish family with its strong mother figure as they pushed their way into the broader American culture. Chinese immigrant history is different, and in today’s China-dominated universe, when a highly successful Chinese American mother, as Chua is, talks about her child-rearing standards, nobody laughs. Everybody sits up and takes notice, even those who violently disagree with her.

I read Chua’s book recently and found it more measured than the commotion surrounding it suggested. After her younger daughter Lulu rebelled against her, Chua had to give in to the girl’s wishes on a number of scores. And her description of her sister’s cancer brought tears to my eyes. Beyond that, let’s face it: many of us as real Jewish mothers can identify with Chua’s determined mother who ranks academic achievement sky high in her daughters’ lives. If we want to be honest, some of us may also have raised our voices (only occasionally, of course) in making our expectations known, as she does too frequently. We may even (good heavens!) have induced a hefty dose of guilt to get our way.

Another Internet Haiku:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I’ve done?

It certainly applies to Chua’s tiger mother; it also applies to more than a few Jewish mothers.

Yes, the proverbial Jewish mother has much in common with the Chinese mother Chua depicts. But there are basic differences. Chinese parents believe, Chua writes, that “the kids owe them everything.” Although Jewish tradition also highly values honoring parents, it places equal or greater importance on caring for our children as our parents cared for us. To that end, we rightly laugh at the overprotective Jewish mother warming her grown son’s milk, but in the actual world a little parental overprotection can provide the extra security children need to defend against the cold and indifference they will face outside their homes. Then, too, I cannot imagine a Jewish mother saying to a daughter, “Hey fatty, lose some weight,” as a Chinese mother routinely might, according to Chua. Not only would this hurt the girl, but it would show a lack of respect, and respect for everybody, including our children, is a fundamental Jewish value.

It’s in the values, more than anything, that Jewish mothers differ from Chua’s tigers. While they, too, urge individual achievement, the best Jewish mothers participate in the larger community and teach their children to do so. Jewish women created organizations like Hadassah, and marched prominently in labor union demonstrations. They led the feminist revolution and fought for civil rights. Through example and conversation they conveyed to their children the value of caring for the less fortunate. Is there any wonder we have so many doctors among us?

This may be a good time to reintroduce the Jewish mother into society. She can still teach the Chinese mom a thing or two about protecting even while pushing her children, demanding much from one’s own while demonstrating how to empathize with others.

Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.