My Mother the Model: Passing Along Lessons, Culture and Values
My mother, Dorothy Friedman Braun, known as Dottie, joined Junior Hadassah in high school, probably at about age 16. When she died four years ago at 91, she was still a Hadassah member.
In between was a lifetime of family, friends, food and nonstop participation in Jewish life. If I were asked to pick a theme for my mother’s life, I’d say that most of all, she was committed to the generations, to passing along her values and life lessons to those who would follow. L’Dor v’dor (“From generation to generation”).
The facts are straightforward:
Born and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, Dottie Friedman married fellow Brownsville resident Howard Braun. The couple moved to Schenectady, NY, then to San Jose, CA, and finally settled in Pittsburgh, PA. Together, they produced three children and seven grandchildren.
My father was the storyteller, regaling his children and grandchildren with stories about his work, immigrating as a child from poverty-stricken Eastern Europe, heading off to college in a Middle America that had little experience of Jews. There was always a story. While Mom would relate tidbits of stories or instructions if asked, her approach was to teach by doing, especially by including us, her kids, in the process.
Because my grandmother (my mother’s mother), Sarah, was an excellent homemaker and traditional cook, my mother was not expected to help in the kitchen and so was at a loss as to how to prepare meals when she married. Purchasing a cookbook (which I still have, now well-worn with a broken binding), she set out to learn. Laughing, she would relate to us how she made her first batch of mashed potatoes (peel potatoes, boil them, mash them). Somehow, she’d skipped the step of draining the water and ended up creating a mess! Later, my mother would follow her mother around the kitchen, shoving measuring cups below Grandma’s hands as they “measured” out ingredients by feel, only later recording family recipes for Passover, Shabbat, and Rosh Hashana.
Although my mother’s father, Alex (also known as Eli), ran a small shop that produced women’s coats and dresses, my mother was not taught to sew. There was no need; he made my mother a lovely new outfit for the High Holidays every year. Once married, Mom bought a sewing machine and signed up for a sewing class.
When her kids were born, my mother determined that we would learn the most if she included us in everything she did. Mom said that, with our assistance, meal prep took only three times as long . So, I learned to follow a recipe and to improvise from that recipe. I learned to follow a sewing pattern and, importantly, how to alter the pattern for my tall build. Several early memories involve yarn, usually “helping” Mom turn a skein into a ball from which she would knit sweaters (years later, I would crochet tallitot for my own daughter and for my niece). I also “helped” her balance the checkbook by sorting the checks into numerical order, accidentally learning to manage expenses and pay bills.
Eventually, Mom taught me to sew, knit, crochet, embroider and mend; cook, bake and get a meal on the table all at the same time (which she said was the hardest part of cooking); clean the house and do the dishes. On many Fridays during elementary school, Mom would put up dough for challah in the morning, I’d braid it when I came home for lunch and then she’d bake it for dinner. And somehow it was okay for me to say that I was the one who had made it.
Mom’s teaching was not limited to specific skills. As a young adult, when I reported donating blood at a Red Cross drive, my mother said, “Good. That’s why I took you with me when I donated.” Similarly, Mom served as a judge for elections in her local precinct for 10 to 15 or more years (message: voting matters). At 18, knowing I’d be in Israel during the upcoming U.S. presidential election, I registered to vote and requested an absentee ballot on the same day. (I am sure none of my mother’s kids ever skip an election.)
Throughout her life, my mother was an active, involved community member. She served as president of her synagogue and local Hadassah group. She took her turn leading services, organized luncheons and fundraisers, kept yizkor schedules and membership lists and screened neighborhood kids for vision problems.
These were low-key leadership positions. Mom never pursued “higher office,” but was the volunteer that every community leader craves—someone willing to step up whenever needed.
Most important, Mom demonstrated how to maintain family connections and friends. When she died, the director of the cemetery chapel commented that most funerals for people over 90 are sparsely attended and then largely by family. My mother’s funeral had a full house, with friends from every decade coming out to help us honor her.
My mother died, but I did not lose her. In so many ways, including as a Hadassah life member, I strive to follow her model.
Michele Braun, a life member, Hadassah Westchester, is an Adult Jewish Educator: Texts & Tapestry.