How Jewish moms make sure their kids grow up to be mensches

Jewish moms know how to raise a mensch.
Jewish moms know how to raise a mensch.
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In the US, Jewish mothers have long served as a favorite punch line. You’ve probably heard some of the jokes:

What did the waiter ask the table of Jewish mothers?

Is ANYTHING all right?

In the Jewish faith, when does a fetus become a human being?

When it graduates from medical school. 

Why do Jewish mothers make great parole officers?

They never let anyone finish a sentence.

These jokes rely on the Jewish mother’s reputation as a giant pain. According to popular lore, Jewish moms are smothering, guilt-mongering, boastful, monstrously narcissistic and massively neurotic. But it wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I started to closely examine these stereotypes—and to consider how they truly get Jewish moms all wrong.

The stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother came into full flower during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As American Jews became increasingly suburbanized and assimilated in the post-World War II era, they were increasingly embarrassed by their immigrant parents’ déclassé, shtetl-y ways. At the same time, American Jewish male writers like Philip Roth, Irving Howe, Bruce Jay Friedman and Herman Wouk, liberated in an age of anti-heroic literature, had the opportunity to work out their mommy issues on a major literary stage. Comedians like Woody Allen, too, helped contribute to our collective impression of the Jewish mother as a guilt-seeking missile. (Who could forget the mother in his short film Oedipus Wrecks, who looms so large in her son’s consciousness that she shows up as a giant figure in the sky to urge him not to get married?)

But the stereotype of the nagging Jewish mother ignores the reality of Jewish parenting values over time. Yes, Jewish parents—particularly mothers, since historically they’ve done the bulk of the child-rearing—have always worked to ensure that their children have the best possible chances of success. But more importantly, Jewish mothers have focused on making sure their kids grow into mensches—that is, good people.

Jewish motherhood throughout history has emphasized education, the arts, and innovation. Back in the Middle Ages, during the period between 1150 and 1350, 95 of the 626 known scientists throughout the world were Jews. (That statistic comes courtesy of goyish scientific historian George Sarton, who had no horse in this farshtunkiner race.) In the present day, despite the fact that Jews make up less than 1% of the world’s citizenry, they constitute 170 of the 850 Nobel Prize winners in history, a quarter of current Ivy League students, 27 of 70 Academy-Award-winning film directors, and 53% of Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction. The Jewish tradition holds that learning is one thing that always remains reliable and worthwhile in an uncertain world.

But what’s even more meaningful is the way that Jewish parenting has focused on turning kids into moral people. While stereotypes suggest that Jewish moms foster neediness, in fact Jewish parents have always encouraged their kids to distrust authority—an attitude that makes sense, given that trusting rulers and governments has not, historically, worked out well for our people. They teach their children to have a sense of humor. (With our history, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.) And they raise their children to engage in the work of tikkun olam: literally, healing a broken world.

The concept of tikkun olam, which involves performing acts of lovingkindness and participating in the ongoing process of creation, can be understood through a story told by the 16th-century mystic Isaac Luria. Luria said that, in order to create the world, God needed to make room and contract the divine self. (Think of it as the opposite of the Big Bang.) Just as parents pull back in order to help our kids grow, God’s pulling back made space for human agency and goodness.

In this legend of creation, God poured all the divine light into vessels. But God’s power was so great the vessels shattered, sending shards all over the world. Our job as humans, and as parents, is to complete the divine work of creation by gathering those shards of goodness. We repair the world. In the Jewish tradition, tikkun olam is not optional—unlike spring-break service trips taken with college applications in mind. Social justice is meant to be regular facet of everyday life. “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” says Pirkei Avot, one of our important texts. In sum: Jewish mothers don’t care only about success in the classroom; they want kids who were successful–that is, ethical—human beings.

As I delved into the past, I discovered that longtime Jewish parenting methods were in line with current research on fostering children’s creativity, kindness, and intellect. For example, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s research has focused on why it’s academically damaging to children to tell them they’re gifted. She talks about the importance of praising kids for effort rather than achievement. My book tells the story of Nobel-Prize-winner Isador Isaac Rabi, who grew up poor in New York City with Yiddish-speaking parents and zero social advantages. He said that instead of asking “Did you learn anything today?” his mother took another tack. “‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’”

“That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist,” Rabi observed. Jews have never seen kids as empty repositories for adult knowledge. The emphasis has always been on doing the work and asking the questions, not expecting to be liked. (Because, um, mostly we haven’t been.)

Moreover, a look at Jewish women throughout history exposes the lie that mothers are self-negating or martyring. In fact, Jewish mothers have actively embraced vibrant intellectual and emotional lives, which benefits the culture as a whole. The 17th-century diaries of Jewish businesswoman Glückel of Hamelin, for example, show a woman writing with verve and animation about expanding her husband’s import-export business after his early death, making sure she imparted ethical lessons to her kids, and mocking herself for whining about the work of caring for toddlers and newborns. (It’s okay, Glückel. We all do it.)

Then there was Amalia Beer, the Jewish mom and hostess with the mostest in 19th-century Berlin. A favorite of the Prussian Court, she held evenings of music, art, literature and poetry that were hot tickets for both Jews and non-Jews. She was one of numerous Jewish women throughout history who became cultural arbiters, patronesses of the arts and salonieres. The Brothers Grimm, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, and the writer Heinrich Heine were all regulars at her soirees. And despite warnings—then as now—that intermingling with the goyim invariably means a loss of identity, Beer remained resolutely Jewish. Her son, Giacomo Meyerbeer, went on to become a hugely successful composer who wrote the coronation march for King William I of Prussia. After his grandfather’s death, Giacomo wrote to his mother, “Please accept from me a promise that I will always live in the religion in which he died.” And he did.

These are just a few examples of the Jewish mothers who have embraced their passions while working to bring up creative, diligent, kind kids. But to paraphrase the old Levy’s rye bread slogan, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Jewish mother. An emphasis on intellectual curiosity, hard work and moral behavior is hardly unique to the Jews. It is worth appreciating, however, the fact that Jewish mothers have managed to support their families both emotionally and economically throughout the ages while raising impressive kids who weren’t jerks. Clearly, they’re onto something. Nu?