I sang along in the hotel ballroom as the ladies of my mother's Hadassah chapter stood for the Israeli national anthem at the start of the fund-raising luncheon. I was then a young student in my twenties, standing next to my mother at the table with her friends. I could feel her pleasure at having me there and her pride at being able to show off to her friends that I knew all the words to Hatikvah. I was glad to give her a reason to kvell – I loved pleasing her.
Today, more than forty years later, she would be pleased to know that I am now a Life Member of Hadassah, the organization she so believed in and served with such enthusiasm and commitment. My road to life membership was not a typical one. After college, I married an Episcopalian boy from Birmingham, Alabama, who swept me off my feet with his good looks and Southern charm and who sealed the deal by agreeing with me that we should raise our children in the traditions of both of our families. And so we have.
We moved from the Northeast to Alabama over 30 years ago, shortly after our first son was born, and I was welcomed warmly into my husband’s family. We settled about 30 miles from Birmingham, in a roomy house on a country road where our three boys grew and thrived. Along with exposing them to the liturgy and practices of the Episcopal Church, I taught my sons everything my parents had taught me about being Jewish. I was aware that there was a Jewish community in Birmingham, but we were far from the city, and life was busy in the country.
The years passed and lo and behold, the children were grown and gone, my work schedule lightened, and I had time on my hands. So I reached out to a Jewish educational organization in Birmingham and got involved in a project. Again, I was welcomed warmly. I discovered that my particular “skill set” can be put to good use in Jewish community projects and I love being involved.
Last year, I became a member of Hadassah. This year, I jumped on the $100 Life Membership Centennial Anniversary Offer, which is a deal my mother, the consummate bargain-hunter, would have approved of wholeheartedly. I’m excited and proud to now stand alongside my mother and the other women of Hadassah who have made a lifetime commitment to an organization whose good works have made a difference in so many lives.
I feel I’ve fulfilled a calling of a sort. I began to ponder this after a conversation with my daughter-in-law-to-be, a lovely African-American girl who has added a new cultural ingredient to our personal family melting pot. One day when the two of us were alone, I brought up the subject of “getting to know each other better,” which is a desire of my heart. She’s a quiet girl, and I couldn't easily discern if she wanted to keep her distance or if she wanted to get closer. I told her I wanted to get as close to her as she would like. “I’m a Jewish mother,” I explained, “and I’ll be a Jewish mother to you if you want me to be.”
There was a long silence after which she asked, “What does a Jewish mother do?”
“Oh, honey,” I thought, “Where do I begin?”
I responded, “Well, there are a few stereotypes associated with Jewish mothers, like being pushy and overbearing. Then there’s the whole guilt thing – like the Jewish mother who gives her son two ties for his birthday, and when she sees him wearing one, asks, “So you didn't like the other tie?” Jewish mothers have elevated this kind of logic to an art form.
But there's much more to being a Jewish mother than just the stereotypes, and I wanted to offer a real answer to my son's betrothed. I thought a moment. “At heart,” I said, “we’re family women. We want to be close to our families and involved in their lives.”
There was another pause, during which I wondered if I had scared her. Then she replied, “That sounds O.K.” And so we’re building our relationship, my daughter-in-law-to-be and I.
We’re family women, we Jewish mothers. If we push or meddle or interrogate, it's because we want to be on the inside with the ones we love. We want to be more than connected; we want to be intertwined.
There’s another important element to being a Jewish mother: we want to help. We want to make a difference and we want to make things better, especially where our family is concerned.
For the Jews, our commitment to our people is profound and complete, and the magnitude of our family is as large as we will make it. Hadassah makes our family very large indeed, by innovating health care for a nation and equipping the children of the land to continue the legacy of education and progress that sets Israel apart.
Deborah and Molly, circa 1995