“One can be full of education and have the highest ideals, but if one eats soup from the tip of a the spoon and not from the side or one spoons the soup up towards oneself and takes too much, or one leans on the table and reaches for the milk when it is too far away instead of asking someone sitting closer to pass it – then one commits…a ‘crime,’ and that’s all that seems to matter.”
These words were written in 1903 by Abraham Cahan, the editor of the popular, Lower East Side (of New York) Jewish Daily Forward. While the words seem funny to us today, Cahan was serious. He was capturing a concern among the newer members of the American Jewish community that they quickly adopt the behavior and social norms of their new surroundings. This concern grew out of the desire of Jewish families to insure that America became their home and that their children would fit in and succeed in this land of opportunity. At the forefront of this campaign to adapt to the American way of life were, obviously, Jewish mothers. And we know that they were successful.
For a time, it seemed that Jewish mothers were almost too successful. An early 20th century Jewish parenting book stated: “the function of the home must…be to transmit a civilization, to provide for the continuity of a cultural inheritance as well as an ethnological one.” Judaism in the early 1900’s was being pushed to the sidelines by the new American lifestyle. Assimilation was putting our rituals at risk. Mathilde Shechter, an advocate for the role of the home in early 20th century Jewish identity, wrote: “Earnest rabbis and teachers are doing their best from the pulpit and platform to turn the tide [against assimilation], but they and the synagogues are helpless, unless the women of Israel create Jewish homes again. [Women need to] rebuild our Jewish homes.” And many did just this.
To this day, it is my experience that it is Jewish women – largely Jewish mothers – who have kept Judaism alive in America. Certainly, in more traditional communities, prayer and study have connected men. In the more liberal communities, however, it is often a struggle to get men involved and connected with Jewish life. It is usually the women in these communities (like our own) that insure that their families remain connected. For the most part, it is mothers who insure that their home is a Jewish home and that their children attend a Jewish preschool, make it on time to Torah School, prepare for their bar mitzvah, and remain connected to Jewish life as a teenager. And many of these mothers do this while maintaining careers that women in the early 1900’s could not have comprehended.
To all of our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers – thank you for doing your part to keep Judaism alive and well in the 21st century. Enjoy Mother’s Day. May it be special.