The Reality of Jewish Mothers

            December 2013    
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Two Jewish Mothers

By Mark Perry Nash

As we all know, mothers figure prominently in Jewish folklore, and the stereotypical Jewish mother has been popularized in movies, books and even on TV - as in the BT adverts featuring Maureen Lipman. The first Jewish mother to enter my life in that summer of 1968 was by no means the first I'd ever met. I had known dozens before she came into my life, but she cast a very large shadow and I experienced a little of what it might be like to be a Jewish son.

My own mother was a kind and loving lady, but her severe emotional issues and the difficulties she experienced as a result of homesickness after moving to America meant that we were not as close as we might otherwise have been. My father was strict and tough in his attitudes - at least on the outside - and difficult if not impossible to get close to. At a time when I badly needed someone to turn to, my own parents seemed distant and unapproachable. If anyone needed a Jewish mother in summer it was me! We had just returned to the Chicago area following two years in England, where my Dad's company had sent him and where I had been to school at a very traditionalist English Grammar School. But Dad's work had once again taken us States-side, and I found myself with a summer to kill before starting High School in September.

Born into a non-Jewish English family, I had originally emigrated to the States in 1959 and happened to wind up in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, for the simple reason that it was where Dad's office was located. Skokie was already in the record books for having the largest percentage - per capita - of Holocaust survivors of any town in America, and would become more famous later on when it became the setting for a courtroom battle played out between the American Nazi Party, which wanted to stage a march through the town to 'celebrate' Adolf Hitler's birthday, and representatives of Skokie's Jewish Community, who were determined to prevent it. In the end, the march never took place, but the drama of the case became the subject of the movie, Skokie, which starred Danny Kaye as Mr Feldman, the Community's spokesman.

My Dad had no intention of allowing me to laze around through the long three-month summer holiday, so I had to look for a summer job. I had always enjoyed working outdoors and had learned the basics of gardening from my green-fingered mother and grandfather, so it seemed natural for me to look for work in the gardens of the wealthier residents of Chicago's North Shore. I put a small ad in the local newsagents and within a few days had several phone calls. I kept my prices modest and stuck to basic things like lawn-mowing and weeding, and before long the phone rang the first Jewish mother entered my story.

I have always tried to avoid stereotypes, and Jewish mothers have been stereotyped more than most. But the two women who became my unofficial Jewish mothers embodied most of the qualities and characteristics that have made them both loved and admired both inside and outside the Jewish Community. Both ladies were very different, but both gave me an extra insight into what it might have been like to grow up in a Jewish home and to experience the Jewish mother first hand. I had been a guest in Jewish homes many times, but this was the first time a Jewish mother had both the time and the inclination to go to work on me properly.

Rochelle Goldman's house turned out to be a large ranch-style pad overlooking Lake Michigan, with a picture-perfect, weed-free lawn, rockeries, shrubs and a lot of flower-beds. Deep-pile pure-white plush carpets covered every square inch of the floors inside and the whole house was stuffed with what looked to my untrained eyes like priceless works of art. Oil paintings - which I was sure had to be originals - hung on every wall and there was a grand piano - also white - in the corner of the living room. There were huge pot-plants everywhere and a very superior-looking Siamese cat reclined haughtily on a sofa. It looked me over when I came for my interview and, having decided I was probably harmless, promptly dozed off again.

Mrs Goldman invited me into her kitchen and, after remarking on the fact that I appeared to be painfully thin, gave me a large glass of Coke and a piece of chocolate cake large enough for me and several other gardeners, ignoring my feeble protests that it would 'spoil my dinner'. I had been through this before in the homes of my Jewish friends back in Skokie; the cake and cookies provided for me and my friends by the loving mother, and me going home and being told off in no uncertain terms for being unable to finish my dinner. Mrs Goldman and I chatted about my family and England and gardens and what she wanted done with hers. Before I had even finished the cake she dropped a large scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of it, muttering again about my weight. I said nothing. I had already learned many years before that it is pointless to argue with Jewish mothers.

Mrs G knew that I had a mother of my own and that I was well fed, clothed and cared for, but that made not the slightest difference. 'You should eat more, you're much too thin' she would say. 'A young man like you - and you call that an appetite?', or when I was working in the hot sun she would call out to me through the French doors: 'Keep your hat on out there, a sunburned head you don't need!' It might sound as though she was forever nagging me, but I liked her from the start. She took an interest in me and, although she was decidedly bossy, would speak to me as if I was already grown up, something I wasn't very used to. Another thing that may have had an effect was that she was decidedly attractive. She was tall and graceful and not unlike Elizabeth Taylor to look at, with deep - almost cobalt - blue eyes and lustrous dark hair. Oh I was hooked alright!

There's been as much stereotyping of the 'Jewish Mother' as there has with most ethnic characters: 'The African-American who is 'a natural dancer', or the 'stuffy and reserved Englishman'. Jewish mothers come in all shapes and sizes, and I knew far too many of them to ever attempt to put them all in one category. But having said that, the traditional Jewish culture that most of them inhabited placed expectations upon them, just as it did on their husbands, sons and daughters. Mrs Goldman seemed to epitomize what Jewish Mothers were supposed to be like and I loved her from the start.

For me, the characteristic of Jewish women that always seemed the most obvious was their strength of character. In the long and often tortuous history of the Jews, women had endured challenges and hardship beyond what most other peoples had had to bear, and yet had emerged from twenty centuries of a difficult past with their dignity and strength of character intact. Many times, when their husbands and brothers were under arrest, in prison or in hiding during persecutions and pogroms, it was the Jewish mothers who not only had to keep the family together, but had also to become the principal wage-earner; so I never minded Mrs Goldman's determination to mother me.

Sometimes I would be busily pulling out weeds in the middle of a scorching afternoon - that summer of '68 was hot in more than just political ways - and the familiar voice with its slight New York accent would bellow from the back door 'What are you trying to do, kill yourself? 'Come in out of that heat before you get sunstroke!' And there in the kitchen would be waiting the towering glass of ice-cold Coke and another large piece of cake, or bowl of ice cream - sometimes both. 'It's hot; ice cream is cold; you're too thin and ice cream is good for you so eat already!' And sometimes she would actually stand over me to see that I did, though more often we would just talk, about everything from the many pets she had had, or how hopeless her long-suffering husband was at gardening.

When I first met her she had asked me all about myself and my family, and as soon as she realized I was originally from England the job as gardener had been as good as mine. Like many Americans she seemed to think that English people are born with green thumbs. I had explained that I could mow and weed and do all the basics, to which she replied 'Oh don't be so modest! All English people are born gardeners.' I could have told her that it wasn't true - especially about me - but I doubt she would have believed it.

There wasn't much that the Goldmans didn't have in the way of gardening equipment, from several ride-on mowers to the latest in high-tech gadgets for feeding the lawn and getting rid of weeds. But the first day she showed me their vast collection of gardening equipment she sounded a note of warning: 'Just don't listen to my husband' she said, suddenly sounding stern. 'He's a doll but he doesn't know one end of a lawn mower from the other'. I gathered that Mr Goldman was a highly respected attorney with an office downtown, but that the last thing he felt like doing when he got home - or on weekends - was gardening. His 'vice' was apparently golf. 'Spends most weekends chasing a stupid little ball!' said Mrs G with a disgusted snort. 'So when we go on vacation the first thing he wants to know is where the golf course is. Never mind what I want to do or where I want to go - just 'where's the golf course!'

I don't know what I expected Milton Goldman to be like, but it wasn't the scholarly and charming man that I eventually met. He did like his golf, but he also appreciated fine art, music, history and literature. He looked exactly like the actor Eddie Albert, and put up with his wife's criticisms with a degree of patience that I came to admire. She was obviously as fond of him as he was of her, but she reserved the right to be his severest critic - and to voice it in no uncertain terms.

I hadn't been working for the Goldmans for long when it came time to 'feed' the lawn. This required mixing chemical fertilizers in a spreader and pushing it back and forth across the lawn. On the day of this important operation Mrs G was out. She often spent Saturday mornings at her Real Estate office, being one of the most successful Realtors (Estate Agents) in the Chicago area, and had a pretty demanding schedule.

Mr Goldman showed me where all the ingredients were and proceeded to read all the instructions on the back of the containers. 'Now let's see just how you're supposed to mix this stuff - don't want it too strong as it says that it can burn the grass'. Recalling his wife's warning about not listening to him I tried to hurriedly explain that I could take care of it, but he insisted in being involved. It was, after all, his lawn too. 'No Mark, let me do the mixing, that way if anything goes wrong it'll be my fault'. It occurred to me that maybe it would and maybe it wouldn't, but if we got it wrong I could imagine Mrs G's wrath if she came home and found her precious, lush, green carpet of a lawn a burnt patch of dirt. As he proceeded to pour the various chemicals and powders into the spreader, I hoped that he was better with lawn feeders than he apparently was with lawn mowers, as his attempt to start one had ended with him giving up in disgust and leaving the operation to me.

At the end of the day it was their lawn not mine, and Mr G finished his mixing and pronounced the process complete and that I could now go ahead and feed the lawn. I said a quick prayer, took hold of the lever on the spreader and thought 'well, here goes nothing'.



from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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