There was a time — not too long ago — when if someone called you a Jewish mother, you could be sure they weren’t paying you a compliment.
Like many of us, author Marjorie Ingall feared the label when she gave birth to the first of her two daughters 15 years ago. She reacted so strongly to the stereotype of the needy, neurotic, clingy Jewish mother that she hated being called “Mama” and found herself wanting to use the snotsucker bulb on her pediatrician’s nostrils when he airily called her “Mother” or “Mommy.”
Today, however, Ingall, 49, feels quite differently about being viewed as a Jewish mother: Instead of taking it as a slight, she considers it a badge of honor. She’s come to realize that the bad rap the world has given Jewish mothers for the last half century comes from a very narrow place in history and has little — if anything — to do with the real, successful and admirable female Jewish parenting that has been going on for millennia.
With her newly published book, “Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic and Independent Children,” Ingall, a Tablet columnist and former parenting writer for The Forward, redeems the Jewish mother. Turned into the butt of jokes by the likes of Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, Ingall offers her as a model for all parents, Jewish or not.
With the book’s publication on the heels of Amy Chua’s controversial “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing Up Bébé,” Ingall has obviously jumped on the cultural-secrets-to-excellent-parenting bandwagon. And with her emphasis on teaching kids grit and resilience, it’s also clear that she is putting a Jewish spin on the backlash against helicopter parenting, joining fellow Jewish parenting writer Wendy Mogel of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” fame, in encouraging parents to let their kids fail and learn from their mistakes.
Refreshingly, Ingall writes about parents learning from their mistakes, as well. She encourages mothers to strive to be merely good-enough, not consistently perfect.
“Being a good parent is doing the best you can for your kids. When you ‘fail,’ you do right by your kids. Trying to be perfect is exhausting and not good for either you or your children,” Ingall told The Times of Israel.
The author spends the first chapter of “Mamaleh Knows Best” explaining the origin of the oft-mocked stereotype of Jewish mothers as “suffocating, whining, melodramatic, demanding grief givers.” The image actually goes back only as far as post-WWII America, a period of post-Holocaust anxiety, mass moves to the suburbs, and children embarrassed by their Old Country parents. Prior to the 1950s, Jewish mothers worldwide were largely admired for supporting their families economically and emotionally, and raising educated and successful children — regardless of whether they were living in hostile or welcoming environments.
It is the parenting style of these Jewish mothers of earlier eras (the ones traditionally responsible for raising the children in home-centered Judaism) that Ingall draws upon and repackages for the 21st century. Lacing together excerpts and examples from Jewish liturgical, legal and historical texts with vignettes from her own life with her husband and two daughters, Josie and Maxie, in Manhattan, she offers nine pieces of advice — each with its own dedicated chapter. These include teaching your child to distrust authority, encouraging geekiness, telling stories, valuing money, and cultivating spirituality.
Not surprising in this age of standardized testing, gifted and talented programs, and inordinate academic pressure on kids, she also has a section on emphasizing — but not fetishizing — education.
“They don’t want real intellectual curiosity and quirk; they want a Best in Show medal,” Ingall writes of parents who turn their children into grade grubbers.
“I include Jews among those I’m condemning. Many of us have lost the outsider’s perspective that has actually made us successful as a people… Education has always been an important part of Jewish accomplishment, but it’s not the whole enchilada. The role of school is to supplement the values discussed throughout this book: independence, self-discipline, intellectual curiosity, storytelling, laughter, social action and spirituality,” she said.
Those who have followed Ingall’s writing over the years, will recognize her insightful, humorous and engaging style in this book. Noticeably absent, however, is the smattering of profanity usually found throughout her prose.
“The book is less salty, but I think that was done subconsciously. I still swear a blue streak in front of my children,” she admitted.
Ingall has been writing about parenting since her older daughter Josie was born in 2001 and an editor at the Forward asked her to write about the baby’s simchat bat ceremony, leading to a regular column for that publication. Despite this, the author was trepidatious about writing the book.
“I worry about telling people what to do,” said the independent-minded, outspoken Ingall, who sports colorful tattoos of the first initials of her daughters’ Hebrew names on her arms and always wears a skirt adorned with a uterus applique to the voting booth.
“Parents are constantly being bombarded with what they are doing wrong. Just the word ‘parenting’ brings with it so much baggage and pressure. It puts parents under a microscope, which is the last thing they need now,” she said.
Ingall’s apprehensiveness resulted in initial drafts of the book that were too dry and academic. Only after she took the advice of a friend to “own her own authority,” she added in more of her voice and parenting struggles. Now “Mamaleh Knows Best” sounds more like the Marjorie Ingall that Forward and Tablet readers have come to know over the years.
“The point of the book is that there is not just one way to parent. You are your own internal compass and you have your own standards of what you are comfortable with,” she said.
That being said, Ingall wouldn’t have written “Mamaleh Knows Best” had she not thought that tried-and-true Jewish parenting practices can be helpful to everyone. Contrary to what popular culture would have us believe, when a Jewish mother does what Jewish mothers have always done, the kids are more than all right.
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