Mother’s Day Peace at Last
Let the record show that this Mother’s Day, May 9, 1999, ushered in a new era of peace between two eternally warring parties: Jewish mothers and daughters.
While perhaps not as violent as the wars in the Balkans or the Mideast, the domestic wars between Jewish mothers and daughters has been painful in its own right, deeply entrenched in our psychological makeup.
The signs of an enduring reconciliation are evident by the pile of luncheon invitations on my desk: Our Jewish communities across the political and ideological spectrum are honoring women of all generations this month for an astounding array of good works, including charity, business and the arts.
A new consciousness is at hand of what the mother/daughter war has cost us. The Hadassah-sponsored Morning Star Commission, named after Herman Wouk’s quintessential “princess,” is comprised of Hollywood heavy hitters out to change how the media portrays Jewish women. These writers and producers know that The Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess may be a generation apart but share the same cliched fate.
Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller are no longer having the last word on what a Jewish woman acts and sounds like. This weekend I participated in “Momma Mommy Mom,” a celebration of Jewish mothers by the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project, a group (underwritten by the University of Judaism) committed to portraying positive role-models of Jewish women. It was possible to fill an evening’s entertainment about Jewish mothers, including more than 30 vignettes, without ever resorting to Borscht-belt humor.
Peace between mothers and daughters is well timed, as Baby Boom women, that first generation of feminists, are now parents themselves. There’s nothing like raising my own teenage daughter to give me a little rachmones for my own mother and what she went through with me. But it’s more than being a parent myself that makes me see my own parents in a new light. The term “generation gap” has less meaning to Jewish women now than at any time in modern history.
The war between mothers and daughters has its roots in challenging social and economic circumstances that wreaked havoc with family harmony. The task of making it in America was too often accomplished by friction at home. Anyone who has ever ridiculed a mother’s fears or character traits bears some of those scars.
The first generation, that of the immigrants, suffered the culture shock of the old world and the new. To read the stories of Mary Antin and Anzia Yzierska is to understand just how little Jewish women were in charge of their own lives. The immigrant generation had to forget their mothers and grandmothers left behind in the old country.
The second generation, that of Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, adapted to America with a vengeance. They rejected the shtetl ways of their mothers in favor of assimilation and suburbia, then went on to create an equality movement as a rebellion against their limited opportunities.
That generation suffered ridicule for their pioneering, creative vision of how Jewish values and American democracy could work together for the betterment of all. They were criticized for being brash, big, loud — dangerous Jewish women. It’s no secret why the Jewish American Princess and the Jewish Mother endured and in fact became more lethal at the very moment when women were making their greatest strides in American civic and corporate life. Jewish women have been the clowns of punishment; mother and daughter equally ridiculed but turning one against the other.
That brings us to my own generation, the feminist daughters. We were by turns embarrassed by our mothers and embarrassed by our past lives as Nice Jewish Girls. We spurned our mothers’ ambivalent housewifery and assimilation, using anger to fulfill our own dreams.
Three generations of women at war. A psychiatrist’s dream, but a Jewish family’s nightmare.
Two years ago, I published an anthology of new writings by Jewish women, under that title, “Nice Jewish Girls.” I endeavored to use only positive images, and though I ultimately succeeded, it was rough going. I would have no trouble filling several volumes now.
That’s because the fourth generation is finally bringing to us reconciliation and peace. This fourth generation has traits in common with each of the three generations past. That’s why this moment of peace is one for the books, a time of empathy, not ridicule.
Our daughters are at home in America; at home as women, as Jews. They can take the best of each generation without any threat to their own identity. Meanwhile, Jewish mothers and grandmothers have made up for lost time; they are no longer so angry by the denial of their own opportunities that they look at their daughters and granddaughters only through the prism of their own regret.
At the end of the 20th century, the great convergence of the historic themes of this century is taking place, with profound implications. But one thing for sure: It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On The Way Press).
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.