September 21, 2018

The Mamaleh exchange, part 3: On a couple of all-time great Jewish mothers

” target=”_blank”>Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. Parts 1 and 2 can be found ” target=”_blank”>here.

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Dear Marjorie,

Seeing that Jewish mothering – and mothering in general – is such a thankless job sometimes, I would like to use the last instalment of this exchange to ask you to shed light on 2-3 truly exceptional Jewish mothers who exemplify some of the parenting lessons you write about. As “the person who wrote the book” about Jewish mothers, I must ask you who some of your personal all-time greats are.

Thanks once again for the book and for taking the time to do this exchange.

Yours 

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

I love this question!

One thing I discovered while writing the book was that a lot of prominent Jewish women leaders, writers, artists and intellectuals were childless. As were, of course, a lot of leaders of the early feminist movement in the UK and US; it’s hard to throw yourself fully into a career when you’re also responsible for managing a household and raising children. So I want to begin with a shout-out to the amazing Jewish mothers whose names are lost to history. Fame is not the only measure of success.

That said, one once-famous Jewish mother in my book who fascinates me is Annie Londonderry (aka Annie Cohen Kopchovsky). Like my own grandmother, she was born in Riga, Latvia and emigrated to Boston as a child. By the time she was 17, both her parents were dead, and she and her brother raised their younger siblings. In 1888, at 18, she married a peddler and quickly began having children of her own. She helped support them by selling newspaper ad space. As legend had it, she overheard a bet one day between two rich men about whether a woman was capable of riding a bicycle around the world. She’d never even been on a bicycle, and her kids were only 5, 3 and 2, but she decided she was just the lady for the job.

She found herself a sponsor — Londonderry Lithia Spring Water of New Hampshire — and rebranded  herself Annie Londonderry. (Less Jewish, more jaunty!) She made it from Boston to NYC in only eight days, but it took her two months to get to Chicago. When she finally arrived, she ditched her skirt for still-scandalous bloomers, and swapped her unwieldy 42-pound ladies’ bicycle for a much lighter men’s version. She courted newspapers everywhere she went, sold souvenirs, gave bicycling clinics for women. She “turned herself into a mobile billboard,” wrote her great-great-grand-nephew Peter Zheutlin: “Sometimes she was practically covered from head to toe with ribbons, banners, and streamers stitched or attached to her clothing.” The inventor of sports marketing and athletic branding was a Jewish girl!

Kopchevsky did make it around the world, but did so mostly by boat, theatrically taking short land rides on her bike. She became a media darling, a spokeswoman for a bicycle company, and a writer whose account of her journey ran on the front page of the New York World newspaper in 1895. She parlayed that into a job with the World, doing a column called The New Woman. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”

She hit the lecture circuit, spinning tales of her adventures in India (tiger hunting with German royalty! mistaken for a demon!), Japan (fell through a frozen river! took a bullet! did a stint in prison!), and Siberia (“observed the workings of the Russian system of treating political prisoners” — scary!). As you might imagine, she held audiences spellbound. “She has a degree of self-assurance somewhat unusual to her sex,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Zheutlin, her biographer and relative, found that she’d embroidered her own adventures just a smidge.

Now, you could argue that Kopchovsky was a crappy role model. She abandoned her family to undertake this quest. She embellished her stories to gain the 19th century equivalent of clicks, eyeballs and page views. But then again, she left Boston a poor woman and came home rich enough to buy her family a house in the (then upscale) Bronx. She was clever enough to tap into the zeitgeist, with its interest in around-the-world travel and questions about whether women were inherently weaker than men. To me, she’s a great exemplar of the fact that there are many ways to be a Jewish mother. Kopchovsky took on her biking challenge to support her family, but she also did it for the adventure. She embodies the notion that mothers are entitled to value our own dreams and independence.

I’m also super-obsessed with Glückel of Hameln, mentioned in my last missive to you. This late-17th/early 18th-century diarist was widowed in her early 40s, with a passel of children. She took up journaling to “stifle and banish the melancholic thoughts which came to me during many sleepless nights.” (Who among us cannot relate?) She not only took over but also expanded her late husband’s import-export business – her diaries were full of glee about wheeling and dealing on the markets. But she also devoted a lot of her thoughts to moral lessons she hoped to impart to her kids, the moral importance of education and ethical business dealings, gossip about her community and worries about her kids’ futures. (Seventeenth Century Merchants: They’re Just Like Us!) It’s clear from her diaries that she viewed her kids as individuals, with different strengths and weaknesses. 

Glückel and Annie were both abundantly imperfect, which is an important lesson too. It’s not only fine, but desirable, to be a good-enough mother (to use a phrase coined by goyish psychiatrist Donald Winnicott) instead of a perfect mother. Not perpetually hovering and rescuing your children helps them learn independence, creativity and resilience… qualities that have served the Jewish people well throughout our history.