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Sanity for Jewish Mothers and Their Kids

Yael Bernhard
October 17, 2016

Discussed in this essay: Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do To Raise Successful, Creative, Empathic, Independent Children, by Marjorie Ingall. Harmony Books, NY, 2016, 239 pages.

by D. Yael Bernhard

“IS THIS the hill you want to die on?” So asks author and Forward and Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall in her thought-provoking book on parenting from a Jewish perspective, Mamaleh Knows Best. She seems to know precisely the moment when you, the reader, will reach your breaking point as a parent. Holding the last straw in the palm of her hand, she reminds us what matters most: the big picture.

Learning to prioritize as a parent can save your sanity. What’s new about that?, I wondered as I started the book. As a Jewish educator, children’s book author/illustrator, and mother of three, I figured I could give Ingall some advice of my own. Yet the table of contents sports some pithy subjects, with chapter titles such as Nurture Independence, Emphasize Education, Tell Stories, Laugh, and best of all, Encourage Geekiness. My curiosity was piqued.

Each chapter is packed with treasures for modern-day parents, Jews and non-Jews alike. The values and ethics imparted are universal. Although Ingall gives voice to what most intelligent parents already know, it is the way she delivers, with a humor and wit all her own, that makes the book interesting.

This is not just another Jewish mother, though Jewish she proudly is. Using the Yiddish moniker “Mamaleh,” Ingall seems to step right into your kitchen and make herself at home. Before you know it, she’s poured herself a cup of tea and tells you about the time her daughter choked on an airplane, or the first time she walked to school by herself. She talks to you, parent to parent -– and she believes in you. Here is a woman who clearly likes people, and has seen it all. A great sense of optimism permeates this book, even as the author addresses some of the gravest concerns parents must face. Good parenting is within our reach, for “the best way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother.”

AS A MODERN American Jew, Ingall works diligently to bust stereotypes. First to go is the idea that Jews have always, or only, suffered. “While anti-Semitism has been a factor in world history ever since the dawn of Jews, there have been periods in which Jews engaged in and enjoyed the wider world.” The daughter of a teacher with an obvious love of history, she delivers stories of creative, progressive Jewish women of the 17th and 18th centuries who both worked and raised families, and even followed their dreams. There is something heartening about a 19th-century woman who biked around the world (okay, she also put the bike on a ship); or an 18th-century supermom who traveled throughout Europe trading stocks; or to learn that the famous 15th-century Darmstadt Haggadah is full of images of “men and women . . . together around a dinner table, each person holding his or her own haggadah, all animatedly discussing the Exodus from Egypt.”

Next up is the cliché of Jewish guilt, which Ingall does not espouse in her parenting practices. Rather, she tempers her children by use of the concept of derekh eretz (literally “the way of the land”) -– that is, respect and common courtesy. “Treating others with dignity and humanity is essential in Jewish life.” Such beliefs are handed down through generations of Jewish culture and tradition.

Ingall also confronts the Jewish penchant for overindulging our children. A firm believer in limits, she compares a disciplined child to a puppy that is reassured by the boundaries of a crate -– then parenthetically adds “no I am not suggesting you actually crate your child, what is WRONG with you?” Humor, irony, and melancholy all weave together as Ingall teaches her daughters to give tsedoke (charity), to work toward goals, and to honor the memory of their grandfather, who they have grown to know and love years after his death. This bubbly, chatty author brought this reader to both laughter and tears.

YET EVEN AS OLD Jewishisms are parsed and dismantled, the book also seems to reinforce them with such statements as “this may sound astonishing from a Jewish mother, but I suggest we lose the guilt” or “being disappointed is the Jewish mother’s way.” Drawing upon the wisdom of Aristotle, she reminds us that he is “not a Jew, but still a mentsh.” At times her humor goes a little too far: “The whole killing us thing was very unpleasant, and the expelling us business was not much better”; or “Never forget that the world is out to get you.”

Mamaleh Knows Best is a reflection of the author’s economic and social class. The average Jewish American mother is well represented, but Ingall’s awareness of other parental realities lacks nuance. For example, in her emphasis on teaching children to give tsedoke, she fails to address those Jewish children who may be on the receiving end of charity. No, we do not all own iPhones, and not every girl has an opulent, expensive bat mitsve (I’m still recovering from my daughter’s very modest one eighteen months ago). How are we as parents to handle a world where adults who grew up in middle class families now find themselves raising children below the poverty line?

Ingall offers no answer here, but if you raise your kids according to the Jewish values she extols, they will surely find their own answers. “What choices can we make that ultimately make a kid kind, independent, ethical, hardworking, creative, and engaged in the world?” Ingall asks. “Raising kids to be independent, to think for themselves and to take healthy risks, is vital for living in our modern-day multicultural, diverse world.” Placing even her own knowledge on the chopping block, Ingall invites the reader to disregard what she, as author, advises. “I don’t give all that many hoots about the dominant paradigm,” she writes, “therefore, I must add that you should feel free to ignore me, this book’s authority figure.” The idea is to navigate our own lives with awareness, not to follow someone else’s advice.

Yet there is a compass by which to navigate, according to Ingall, and that is the Jewish wisdom tradition. Through use of Yiddishisms and other Jewish vernacular, Ingall guides us back to Torah and mitsves, reminding us of the principles that underlie them, whether we’re religious or not, or even Jewish or not. How to apply these principles to our individual lives is up to us. “Judaism,” she notes, “teaches us to stress the importance of asking questions rather than giving answers.” These answers may not come quickly, for “the Jewish tradition expects that learning will be a lifelong process” –- but if we set our compass in the right direction and keep trudging through diapers and laundry, homework and play dates and scraped knees, we will eventually reach our goal.

CHILDREN, TOO, must have their own inner compass. Here Ingall applies the concept of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara -– the innate urge toward good and bad –- as a model for young people. “The goal of discipline is to teach a kid to listen to their own internal voice about right and wrong. You want them to become a moral person, not a person who merely worries about getting caught.” Jewish children are also encouraged to ask questions. “A huge part of good parenting is encouraging the whys, even though hearing a ton of ‘why’ can make you want to put out your own eye with a spork,” Ingall quips.

Best of all is Ingall’s writing on children’s literature. I heartily agree with her assertion that “stories encourage follow-up questions [and] teach morality and invite debate.” I was especially gratified to read “A Brief Interlude About Children’s Literature,” in which we are guided toward books that impart good values and cultural history to our kids, and urged on about the importance of helping them find their literary “sweet spot.” In doing so, we must honor our children’s individual learning styles. If Jurassic Jane Eyre is your youngster’s ticket to reading, well, what can it hurt?

It’s also important not to push too much. “I’m over parents bragging about how their little geniuses read too well for picture books,” Ingall says. Age categories do not serve children, and young imaginations draw value from pictures long after they learn to read. Pressure to excel can also backfire; what is needed is calm confidence in our children’s innate potential.

MISSING from Ingall’s book is any reference to Israel. Although Jewish sages from ancient times are quoted, and subjects such as Hebrew school and bar and bat mitsves thoroughly discussed, the author makes no mention of the beating heart that lies at the center of Jewish history and tradition. What about the intrinsic value of teaching our children to understand and appreciate Israel, of taking them to Jerusalem and supporting the Jewish state? What of the rising tide of anti-Zionism, the new anti-Semitism, on American college campuses? Children need guidance and support in developing a healthy Jewish identity in a complex and troubled world.

At times Ingall fails to credit her readers with sufficient intelligence. Do we really need to hear that “textbooks are only one way to learn, and experiences are as important as teachers”? Yet I forgive this author, who holds out her own experience as an example of learning on the job. As parents, we are allowed to make mistakes –- to a point. “No children were harmed in the making of this book,” she assures us. The trials and tribulations of this very human mother help us accept our own foibles. “Better to say ‘I don’t know’ than to pretend you do,” says Ingall – and means it, both as author and mom.

By the end of the book, Marjorie Ingall felt like a familiar friend and fellow parent who understands and does not judge; and who has complete confidence in our ability to raise a mentsh. She anticipates the reader’s response, and offers support accordingly. By reframing the obvious, she invites parents to think again and return to their deepest values and highest aspirations. Like a spoonful of sugar, her funny, quirky voice makes it all go down easy.

D. Yael Bernhard is the mother of three children and author/illustrator of numerous award-winning children’s books (some found in Jewish Currents’ Pushcart), including Around the World in One Shabbat; Never Say a Mean Word Again; The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin; The Hungry Haggadah (written by Lawrence Bush); and The Life of an Olive.