On Jewish Mothers and Their Writing

BY
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Pen and paper
08 Nov 2007
Arts & Media
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It’s getting late and the writing workshop’s about to adjourn, but one of the women has one more poem: it’s short, she assures them, and something composed after breakfast that morning.

Around the table sit an unmarried, newly religious sculptor from Greenwich Village; a frum-from-birth grandmother from Boro park; a religious Zionist in her sixties, from Kansas; a twenty-two-year old from Chassidic Williamsburg who works in psychiatric rehabilitation; several baalot-teshuvah mothers of small children; a woman whose parents were in Auschwitz, who has recently been hired by Steven Spielberg’s project to interview Holocaust survivors; an Englishwoman; a Frenchwoman. They listen to Ruth Lewis, a Breslaver Chassidic grandmother married to a seventh-generation Yerushalmi:

It may seem strange to some

To leave the breakfast dishes

In the sink, undone;

A line of wash unhung…

Dropping everything,

To get this poem down.

 

But the dishes won’t be going anywhere.

They’ll sit and wait for me,

With their

Usual reproachful stare.

 

It awaits me still.

It has remained unbudged

All day.

 

No fear that it my fly away.

The poem will.

How about another one, say the women. So she then reads something about the writing workshop itself: 

There are these ladies

Sitting around this table

And each of them

Can see through all the others

And I can see

Through each of them.

 

It follows:

Each of them

Can see

Through me.

Oi gevalt.

The women laugh. Outside this group, they seldom see each other; their lives rarely intersect, other than through the writing they’ve been sharing week by week for the last four years. It’s an indication of the power of the written word to bond one individual to another that in this framework, self-consciousness between the participants seems to dissolve. What they share is not only the inexplicable, relentless desire that induces any writer to tell a story, to translate life into words; they also share a religious perspective on the place that art has in their lives. They view their writing as one aspect of their spiritual journeys.

When I first started doing workshops, the idea I most wanted to convey was the one that had taken me so long to believe myself: your natural, authentic voice is the voice that other people will understand. You don’t have to put on a front; you don’t have to sound like anyone else. The courage to reveal your own distinct perspective – or as Rabbi Nachman Bulman has said, “To write your own truth” – is what most makes for good writing.

Why is the workshop format conducive to this process? Because human beings write to be heard. Just as it would be hard to keep on talking were there no one around to hear, the desire to communicate is the underlying impulse behind setting pen to paper. Reading your work aloud before a group – something that can be surprisingly difficult when you’re not used to it – nourishes and reinforces that impulse. And exposing yourself to other people’s reactions is a reality check. Is what you want to say getting through? Is it interesting? Does it mean anything to people?

My own process of coming step by step to trust the validity of my own perspective, and bringing it to bear upon my Jewish identity, had its genesis in the 1960s, when a certain book became a national best-seller across America. Written by a Jew, How to Be a Jewish Mother poked fun at the familiar image of the neurotically overprotective, pretentiously self-sacrificing, housework consumed, food-obsessed matron whom the author, Dan Greenberg, obviously loathed. Its readership both Jewish and non-Jewish professed, naturally, that the ribbing was all in fun, but the book sold so well precisely because it had hit on a raw nerve. If this is what’s meant by the words “Jewish mother,” many a young girl thought herself with dread, you can bet your life it’ll never be me.

Those Jewish girls – of whom I, of course, was one – grew up. And lo and behold, they turned into Jewish women. Whether or not they married and had children, the specter of the negative stereotype – which had by no means originated with that popular little volume – hovered over their lives. They could either prove themselves in a career, thereby avoiding the derogatory label that American culture had created, or become wives and mothers, thereby risking identification with the Jewish mothers of Greenberg’s worst dreams.

To me, one of these baby-boomer Jews, and to many others like me, something else altogether happened: we became baalot teshuvah. Being newly religious meant being newly vulnerable – not only to the stereotype of the Jewish mother but now to the more comprehensive put-down leveled at the religious Jew. He or she is commonly assumed to be gullible, narrow-minded, self-deluding, superstitious, backward, and uninformed. In fact, however, we found that we had joined a society that defined success in terms of constant spiritual and intellectual growth, and whose value system – far from ranking mothering and domesticity way down on the totem pole in importance – holds the Jewish mother in the highest esteem, at least theoretically. Observant Jews, like any other group of people, will vary from individual to individual as to their personal attitudes toward marriage, parenting and homemaking – and whether the associated mundane responsibilities will be experienced as confining or liberating, prison or privilege. Accepted Torah ideology, however, holds that the Jewish wife and mother is at the center of the world, engaged as a partner with Hashem in the creation of Jewish human beings.

According to this hierarchy of values, such creation doesn’t refer necessarily only to children. It refers to self-creation, as well, whereby we gradually develop our characters as much as possible. In the process, we can utilize our talents and our weaknesses, our strengths and our failures, our disappointments and all our joys. Whereas according to non-Torah standards, success in life often consists of recognizable attainments that can be measured by the world, success as defined in a Torah-oriented view is the process of becoming our highest possible selves. Our most valuable achievements in life are often invisible.

* * *

Like most females down through the ages, I became a woman immersed in housework. In the early eighties, my life unfolded day by day between the stove, the sink, and the washing machine, the laundry line up on the roof and the store up the hill. I was ecstatic to have become a Jewish mother; I knew there was nothing else in the world I wanted to be. But the mundane details of cooking and cleaning were sometimes very boring, and I dreamed constantly of getting back into my writing.

Writing had always been the thing I loved most. As someone raised to believe in the value of art and artistic pursuit, it was writing that had given me a sense of my own identity as a child, and writing that had proven to me I was really there – no small feat for a Jewish girl in a non-Jewish universe. But when I made aliyah, got married, and became a mother, my new life was incomparably more real than anything I’d ever been able to express in words; if you’re weighing one reality against another, a dirty diaper will win out over a poem any day. So I didn’t exactly lose interest in writing, but the experience of parenting satisfied my creative impulse totally – up until the third or fourth year of motherhood. At that point, an increasingly undeniable yearning for the pitter-patter of little typewriter keys presented me with a practical problem and some conceptual dilemmas.

The practical problem, of course, was that I was too busy with housework to spend time composing sonnets. It has been said that the art of writing is simply that of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, but even for this, there was neither time nor mental space.

The conceptual dilemmas arose from what I perceived as a conflict between three aspects of my life: spiritual aspirations, familial obligations, and artistic inclinations.

Could I in good conscience take time out from parenting and homemaking – the value of which was beyond question from a religious standpoint – for such self-centered activity as writing? Was artistic endeavor, fraught with egotistical concerns and personal ambitiousness, a legitimate way to serve God? Did writing have anything to do with becoming the person my Creator meant me to be?

Finding answers to these questions began for me in 1986, when I attended a parenting workshop given by Miriam Levi, author of Feldheim Publisher’s Effective Jewish Parenting. Mrs. Levi suggested that participants keep journals of their own behavior during the six week course, and I suddenly had what I felt I needed: a legitimate excuse from an authority figure to spend time writing. My daily parenting journal quickly became a central focus of my life, integrating as it did two of my passions: writing and mothering. This truthful record of my interactions with my children served not only as an accurate chronicle of my behavior but as a demanding, understanding overseer. When I behaved badly – losing temper and patience – I had to consciously confront my shame. When I did well, I was rewarded with a solid account in black and white of my self-mastery. I could ponder my achievement and feel encouraged to keep trying. My days took on the quality of a novel in the making, with meaning and purpose.

Thus did I learn how writing about one’s life can not only record it but create it, and when the workshop ended, my diary-keeping continued for three years. Faithfully keeping track of the truth of my own experience, I discovered within my own self an unfailingly caring listener, one who might get impatient sometimes with my weaknesses but who never got bored with the plot. I’d never known that if I took a little time to think things over, the wisdom I sought in others could be found within myself.

I gradually came in contact with other religious women who longed to resume or to begin writing. Many, like me, had long wanted to write, but felt inhibited from doing so, lacking confidence in the value of what they considered their own inconsequential scribbling. All of us would have to overcome the idea, absorbed diligently throughout the years of education, that writing must fit into a preformed mold.

Being compelled, as so many women are, to basically stay rooted in one spot is the ideal condition for a writer: it forces us to make our journeys to inner, rather than outer, realms. “Writing enables one to live life even more fully,” says Miriam Liebermann of New York. “It forces us to be aware of the details and nuances of everyday living that might otherwise escape us.” Sitting down to write is at once a declaration of your worthiness and an affirmation of the measureless value of being here.

Our human frailties are wondrously varied, but we can explore all our foibles in our writing, and in the process become more accepting, both of our individual natures and of daily realities. We may indeed at times be neurotically this and pretentiously that, narrowly that and backwardly this, consumed…obsessed… Stereotypes about Jewish women, like all stereotypes, will always distort reality far more than they mirror it, because they portray individuals as objects.

“I write in order to exist,” says Drora Matlofsky, from Paris, one of the workshop participants. Her descriptions of her home, her kitchen, her small children, transform what could otherwise seem humdrum into something that soars beyond the quotidian. It’s turning of floss into gold, and the tyranny over our lives of the mundane can thus be revealed as the blessing it is: an inexhaustible source of sanity and groundedness.

One of the wonderful things about writing is that no matter how miserable the thing you’re describing, the act of doing so turns it into a source of joy. Someone in one of the workshops once shared with us poem in which she relates that her mother worries about her daughter’s writing because it doesn’t seem happy enough. “My mother doesn’t know, I think, that writing itself makes me very happy, no matter what the subject.”

I can heartily second that. One of the things that gave me the greatest satisfaction to have composed, during that era of my life in which housework frequently seemed endless, tiredness eternal, and intellectual stimulation scarce, was a poem entitled “Mrs. Unhappy.”

Mrs. Unhappy in her house

Cooked everyone’s meal and then washed up.

She put on her nightgown,

Closed her eyes, and dreamt of distance and the sea.

 

Yes, it’s she, Mrs. U.

Unfinished. Unsatisfied. Unhappy Mrs. Undoing.

 

Going to the store, looking in the windows,

Glancing at her ugly figure under the box-box dress, it’s

Our own Mrs. Wondering, Mrs.

Thirteen-Year-Old in the box of Miss Understanding.

 

And only

in her unconscious nights

does she fly.

 

How happily I flew about doing housework when I finished that poem!

God is a creative Being and we’re all made in His image, so the creative inclination appears in every one of us, manifesting itself in varied ways. It can go unrecognized if we don’t define it as such. A woman once told me that though working on her sewing machine is one of her greatest joys, she doesn’t have time for it. Asked if she could therefore make sewing one of her priorities, she replied, “Oh, it’s really not that important.” Someone I met in a maternity ward, on the other hand, remarked that for her, organizing a linen closet is a creative act. The way she defines towel-folding and sheet-arrangement will determine her experience of it.

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller has said that in deciding how to apportion our energies, an individual should favor those spiritual pleasures which come to her naturally according to the grain of her personality, whether it’s davening or baking, doing chesed or listening to music. These activities get the individual in tune with the nature she was given, and can bring her to a greater sense of the hidden Hand behind all things. The word emunah, faith comes from the same root as does the word for art, omanut.

A person afflicted with a persistent desire to write – whether or not her time is defined by family obligations – may have been discounting the urge as frivolous or self-indulgent. But I haven’t yet discovered a total cure for the affliction, other than setting pen to paper. This can take the form of letter writing, diary, fiction, poetry, journalism, or indeed, by inconsequential scribbling.

The artistic impulse and sensibility are divinely given faculty. By filtering the truth of our experience through art, we can better comprehend that our individual lives are of infinite importance in the grand scheme of things, and can come closer to our own best selves.


Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. This article is a chapter from “Wish I Were Here”, reprinted with the author’s permission. Sarah Shapiro teaches writing in Israel and the United States.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.