In her new book, Mamaleh Knows Best (Harmony Books, Aug.), Tablet magazine columnist and author Marjorie Ingall is confronting the myth of the Jewish mother and presenting reasons why Jewish parenting can result in self-sufficient, ethical children. Relying on statistics about Jews, including that over 20% of the 850 Nobel Prize winners and 26% of Kennedy Center Honorees are Jewish, Ingall encourages readers of all beliefs to explore the parenting habits she observes throughout Jewish history.
What are some of the American Jewish mother stereotypes you address in the book and how did they arise?
Some of the stereotypes do have a grain of truth in them. The Jewish mother stereotype came to full flower after the Holocaust, when it’s kind of understandable that mothers would want to cling a little more tightly to their children. It also came from this time of increasing suburbanization among Jewish communities, when we started to leave our tightly packed urban communities and head out into the bucolic world. This younger generation wanted to be Americans, not to be embarrassed by mothers with accents. And looking back on portrayals of the Jewish mother, the one I always refer to is Mrs. Goldberg—from The Goldbergs [a comedy-drama on TV from 1949 to 1956] where the Jewish mother was created by a Jewish woman [writer-actress Gertrude Berg]. She’s still a busybody, but it’s a much more affectionate, less-grasping, narcissistic, or embarrassing portrayal.
Why do you think Jewish parenting leads to independent, problem-solving, and kind children?
Part of why I think Jews have been successful in so many different environments, so many different countries and cultures, despite often living in climates of anti-Semitism, is because we have been able to be flexible—and problem-solving is part of this. There has to be a certain amount of suspicion of authority because authority hasn’t historically worked well for Jews over time. You have to teach kids that their mind is worth valuing. That there are no shortcuts. That it’s important to be a creative, flexible thinker, which is the thing that is going to save you and help other people “fix the world”—in Hebrew, this is called tikkun olam, and it’s a big part of Jewish ethics and Jewish values.
You emphasize the importance of books while raising kids. Why?
Books aren’t only about life lessons; they are about pleasure, being transported, and developing an imagination. Imagination is essential for any kind of problem-solving. The library is a universe and a lifesaver. So, one of the lessons that I want to emphasize in the book is to just let your child read for joy. Don’t be upset if your kid reads something over and over again. Don’t be a snob about graphic novels. And if your kid is not a reader, they probably haven’t found the right book; don’t worry about it. All reading begets reading. Books are a way to realize the world is much bigger than you may realize it is. When you realize that not everyone is like you, then you are a more open-hearted human being, which is what we want.
What does the book offer non-Jews?
I was very conscious as I was writing to make this relevant to parents of any faith. My message is: look to your own traditions for ways to make your kid feel connected to something bigger than them. The book tells that Jews have been successful in many different fields. What can you learn about what Jewish mothers have done right throughout history? You don’t have to be Jewish to learn those lessons.