Today is July 4th and I rarely, if ever, write on this day. However, a whole host of circumstances has forced me to write today which includes a series of women’s meetings that are upcoming which means I cannot write the next two weekends. People probably think that I loathe writing on this day due to my intense dislike of jingoism and American exceptionalism. Perhaps they think my refusal to celebrate the birthday of my home country whose history and growth was founded upon the genocide of the indigenous population and slavery, while proclaiming their country was instead founded on democracy, civil rights, and a rejection of its colonial status may have something to do with it.
American democracy, after all, has always been a very limited democracy … the basic civil rights guaranteed theoretically in a society which is a democracy often did not extend to all due to racism and misogyny and reforming the society has taken a massive amount of struggle that was often violent (and often deadly). So, whilst the self-congratulations about what a great democracy the US is blessed with (as though it was a gift from God) rather than the reality of democracy being born of struggles of people of colour, women, disabled, gay and transpeople demanding reform such that America lives up to its purported ideals. Even when victorious, those reforms are still constantly under attack. Even more so, as Americans celebrate their flawed and limited democracy, they deny the same to people in other countries that live under what it considers their control.
However, my dislike of American ideology and history has little to do with not wanting to write on the 4th of July. The true reason is that it happens to be my mother’s birthday. While I often write from the first person, I rarely write about things so very personal. I fear that I will write based on anecdotes rather than an objective and verifiable article. As such, it could be dismissed as irrelevant; what can you say in general about such a small sample pool?!
In this case, it is literally one person’s gratitude to another person, I guess that it could be smaller in that my mother wrote it about herself. This day has always been for me, my mother’s birthday and while the country may be celebrating its “independence”, I continue to celebrate this day as her day. The one day where she was the centre of everything rather than being a person trapped by her class, her ethnicity, and religious beliefs and her gender. Given she has been dead since 2002, I treat this day as a form of a proper mother’s day so as to honour her memory. For some reason, she is on my mind today and I could think of little else, so I am writing something about an ordinary American woman on her day.
My mother told me that when she was young, she used to pretend that all the fireworks and celebrations were in her honour. That a child born into poverty and into a minority ethnic and religious group pretended that all the celebrations were for her is actually wonderful and very much my mother; after all, it doesn’t cost much to enjoy the day and she could pretend that a society in which her worth was not held in high esteem was actually celebrating her. Really, I understood, who cares about a poor Jewish working-class girl besides her friends and family? And even then, her options for the future were limited given both her class and gender, and religion, and the fact that she was born in 1917.
My mother was born in the Bronx to first-generation Jewish immigrants from Poland and was the middle child and only daughter of their three children. Both of her brothers worked as union organisers. She always worked at first to help her family and then later so that she had would have some financial independence; this was her knipple (a women’s secret stash of money supplemented by savings from the money given to her by my father to buy food, etc), so that she had her money that was hers to do with what she wanted. She stopped working after I was born in 1960 (they had tried for 20 years to have children without success) and when I was in elementary school, she went back to work and became a teachers’ aide to earn a bit extra money and later in her working life she became a paraprofessional in Special Education which allowed her an excuse to get some college credits in her late 50s which fulfilled a dream that she always had.
For a woman as extroverted, gregarious, and intelligent as my mother, those limits placed on her due to her class, her gender, and her ethnicity and religion were probably extremely painful. They certainly impacted upon a part of her personality and she tried her best to prepare me, her only child, to live in a world where women’s talents, skills, and intelligence are ignored (and undervalued) and that women still needed to protect themselves from not only other humans, but from the societies in which we live. She never gender-stereotyped me, when I said I wanted my Barbie to drive a tractor, she got me a tractor. So, she pushed me to go beyond the boundaries that she had faced but prepared me for the reality that a society indifferent to the needs and rights of women (especially working-class women) would throw in my path. Caught between her dreams and the reality of her life, she instilled in me the importance of independence and moving beyond what existed, while still insisting that I fulfill the traditional role of a Jewish daughter which was to live near her and care for her and my father. Happily psychotherapy is accessible to deal with the inconsistencies of roles I was supposed to pursue.
While there was no question that she was bitter about her lot in life; her coping mechanism (and mine as well) was humour. To learn to laugh about misery, poverty, racism, misogyny, ignorance, and stupidity requires a mindset that has experienced all those things. When asked what her favourite saying in Yiddish was by the Rabbi for her funeral, I told him: “דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט” (in English transliteration “Der mensch tracht und gott lacht” (in English this translates as Man plans and God laughs); no, this is an old saying and not invented by Woody Allen (she says, rolling her eyes). She always said this, raised an eyebrow, slightly raised her shoulder, and then threw back her head and laughed.
I’ve always seen this phrase as more than “god willing, all will go well” or the issue of unpredictability in life and the best-laid plans, blah blah blah. Instead, to me, it says something more. It expresses a relationship between humans and god that is unexpected from a group of theists; essentially a theme about a god that honestly seems to put barriers in your path; something that thwarts what you are trying to do. I cannot imagine Christians thinking like this, but perhaps I am wrong. This may be because I am someone always expecting the worst to happen (and am rarely disappointed and that is a coping mechanism) that I somehow perceive this saying in this way, but I think this is a form of not only are we screwed by society, but God doesn’t give a damn either. We always interpret things from the perspective of our own lives, what can I say?
I understood at a very young age that we live in a society in which sexism and misogyny were rife, that our society was racist (she pointed out clearly that there was a lot of antisemitism in the US, but at least there were no pogroms) and that being a member of the working class meant that I would need to fight very hard to get very little in my life. She taught me (even though she forgot it later in life) that there are things more important than what is deemed successful in our society.
My mother (like many Jews of the time) was deeply scarred by the Holocaust. Both sides of her family came from Poland and most of our family that remained in Europe were murdered by the Nazis; only 3 cousins survived of a large extended family who remained in Poland before World War II (two who were able to flee Poland and one cousin survived Auschwitz and settled in the US with her husband who she meant at a relocation camp after the war). She never could understand how this happened (who can understand something so deeply impossible to understand?) and while she blamed Germans, Poles and everything else, she rarely discussed the dangers of fascism as the enemy even though she knew fascists were the enemy; I couldn’t figure out why? Did she think that fascism was a dead ideology?! Who knows?! I will never forget, that when we went on holiday (we often drove to visit family in Florida), she would point out the hotels where Jews could not stay and places where we were not welcome and told me to be careful travelling through some places in the south (as though what, there were no antisemites in the north?!).
Yet she loved the US because irrespective of antisemitism and racism, the US was her home and that is where she fought her battles both large and small. She raised me in our religion as a Conservative Jew and since mine was one of the first generations of girls that could be Bas Mitzvah, she made sure that I did that as well. She lamented my rejection of religion, wondering where she went wrong telling me there were “no atheists in a warzone.”
When I came home from Hebrew School and told her that I would not be attending Hebrew School anymore or supporting Israel in the future, she asked what happened and I told her that a picture of the Israeli Defence Forces cleaning out a “nest of terrorists which were men, women, and children” reminded me far too much of pictures of pogroms against Jews … she just sighed. As she understood, this wasn’t a rejection of Judaism; it was a rejection of the manner in which it was linked to Israel in my Hebrew School and Synagogue. In fact, I rejected Zionism and Israel because of my understanding of Judaism. She didn’t fight with me, she didn’t insist I continue, she let me decide. She never understood my anti-Zionism even when I explained to her that I rejected Zionism because it was inconsistent with my beliefs on the need to fight antisemitism where we live and my beliefs that we should never oppress anyone else; after all, if God created everything why would he create some people less equal than others unless he was an evil bastard? It was her, after all, who taught me to fight against bullies and not stand silent. Surely, I insisted, that oppressing others because we were oppressed cannot be moral and ethical. I explained to her that she raised a child who had morals and that was not an error; rather it was a clear demonstration that she raised me correctly rather than going wrong somehow.
With the revival of open antisemitism in the US, I am so glad that mother is dead and doesn’t have to live with this … I think the attack on the Synagogue in Pittsburgh would have broken her. How could she cope with this while holding her deeply felt belief that she was living in a country which, while not perfect, was a safe place to call home. I’d like to think that she would do what I did in response; stand together with others facing oppression and fight together against those seeking to oppress all of us.
She pushed me to get an education (which was impossible when she was young, like my father she needed to work to support herself and her family, working-class people could not afford to go to university and many colleges did not allow women to get degrees except in certain fields like nursing). For her education was the gateway out of poverty (she certainly could not have anticipated the destruction of working conditions and the devaluation of education). For many working-class Jews, education was our way out of poverty and being outcasts in a Christian society, but it was only a potential step. We also need to remember that this path only existed in countries where Jews could go to university, but by the time I was born there were state colleges and universities and girls could attend.
I could do what she had not been able to do when she was young and there was no question that I would go where she couldn’t. I was her daughter and I would have what she couldn’t have (given, of course, the financial constraints which were always very real in my family). When I called my parents to tell them I had been accepted into the New School for graduate study, my father informed me seriously that they couldn’t help me, they were retired and living on social security. He told me that since I was a girl, I should find a husband and get married. I told him that I knew they had nothing and would work my way through grad school. I also told him I wasn’t asking them for permission, I was telling them that I was going to do this. My mother (on the other phone) told me she was proud of me and told my father to shut up (yes, I was still on the line)!
When I moved to Britain, she told me, “you always hated this country. Now, who will take care of me when I am old?” I told her that I was not leaving the planet and I would take care of her when she was older. Yet on her last trip to visit me for her 85th birthday, I asked her if she wanted to move in with me and my husband. She told me “What are you crazy?! We will drive each other nuts, what will I do, sit and look out the window?! In Florida, I have friends and a life.” I asked “Mamala, are you certain?” She kissed me goodbye, told me she was proud of me and that everything would work out, and got on the plane back to the US and died less than 2 weeks later.
My mother reiterated three important lessons to me when I was a child which helped to form my life and shaped my decisions and beliefs. I don’t have children to pass them onto, but I will share them with you hoping that you find wisdom in her advice and perhaps share it with your children.
- There was a teachers strike in NYC when I was a child and she took me by the hand and walked me to the elementary school. She asked me, “what do you see kid?” I said, “there are people walking in front of the school with signs.” I asked her why, what did it mean? She told me “They are teachers on strike fighting for better wages and working conditions to make their and their families lives better.” She then said “don’t ever cross that line! Do you understand?!” This she only needed to tell me once; that lesson I have never forgotten.
- The next bit of advice was something she reiterated often starting when I was about 6 years old and repeating when she thought it useful (which was very often). She told me “Always keep a knipple kiddo! Always keep some money separate from your husband that is yours and he cannot touch. There may come a time when you want and need to leave the bastard.”
- Finally, she told me the following and this started when I was around 10 years old. She said “daughter (טאָכטער in Yiddish), you are brilliant and funny. You will try to do things and you will try to succeed and you may well do so; but men and our society will always try to stop you and to diminish you; don’t let them and never give up. Do you hear me kid?“
While it sounds like she was advocating an individual approach to fighting for myself, she always made it clear that very little could be gained as an individual (she was a proud member and supporter of trade unions) and that the way to actually change things came from everyone fighting together for collective change. She understood that misogyny and sexism and racism were societal and they could only be changed by changing the societies themselves. She understood the cynicism with which politicians played divide and rule destroying the possibility of unity so that people would not fight together because of that hate. She taught me (even if she did not mean for me to take it so seriously) that part of my job in life was to fight and not only for myself but for others. After all, I am her daughter and she also used to fight bullies when she was a kid (and an adult as well).
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