Gone, but not exactly forgotten

By Angela Epstein, October 7, 2012

The car was crammed to bursting point. Clothes, towels, bedding, boxes of cornflakes, a ritzy new desk lamp, 400 home-made frozen mini-meals and a Himalayan mound of kosher pot noodles all packed into the boot and piled on to the back seat.

In desperation, I slid the laptop on the floor, wedged three frozen pizzas by the gear box and jammed a container of chopped-and-fried fish in the glove compartment.

Look, I know how it sounds. Like the frenetic departure for one of those rain-soaked, self-catering holidays in deepest Wales. In fact, I was setting off on the journey to Birmingham to help my son Sam settle into his new life as a university undergraduate.

Actually, Sam, quite wisely, had gone down on the train the day before. Well, would you want to ride pillion to a freezer box full of chicken schnitzel? But going without him meant he wasn't there to audit my meticulous preparation. The preparation, you understand, of a Jewish mother in her maternal prime.

Not that I'm alone in this. At this time of year, as university begins, plenty of parents will have been part of the seismic shift, as children leave home and begin their journey through student life. Jewish or not Jewish, it's a challenging time.

I wedged the three frozen pizzas by the gear box

But Jewish parents are without question in a league of their own. As a friend who is not of the faith remarked after I told her of the preparations I had made for Sam's departure: " What is it with you people? When I went to university, I was put on a train with a hold-all and a duvet cover."

What is it with us indeed?

Without doubt, our approach reflects the fact that, in the Jewish community, family life is a central tenet of our faith; every event, whether joyous or sad, revolves around the family coming together and sharing the experience. So when our chicks, or rather, chukeles, leave home to make their own way in the world, it's anathema for Jewish parents just to see them off with a casual adieu. If we can't be there to look after them, then at least let the supplies and equipment we send be in loco parentis.

To Jewish parents, the very thought of our children's personal comfort being even slightly compromised sends us spiralling into paroxysms of fear. Will they be cold/hungry/friendless/unable to keep up (Ah yes, since Judaism is oiled by a long-held scholastic tradition, not being able to hover over their shoulders while they work ramps up the anxiety thermostat).

And, in an age of global communication, it's easy to request updates. Certainly, by the end of Sam's first full day, I couldn't help but call: "So how were the other students? What did you learn today? What did you do for breakfast/lunch? Have you used your stethoscope yet? What did you defrost for dinner."

He, in turn, while relishing his independence, fielded my enquiries with good humour. Possibly because for Jewish students who come from a home where unconditional love is the default position, knowing they have that support firms up their ability to stand on their own two feet. You won't hear any of them complain about controlling parents when they find that we have organised a Tesco online shop to be delivered to Hillel House or when they discover they have been Fed Ex'd a George Foreman grill. Parental involvement - that's involvement, not interference - is what they have always known. I think our children would miss it if it were any other way.

They also have a helpline. To take two extreme examples, one friend has been in tears because her son called to complain that his digs are smaller than their guest room's walk-in wardrobe. Meanwhile, another friend's daughter wailed down the phone that her room feels empty and soulless. Before you could say "home sweet home", her mother was on the Next website looking at bean bags and bedside lamps.

Perhaps we Jewish mothers do have a PhD in hyper-anxiety, love and affection. I make no apology for this. It's a qualification that can only help our children as they study to acquire their own.

Angela Epstein is a freelance journalist

Last updated: 9:45am, October 7 2012