Josh Kaplan

Why can't I escape my Jewish mother(s)?

Despite running from my Jewish life, I can't escape the siren call of Jewish mums

July 13, 2023 16:13

It might sound strange, but growing up, I never realised that my mum wasn’t Jewish.

At my primary school, she would always appear with latkes every December to tell the story of the Maccabees and every Saturday she’d nag us to turn up for cheder at our (not-so-local) shul. It wasn’t until I was older and someone at Jewish summer camp told me that I wasn’t properly Jewish that I learned about the concept of the patrilineal Jew.

My mum, who had no connection to Judaism before she married my secular, kibbutznik dad, has over the years embraced Jewishness so naturally that her conversion to Judaism feels quite low down on the list of Jewish things she has done and continues to do. (Top of the list is asking why I never call, while speaking to me on the phone after I’ve called.)
Despite my Jew-ish upbringing, I never saw a particularly Jewish path as my future. Then, after some career twists and turns, 18 months ago I found myself at the offices of the Jewish Chronicle.

I hadn’t been involved in any other Jewish communal activity or darkened the door of any other Jewish establishment since I went on LJY Netzer Israel tour.

In the year and a half that I’ve worked here I’ve dealt with my fair share of difficult Jews, north London business owners, professional complainers and shouty Israelis, all of whom I pretty much expected.

What I didn’t expect was to acquire several extra Jewish mothers. All my adult life, I’ve tried, with varying levels of success, to shrug off the guilt encouraged by my Jewish mother. After university, I moved 3,500 miles away to New York, only to find myself taken in by my friends’ mums for their seders and simchahs, sent back to my little apartment with tinfoil-wrapped schnitzels in challah rolls after being implored to call my own mother more often.

So given my failure to cut the cord, I guess it’s unsurprising that I’ve have gathered more Jewish matriarchs than there are in the pre-Pesach queues at Kosher Kingdom. People often talk about their work spouses, or their work family, those souls who you see more often than your nearest and dearest, the personalities who become such a big part of your day-to-day life that they cross the barriers at which mere colleagues would respectfully stop.

But I don’t have a work wife, a work husband or even work siblings. I have work Jewish mothers. Since I’ve started at the JC, the older women at the office have become something of an extended motherly support system.

There’s one to whom I can rant without worrying about judgment, there’s another who offers me calm, rational advice when I get slightly ahead of myself, and a third who tells me my views on Israel will mature over time. It’s both reassuring and terrifying. It seems that I can never truly escape the fate of having a thousand mothers, each more concerned than the last.

So what is my complaint, then? Some people don’t even have one mum, some people have crappy ones, and I’m over here complaining about my embarrassment of mothers. Well, as anyone that has ever had a Jewish mother knows, the concern, the kindness comes with strings attached. Not only do I have many mothers to help me with the minutiae of modern life, I also have many mothers to not disappoint.

Every time I miss a deadline or forget to send an email, it’s not just the usual professional guilt that normal people feel. It’s the same white-hot Jewish guilt that courses through my veins when I forget to send a card for a special event or don’t call when I say I would. It’s this double-edged sword that keeps me in the game, much as it does for my own mum.

And isn’t this the relationship that so many of us have with our mums? Sometimes stifling, other times comforting, warm and ensconcing… there’s a reason why Jewish men never withdraw from their mums entirely.

And just as I appreciate my own mum’s ability to always remember everyone’s birthday and go above and beyond, I appreciate the way my work mums give me more than a normal colleague would. And if that means putting up with the occasional text message filled with f-words when I mess up, then frankly, it’s worth it.

July 13, 2023 16:13

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