Over the past few years, we’ve been exposed to the ways of Tiger Mothers and taught how to bring up better bébés. Now, two authors offer parenting discussions that draw from Judaism, showing how yiddishe mamas mold mentschen, and how those little mentschen can in turn morph their moms.
Marjorie Ingall’s Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children is a book of parenting advice that seamlessly combines criticism, contemplation, comedic memoir and research — including tidbits from Hasidic teachings, obscure psychoanalysis, old proverbs, new science, German etymology, and pedagogical policy (NY state class size caps are based on Talmudic recommendations!) — written in an energized, compelling voice. With wit, wisdom, humor, and a triumphant use of parenthetical asides, Ingall fights her case: Jewish mothers have long been raising “moral kids who can thrive in a complicated world,” by honing their spirituality, honesty, creativity and chutzpah, and teaching them how to live among others while maintaining a strong sense of self.
Ingall looks at typical parenting topics through both broad and Jewish lenses. In a chapter on nurturing independence for children and parents, she brings up the idea of the “good enough” mother alongside the long history of the breadwinning Jewish wife. Discussing the importance of discipline, she refers to the Jewish tenet of “deed over creed” — action prevails over feelings. Parents need not instruct, but should rather model behavior; children need to say sorry — that will teach them to feel it. In a section on distrusting authority, Ingall draws on Judaism’s dialogic and conversational traditions. “Rabbi” means teacher and not leader, she says, “We have no pope.” Don’t let kids get away with facile reasoning, she urges, but make them back up their arguments.
Ingall encourages parents to promote geekiness, championing the obsessive, uncool, hardworking nebbishy type. Jewish humor (for which she offers a history and analysis) can help parents cope, and help kids succeed in the workplace. She recommends tying any discussion of money to that of tzedakah. For Ingall, the joy of learning and socializing with peers, the teaching of kindness, conscientiousness and self-control, the focus on process and passion, are all deep-seated Jewish values that should take precedence over test scores.
The takeaway messages of Mamaleh Knows Best have stayed with me, popping up in my daily parenting moments. I was about to ask my daughter the generic “What did you do in school?” when I recalled Ingall’s anecdote about how a Jewish Nobel prize winner’s mother used to ask instead: “Did you ask a good question today?” I was about to tell my daughter that her paint-drenched construction-paper morass was stunning, but remembered Mamaleh; instead of encouraging her reliance on my compliments, I described the work, probing her about her aesthetic decisions regarding glitter (in excess). Instead of questioning my child’s choice of bedtime book (incoherent narrative about a mermaid Barbie), I recalled that instead of shaming her for her taste, I should let her develop a love of books on her own terms. (Ingall recommends that if you want to get your kid to read a book, don’t push them, but just leave it lying around the house. Or, she quotes Judy Blume, who advises parents to tell their kids they aren’t ready for it yet.) I often think of Ingall’s call to help kids create meaning rather than self-esteem, to help them develop passions and know how to be satisfied in their lives. We’re too worried about kids being happy, Ingall laments: “We’re Jews. Happy is not our default state.”
Ingall’s book about folklore and culture picqued my baseline depressive curiosity; now I wondered what Judaism’s traditional texts have to say about parenting. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg starts her new book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting, by telling me: nothing. There is no parenting column in the Talmud, or in any of our sacred texts compiled by men. Ruttenberg, a Conservative rabbi, aims to explore how Jewish traditions can offer new ways of looking at parenting, but also, how parenting can offer new ways of experiencing transcendence. Parenting, she suggests, is a spiritual practice in its own right. Nurture the Wow is a book about the emotions of parenthood, the boundaries between parent and child (and God), and fundamentally, about how we love.
Like Ingall, Ruttenberg merges her personal parenting experience with self-depracating humor and insightful discussion, offering a potpourri of sources for her contemplations, from rabbis to Rilke to Rumi. Ruttenberg probes the parental psyche and its shifting identity, untangling the idea of connection, focusing on the permeable boundary between parent and child (and the Divine) and the power each has over the other. A grounding principle is Martin Buber’s theory of “I/Thou”: are we relating to our children as full beings, seeing them for who they are without looking for ourselves in them, acting with true empathy? We all come to parenting carrying our pasts, our long-held, subconscious values about perfection, fun, consequences, and the ways in which we received love. All this, she claims, impacts how we love our children. We need to feel our feelings, she suggests. Parental love takes hard work and self-awareness; locating our compassion in the face constant discomfort is an active struggle, and a way into spirituality.
Ruttenberg explains that children learn how to maneuver in the world by watching parents (“the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice,” she quotes author Peggy O’Mara,) but throughout, she’s as concerned with how kids help their parents grow, too. Our children know us better than we see ourselves, and can show us our weaknesses. Becoming a parent changes you, morphing how you experience time, patience and ways of seeing the world. When parents are more empathic with our kids, we might become more generous with strangers; playing with our children helps us to lose our need to control, to enter our flow. As parents, our priorities change: we don’t have the same kinds of friendships (she didn’t say much here; I could have read a whole book on this), nor do we do the same kinds of work. A parent has to create art or pursue activism around screaming and diapers, but this can lead to new forms of art, greater social compassion, and new ways of understanding God.
Ruttenberg doesn’t offer concrete parenting tips like Ingall’s ‘Mamaleh Methodology,’ but she does offer coping strategies for the emotional struggles that accompany the daily grind. For instance: change your mindset to appreciate the minutiae (a successful poo is a sign of miraculous biology) and try to think of mundane, repetitive work — doing dishes, preparing a bottle — as holy offerings. Prayer “cleans out copious internal gunk that accumulates when we’re doing the hard, hard work of parenting.” It can help a parent feel present; it can channel feelings — just offering thanks aloud makes us feel better. Ruttenberg does not agree with those who separate prayer from child-rearing, arguing that it’s all connected: loving God teaches us how to love our kids, and loving our kids brings us closer to God.
Taken together, these witty, insightful books — one of religious questions and the other of culturally-based answers — provide a rich discussion of how to stretch Judaism’s past into the future, literally, in the very kids we raise. The authors probe, suggest and reflect, but perhaps the most compelling element of each work is simply its descriptions of the constant questions that plague the (Jewish) parental mind.
In reading Ingall and Ruttenberg, I felt befriended. I won’t push you to read these books, however: I don’t think you’re ready yet.