Mamaleh Knows Best

  • Review
May 3, 2016

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.

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Mar­jorie Ingall

A Ghost­writer, on Being Visible

Uh, Five Rea­sons My Book Was a Year Late

Par­ent­ing in the Age of Social Media

Discussion Questions