Secrets of a Jewish Mother: Real Advice, Real Family, Real Love

Table of Contents
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To Sol, Bobby and Bill
For Jon, Allyson and Joanna
And their children
A lot of love and a littel matzoh ball soup never hurt anyone.
h, the Jewish mother. Has there been a more maligned stereotype in American culture? From
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Portnoy’s Complaint
to the routines of countless comedians, the Jewish mother has most often been portrayed as a domineering, interfering, tactless and loud manipulator of family relationships. To this we say, “And ... ?” We maintain that it is precisely those stereotypical traits that form the foundation of healthy, stable and accomplished children, marriages that last over time, and meaningful, loving relationships among siblings. A lot of love and a little matzoh ball soup never hurt anyone.
We, Lisa Wexler and Jill Zarin, are the daughters of one very particular Jewish mother, Gloria Kamen. Our family is incredibly close, which translates into communicating with each other every single day, often more than once. We are often asked the secret to our success at maintaining strong family ties and successful careers in an age in which so many people struggle to get along with their closest relatives. When we thought about this, we realized that we were taught these secrets by our mother, Gloria, who made no secret at all of the fact that if a lesson is worth teaching once, it is worth teaching at least two thousand times. We also had lots of help from our grandmothers, Sylvia and Helen, and our incredible loving aunts, Aunt Cooky, Gloria’s sister, and Aunt Gloria, our father Sol’s sister. Yes, another Gloria. To make it easier on you as you read the “secrets” that follow, Sol’s sister Gloria is referred to in the book by her Yiddish name, Nessie.
You’ll meet our family as you read these pages, so to help you out, here is a quick note on the cast of characters: Our mother, Gloria, has one husband, Sol, and two daughters, Lisa and Jill. Gloria’s parents were our Grandma Syl and Papa Jack. Sol’s parents were our Grandma Helen and Papa Benny. Lisa is married to Bill; they have a son, Jonathan, a daughter, Joanna, and a bichon frise, Sugar. Jill’s first marriage was to Steven, who is the father of her daughter, Allyson. Jill’s second marriage is to Bobby and together they live with Allyson and their Chihuahua, Ginger. Bobby has three children from his first marriage: Jennifer, David and (yes, another) Jonathan. David is married to Jill (yes, another Jill Zarin), and they have two children, Micah and Lily. We Jews keep reusing the same ten names over and over again.
We grew up in a time and place in many ways straight out of
The Wonder Years,
complete with suburban cul-de-sacs, bicycle races, homemade go-karts and evening games of tag in the street, with flashlights, not streetlights. Our parents got married and stayed married, fifty-two years and counting. Daddy wore a suit and tie to work and came home by seven thirty. We ate a home-cooked dinner every weeknight, except for Wednesdays, which was “Dad’s night out,” when we girls had pizza. On Saturdays, our parents went out, and Mommy got really dressed up. She looked like a movie star. Our childhood was America as it used to be.
Every single Sunday afternoon, Papa Benny and Grandma Helen came over to our house in Long Island from Queens in their Pontiac Catalina. You could set your clock by their arrival; we often did. People didn’t dress sloppily in those days; Papa always had a hat with a feather in it and we never saw Grandma in slacks. Ten minutes after arriving at our house, they emerged with us, Lisa and Jill, and took us for a Carvel ice cream cone and a comic book. Rain or shine, no matter the season, they showed up on Sundays for a visit with their grandchildren. We were their priority, and we felt it. There was nothing more important on the agenda. Sundays were spent with family.
In most ways the town we grew up in was like America everywhere. However, it also had the distinction of being part of a cluster of small communities called “the Five Towns” on the south shore of Long Island, New York. Don’t bother counting them, because you will come up with only four: Woodmere, Cedarhurst, Lawrence and Hewlett. The fifth town, Inwood, never counted for the purposes of the Five Towns stereotype, and nobody ever remembers its name.
So what is the Five Towns stereotype? Jews, fashion and new money. Showy new money. The kind that bought Cadillacs and joined country clubs. First-generation sons of immigrants who were out to prove the American dream. Wives who couldn’t wait to climb up the ladder alongside them. Kids who were trained to be either doctors or lawyers, depending upon whether they were good in math or English. You’ve heard the slang term JAP, short for Jewish American Princess? Invented in the Five Towns, surely. We’ve spent our lives haunted by that stereotype.
Like so many stereotypes, however, there was a little bit of truth and a lot of exaggeration in the reputation of the Five Towns. Our high school was diverse before it became a politically correct term. Our house size? A grand total of fifteen hundred square feet. There were a couple of very wealthy neighborhoods nearby, but we didn’t live in one. Many people we knew were neither rich nor fashionable.
America, circa 2010, is a different place than it was when we grew up. Our family is now geographically fragmented. Our children are not bicycle-riding distance from their cousins, as we were. Mom and Dad now live in Florida—they have traversed what we call the three legs of the Jewish Bermuda Triangle: from Brooklyn, to Long Island, to Boca Raton. As daughters, we currently face the challenges of caring for parents who live a plane ride away. As wives in today’s economy, we need to keep up our earning potential because it is neither fair nor realistic to expect only one member of a couple to provide the lifestyle that we want. As mothers, we parent a generation of kids who watch things on television that we didn’t even know existed until we were out of college. We are busy. We try to “multitask” and do it all, but what we do instead is drop a couple of the balls we are juggling every day. We don’t give our kids dinner every night at five thirty; they are lucky if they get a home-cooked meal twice a week. We look back in awe at our parents’ generation and say, “How did they manage?” Maybe one answer is that years ago people did not believe they could do everything well at the same time. For some reason, we think we can.
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