My mother is strong.
It is strange to hear all the sweet adjectives applied to women and mothers, airy adjectives that speak of fairies and beauty and butterflies and golden motes of light dancing about. Those are the cards that are lined with pink and whose words speak of pink meanings, soft and gentle and controlled and contemplative; they talk about the kind of woman who arranges society picnics and membership teas and works at fundraisers and scoops out mashed potatoes onto a kid's plate during hot lunches.
That is not my mother.
My mother is everything but that, my mother is a strong, fiery, passionate, determined, dominant, impressive woman. She is a woman who forces others to hear her, who beats people at their own game, who doesn't take nonsense from anyone, who forges hard bargains. She is a quick-thinking, articulate and cultured person, a woman who speaks seven languages and has mastered the art of conversation. She is fascinating; her very life experiences speak of a realm and a world far outside those of the common sphere. A Bukharian Sephardi Jew, her life has been extremely colorful. She grew up amidst Moslems in a society that was the oft-referred to "Old Country," she and her siblings knew how to cook elaborate dishes and delicacies at the age of six and are overall masters of practical halakha. Everything that I learn out of a textbook she actually practiced- she took the chickens to be slaughtered and watched them run about with their heads cut off, she plucked and kashered them (and laughs at the difficulties that we Americans encounter when all we have to do is pick a saran-wrapped container of meat off of a shelf in the grocery store), she baked and cooked and stewed and worked. A little girl dressed all in vibrant, colorful silks, she was the daughter of the most powerful and influential man in her community, the man who funded and created the mikvah, who gave alms to the poor, who opened his house to the masses, a kabbalist and truly holy person. Growing up, she did not learn texts as I do, did not learn the literal Torah- she learned Torah from the mouth of her father, which means that she was taught kabbalah and Torah simultaneously. Often she will assert something and my father and I will question its veracity only to find it later in a Sephardi commentary to the text.
My mother knows what anti-Semitism is in a way that no one but those who have experienced it can. She knows what it is like to grow up in a society that hates you because you are Jewish, to have to perform brilliantly in school simply to receive your due. She knows what it is like to be uprooted from your homeland, to journey stateless throughout other countries, to lose your possessions, to have to learn a new language.
She came to America and forged a completely new life for herself; she got into Stern and Princeton and ended up attending Stern. Once there, she learned English quickly and now speaks with only the faintest trace of an accent, a musical lilt to her voice that betrays her native Bukharian (a dialect of Farsi), a very beautiful language. There she acted as a protector of the small, defending those whose food was thrown away by the "more religious", protesting discrimination and all that was cruel, wrong or unfair. She joined Rabbi Avi Weiss in blocking off Fifth Avenue in support of the Russian Jews who were unable to leave their country, eloquently describing their plight and exciting the pity and attention of others.
An incredible thing- she, exotic and foreign as she was, with her basic knowledge of English (which soon progressed, as she has a tremendous gift for languages) wrote for the newspaper here, The Observer. As always, she expressed herself eloquently and powerfully; she argued the truth of her ideas and viewpoint.
Others at Stern could not understand her; they did not have her life experiences and could not hope to achieve her maturity. This is the woman who pretended to be a Communist and who had been part of the Young Pioneers, who had outsmarted her professors and forced them to give her an A even though she was a Jew, who had been uprooted from her country at the tender age of seventeen, who had traveled through Italy and Austria, picking up the language as she went; who had taken the TOEFL and done well enough to get herself into some of the most prestigious universities in the United States and in that way helped her parents into the states (because she was a minor; hence they had to accompany her). This is that woman. And compared to this woman, the silly, foolish, laughing girls with nary a care, the ones who were concerned about dress and sleeves and rules and rituals and seminaries, for God's sake- how could any of this concern her? How could any of this touch her at all?
My mother is a nurse; she works to heal others. She has a gift for languages and also a gift for healing; she has the flair, the touch, the voice that helps others feel like she is interested and cares about them. And she does, in ways that none of her patients will ever know because it's only we who see her when she comes home at night, it's only we who see her when she is crying because a baby died or one of her patients passed away. It's only we who know how affected she is by this, and only we who understand the great depth and care and love that my mother has for those whom she helps, for those whom she teaches, for those whom she leads.
For that is the word to describe my mother- leader. She is a leader, a high achiever, a goal-oriented director. She directs others and they follow her lead. She stands up to authority- she is authority. She is "the boss." If she believes that something is not fair or isn't right, she pursues it until it has been fixed and is fair, is right. I truly believe that she fears no one in the world except God.
My mother doesn't care about what people think, probably because most people's opinions don't matter to her. What do they have that makes their opinion important? A seminary they attended? A yeshiva that they went to? My mother would just laugh. Anyone who tries to impress her with credentials that have been bought rather than earned will fail miserably.
My mother respects people, not names or titles. She respects truly genuine people because she herself is a truly genuine person. I do not know how many of you can appreciate how rare that is. This is a woman who speaks her mind, who is herself at every point of her life, who never allows others to control her or to hurt her. This is a woman who does what is right and doesn't care whether she is blamed or vilified because of it. This is a woman who is an advocate for her children in a way that I can't even begin to describe, a woman who will stand by her children even if an entire body of teachers or principals tell her that her child is problematic or bad or ought to see a psychologist. This is, of course, assuming that her child is not truly in the wrong- and my mother will make sure of that, too, because when we are wrong we receive our due, and if that is punishment, that is what we'll get.
My mother is not phony. She doesn't engage in conversation simply to be polite; she doesn't smile at you while spreading tales about you behind your back. She'll snub you to your face, she'll refuse to speak to you or she'll march right up to you and tells you what she thinks of you, but she does not lie. She is not afraid of you. There are people who are terrified of her, and this is why- because she does not lie.
You cannot do anything to someone who does not lie. You cannot control someone who does not lie. She tells you what she thinks and what she feels and if you don't like it, tough! But she's not going to lie for you, to simper up at you, to play by your rules, to engage in your politics. That's not how she works. My mother is a straight person. What she thinks, feels and says are synonymous.
This is a woman who would risk her job and confront the most important people at her workplace about an issue that she felt was unfair. And I know that because she has done it, and she has won, too.
There is no way to silence my mother, to stop her, to cause her enough shame or blame to shut her up. It doesn't work like that.
It was my mother who was willing to risk the looks, the wrath, the names and rumors that ensued from switching me out of my Orthodox high school into my non-Jewish one. It was my mother who believed in me and knew me for who I was and didn't give a damn what anyone called her or thought of her because she knew that she was doing what was best for her child.
It was my mother who very firmly said that my decision about college was to be my decision only and that it was not to be influenced by what I thought she or my father would like best. Because I was the one who would be going to college and I was the one who would have to like it.
My mother has never been weak in her life. She is the kind of strong leader who commits to a project and sees it through to the end, who wants things to be done right and makes sure that they are done right, who hates incompetence and believes in work. She believes in results. She is a very practical, pragmatic and realistic person, someone whose Judaism is practical and whose outlook on life is practical. She was also the toast of a figurative regiment, is a gourmet chef, an interior designer with an eye for beauty, a literature maven, an interpreter (all her languages come in very handy with patients) and a nurse.
I remember angrily accusing my mother that she was too strict with me, that I never had friends because of her high standards (she believed in friends who would challenge you, not people who you were always benefiting), that she didn't give me enough candy, the way the other parents did, that her idea of a birthday party wasn't "cool" enough. I hated her rigid attitude and how she disliked me "enabling" others (a favorite word of hers, or so I thought), her demands that I finish what I start, that I take what I touch. I hated the way she cared so much about grades and was displeased if I brought home an A- or B+ instead of an A. Oh, I hated many things. Let no one ever accuse me of being grateful.
But today is Mother's Day. And today, looking back on everything, I realize that all that my mother ever wanted and still wants is for me to be the best person I can be, the brightest, the best person I can be. She pushed me to work; she pushed me to respect work; she taught me to be dissatisfied with sub-par work. She pushed me to believe in honesty and in truth; she taught me that it is only one's opinion of oneself that truly matters. She taught me even when she didn't realize she was teaching, when she came home after the death of a patient and was so torn up inside, was so unhappy, was crying, I knew then- as I know now- how much my mother cares about people, how much passion she has.
And at times I may have resented it or resent it still; I may be more of the textual-idealistic child rather than the pragmatic-practical woman, but I respect her more than she could ever know. I don't know if she remembers but once we were in the kitchen and we were fighting and I was near tears and I shouted, "I can never live up to you!" and wiped the back of my hand across my face and she looked stricken and said, "But Chana, you don't need to" and explained that I wasn't supposed to, that we are two different people and have different abilities and powers and that I shouldn't have to think about living up to her.
And the truth is that I still think that I need to live up to her and can't see any way of doing it because she's done so much and knows so much and cares about so much and I am just not at all comparable to her on any kind of scale. I'm not my mother's daughter-that's Dustfinger- she's the fiery, passionate, strong one- I'm more my father's child. But I have some aspects of my mother; I sometimes describe myself as "a shadow of a shadow of my mother." At times I can be strong and at times I can lead, at times I have her confidence and her strength, not always; I have never been able to truly not care about others' opinions the way that she does, but I have some of her and that is a good thing.
So Mommy, this is for you- so that you can know how much I love and respect you even if I don't always show it, and instead am angry or irritated or frustrating, because I know that I am a very frustrating child and that I have cost you a lot and have caused you quite a lot of grief. And I'm sorry for doing it and sorry for making your life so very stressful but I am also very thankful and very grateful to have a mother like you, because you and I both know that there's no way in hell I'd be religious today if not for your having the courage to switch me to North Shore.
I have yet to meet anyone as charismatic, strong and powerful as you are.
I wish I could be like you.
Happy Mother's Day.