I celebrated Mother’s Day this year in a country that doesn’t really celebrate Mother’s Day.
It was the end of my five-week Israel trip, and my two daughters living there felt they should do SOMETHING to mark this date. So they gifted my morning cup of coffee with a perfectly delectable beginning to the day: my favorite poppy seed pastry, with a cheese Danish thrown in for good measure.
You likely will agree that Mother’s Day is a much-commercialized day in the United States (along with its partner, Father’s Day); it’s a financial bonanza for flower shops, card shops, restaurants, and other venues. Perhaps you would be surprised to learn that people in other countries also celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May; Australia, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey, to name a few. And while Israel did, in fact, have an official Mother’s Day years ago, the celebration was transformed from Mother’s Day to Family Day in the 1990s. Recognizing that mothers and fathers often share equal responsibilities at home and in the workplace, the powers that be in Israel decided that celebrating both parents was a more equitable way of acknowledging everyone’s value.
But the American version, aside from the business piece, raises some thought-provoking “mother” questions: What about women who have not been blessed to become mothers, or have a difficult mother/child relationship. What about a son or daughter of any age whose mother recently died? The very woman who came up with the original idea in 1908 – Anna Jarvis – eventually grew resentful of the commercialization of the holiday that she originally suggested to commemorate the good deeds of her late mother. Her annoyance led to her organizing boycotts of the celebration.
And yet, I may still ask – just one day to honor your mother? Aren’t mothers special every day?
So permit me to drop the Mother’s Day discussion and focus on mothers. My heart and soul feel that there is something inherently powerful about mothers in our Jewish tradition, a cause for celebrating them every day of the year. Proverbs 31:25-27 perhaps describes it best: “Strength and honor are her clothing; she is confident about the future. Her mouth is full of wisdom; kindly teaching is on her tongue.” Should we take one day on the calendar to remind us of a mother’s strength, her determination, her ability to master her weaknesses, her connectedness to God’s world, and then pay no attention to her unique gifts the rest of the days on the calendar? Of course not.
We might find it helpful to return to the early beginning of our people’s story, so to speak, and talk about the wisdom and characters of our most famous four mothers: Sara, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. Now people don’t really flock to Martha Washington’s grave or the final resting place of Mary Todd Lincoln. I have no idea where Dolley Madison and Bess Truman are buried. But our ancestral mothers? Who doesn’t treasure those moments of standing near their graves (and to be fair, their husbands’ graves as well) at the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb?
I touch earrings that belonged to my mother or my grandmother’s candlesticks or my mother-in-law’s chai necklace or the garnet stones from the bracelet of my husband’s grandmother who was murdered in the Holocaust – and I feel I am touching them as well. Do I not experience similar emotions while standing at Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs?
And let’s not forget that so often it is the mothers throughout the Tanach who are the pivotal characters related to having children . First Sara, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. And Samson’s mother, whom we know only as Manoah’s wife. And Channah, the mother of Shmuel. And the Shunammite woman, whom Elisha the Prophet promised would have a son. We may not know her name, but when her son was in the field and cried out to his father “Oh, my head, my head,” the father said to his servant: “Carry him to his mother.”
If some of these women are nameless, the universal strength of their character is not.
Recently, three Palestinian terrorists in Israel climbed the security fence into the settlement of Tekoah in Gush Etzion with murder on their minds. Yair Maimon and his wife were drinking tea on their porch when Yair saw the terrorists approaching. Rushing his family inside and grabbing his rifle, which he owned as a civilian member of the settlement’s security team, he shouted at one of the terrorists who was running toward him waving a knife. He lifted his rifle and shot him dead.
But that is not the most remarkable piece of this story. At that very same moment, Yair Maimon’s mother was sitting in her home in Kiryat Arba and began to suffer pain in her heart. Although she was tired from hosting her family for Shabbat, she had a powerful feeling that something was about to happen. Gathering her strength, she went to the Cave of the Patriarchs to pray and began to cry. She had no way of knowing that at that very moment, her son Yair was in danger, and that he was defending his family against Palestinian terrorists. Only when another son called to tell her what had occurred did she fully understand the source of those inexplicable emotions and her response.
Perhaps it was this mother’s prayers that gave this story a happy ending. But of this I am certain: no card or bouquet could reflect our thankfulness for the power and intuitiveness of this Israeli mother.
I experienced a bit of Israel’s appreciation for mothers (and permit me to include grandmothers as well) when I joined one of my daughters and most of her family on my Israel visit during a four-day trip up north near the Kinneret. On one of those days, we hiked to Nachal El Al. It was described as a “moderate” hike, replete with amazing, breathtaking views and two beautiful waterfalls.
Now my daughter wasn’t certain that I was up for the task, and I know she was simply concerned for my well-being. But my ego felt the need to prove her wrong. Full disclosure necessitates my admitting to my readers that the terrain often was not easy to navigate without my 23-year-old grandson’s helping hand. After hiking for an hour and a half, I sat down to rest while some of my grandchildren were swimming in a cool stream. Not seeing any forward path, I asked my grandson where we would go next and he nonchalantly responded: “Up that wall.” I looked up somewhat incredulously at a tall wall that was equipped with occasional metal handlebars hammered into the rock. “I absolutely cannot do that,” I told my grandson decisively. “Sure you can, Boubie,” he said. “I’ll help you.” With nowhere to go but forward and with the strength of his confidence in me, along with an occasional pull of his strong arms, I surprised myself, and most probably everyone else, by actually climbing that scary wall.
The challenge, however, continued. The last 25 minutes of this “moderate” hike required me to climb tall rocks straight up the hill, and I do not exaggerate when I say I sometimes had to lift my leg up two feet in order to take the next step. Occasionally – can you picture this? – I took that enormous step with my grandson pulling me up and my son-in-law pushing from behind. All hopes of maintaining an elegant, refined, wise, grandmotherly demeanor evaporated. And I did begin to seriously imagine how the helicopter was going to get down there to rescue me.
At one point, I had to take a 10-minute break, sit down on a rock, and replenish both sugar and water in my body. My grandchildren, of course, had no difficulty climbing those rocks, and my daughter slowed down only to look back and watch with some concern as her mother tried to gather herself together.
Many young Israelis passed me by, and I might add that they, too, seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever navigating the rock climbing. I remember one Israeli in particular, a young man who was carrying a baby strapped to his chest and an older child sitting in a carrier on his back. “Kol hakavod (good job) to you,” my daughter said as he approached her on the rocks. Brushing off the compliment, he looked back at me and asked her if that was her mother. She confirmed that it was. He then laughed and responded in Hebrew, “Kol hakavod to your mother for doing this hike!! “ No card, no flowers, just admiration of a mother’s determination from a total stranger. Perfect.
When I finally reached the very top (likely with the same sense of accomplishment as Mount Everest climbers), the sweetest reward for my efforts was kudos from my family – particularly from my daughter and son-in-law — and a delicious Magnum ice cream bar that was just as satisfying as that poppy seed pastry and cheese Danish. It occurred to me, however, that they may think twice before ever inviting me to join them on any hike in the future. But on my birthday a month later, I received a wonderful gift from them – a pair of strong walking sticks used by the most experienced hikers, with a note written by my son-in-law that read: “Cause we don’t want to have to carry you up the next hike!!!”
Aaahhh, so they still want me to join them on another hike. Now that made this Mother’s Day perfect.
Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired a few years ago as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in theUnited States and Israel.