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Book Depicts Jewish Moms As Resilient, Compassionate

May 15, 2000
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Hear the one about the Jewish mother whose goal was to marry off her daughter to a rich doctor?

Lloyd Wolf and Paula Wolfson did too, and the punch lines of such denigrating Jewish jokes ultimately became their impetus to create, “Jewish Mothers: Strength, Wisdom, Compassion,” a coffee table picture book aimed at countering the negative stereotypes that have smeared the reputation of Jewish mothers.

“There’s always been this image of the Jewish mom — a one-dimensional stock character,” said Wolfson, who is tired of the image of the Jewish mother as controlling, materialistic and guilt-throwing. “We’re depriving secular America of the truth about Jewish women.”

The book tells the stories and pictures of 51 Jewish mothers attempting to depict a more realistic image of Jewish motherhood. Those chosen for the book represent a wide spectrum of religious levels that Judaism encompasses, and in doing so, fulfill the author’s and photographer’s hopes of portraying the diversity of Jewish mothers.

“They are not alike, cookie-cutter women spread out across the pages,” writes Anne Roiphe, in her foreword for the book.

“What we see all together is the Jewish woman, not reserved, not hidden, not especially delicate or fragile, but slightly wild, unbeaten despite age or handicap or memories that flatten or destroy.”

Mothers in the book range from household names like Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and the late children’s television star Shari Lewis to lesser known names.

Some are women who are trying to raise their children against great odds.

In 1998, Pamela Monheimer won one of the largest employment sexual harassment cases in the state of Oregon after she was fired for breast-feeding her infant daughter during working hours.

“I have learned that it is quite a struggle to balance everything in life,” says Monheimer in the book. “As a woman, I enjoy my career. I love spending time with my husband. Above all is my daughter.”

Monheimer believes the qualities that embody a Jewish mother include strength and resilience.

“It’s not about trying to create cosmetic beauty,” said photographer Wolf. “I wanted to try to evoke and be aware of each woman’s strength.”

The photographs, portraying mothers alone and with their children, are all in black and white.

“You’re less distracted in black and white by details like clothing,” said Wolf. “It has a dignity to it; it’s more classic.”

Rabbi Avis Miller is surrounded by her five sons in the photograph accompanying her interview.

After staying home to watch her children ease into adolescence, Miller decided her “earth-mother” phase had passed, and wanted to pursue a different path. After completing rabbinical school, she became the first female rabbi hired by a major American Conservative congregation, Adas Israel in Washington.

“What rabbis do,” Miller said, “teach, listen, counsel — those aren’t at odds with the image of what mothers do.”

Both women point to their own mothers as influences on their child-rearing practices, as interviewees throughout the book refer to tradition, dreams and struggles as defining moments in their lives as Jewish mothers.

Other mothers in the book include a historian, domestic abuse counselor, distinguished doctors and a Nobel Prize winner.

“Jewish women in this country impacted on American history,” said Wolfson. “They didn’t just do things for themselves,” she explained, but for the greater goal of tikkun olam, literally repairing the world.

Both creators of the book hope their project is not used solely as a Mother’s Day gift or simply as an example of a women’s photography book.

“I kind of created a mosaic of contemporary women’s lives,” said Wolfson. “I hope it’s used as a tool for diversity awareness,” and she encourages readers to give the book to non-Jewish friends.

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