Jewish Studies

‘Do Not Forsake the Instruction of Your Mother’ – International Women’s Day with Marjorie Lehman

This International Women’s Day, Marjorie Lehman, co-editor of Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination, discusses how she is working to disentangle motherhood from idealised notions of the Jewish family and the stereotypes of the Jewish mother.

Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (eds.) Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek and Simon J. Bronner is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Rooted in Jewish tradition is the notion, conveyed in Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 and the Talmudic passage that accompanies it BT (Kiddushin 29a), that fathers are commanded to provide for their sons whereas mothers are exempt from this obligation. While the commandment to honour one’s parents obligates sons and daughters, mothers are not legally responsible for the preparation of their sons regarding Torah learning, the performance of mitzvot and/or learning a trade.  Mara Benjamin argues convincingly in her article, “On Teachers, Rabbinic and Maternal,” that we need to rethink the rabbinic model of parenting, modelled as it is on the rabbi/disciple relationship, and consider those involved in child-rearing as metaphorical sages. In making this argument she rethinks motherhood, centring it within a seminal Jewish cultural project—the Talmud–from which it was overlooked in favour of the rabbi-teacher//father-son relationship. As Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary where I am a professor has noted as part of a recent women and power initiative she is spearheading at JTS: “We want to create and model a healthy culture in which gender is made visible and everyone’s leadership and participation is honored.” For me, that includes how we bring mothers and the act of mothering (even metaphorical mothering) into our classroom discussions. It is important to think, like Benjamin did, of the ways we can not only build, or rebuild, cultures where all feel comfortable, but also recognize the role of mothering as tantamount to the role of the sage. [1]

In collecting the essays that make up Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2017), of which Benjamin’s is one, we began a shared project to enhance the visibility of mothers and call attention to them as an analytic category essential for narrating Jewishness of the past, the present and the future. This was solely an academic endeavour constructed and fashioned by the theories and methods governing the fields of Jewish Studies and Jewish Gender Studies. Working to disentangle motherhood from idealized notions of the Jewish family and stereotypes of the Jewish mother, this collection of essays was designed to show how Jews use motherhood across time and place as a way to construct and comprehend their culture. Our goal was not to offer a perspective on Jewish mothering or a definition of the Jewish mother but to use “mother” as a site of academic study. Part of the motivation emerged from the fact that we recognized a gap in scholarly work in Jewish Studies regarding focused studies on the “mother.” Viewed often as outside the structures of power, relegated to the inside—to the home—we sought authors who brought complexity and nuance to our understanding of “mother.” As Joyce Antler argues in, You Never Call, You Never Write, if there was ever a successful cultural template working to disempower women, it is that of the mother (Antler 58). As academics and feminist scholars we were propelled forward by a desire to give the category of “mother,” and more specifically, the “Jewish mother” its own voice. In the process, we realized that there was much to be said about the ways in which mothers shape Jewish culture and are shaped by it. Writers, activists, rabbis, artists, book printers and poets have projected, created, engaged, and contested Jewish culture by relying on the trope of “the Jewish mother,” often breaking from biological conceptions of motherhood. The time had arrived, we believed, to intervene in the study of Jewish culture with a focus on “mother,” and spur the field to notice what the study of mothers can contribute.

However, inasmuch as publishing a book on mothers became for us an important scholarly undertaking, we wanted this book to incite greater discourse about mothers and motherhood in general, even beyond the academy. For example, Mary Beard, in her book Women and Power: A Manifesto stresses the degree to which women have been silenced and asks us to think about how to “resuscitate women on the inside of power (Beard 79).” Unfortunately, we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like (Beard 54). And so that leads me now to pose the question: What if we turn to the mother? Is there a way to get to the core of what mothering is so that we can think with it to redefine power? Can thinking about mothering offer us new ways of living in the world, not as mothers necessarily, but as people? In fact, it is just these questions that have led me to begin writing my next book, focused on Talmudic mothers, in order to rethink the role of “mother” in the Jewish culture we imagine for our students, our children and for ourselves today.

More to the point, Sarah Ruddick argues in Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, that motherhood offers us an alternative power model, one that is nurturing and that emerges from a commitment to protecting and preserving another (Ruddick 61-123). Indeed, in mothering we find a usable model that teaches us, even requires us, to give voice to the less powerful, the child, while giving the one in power, the one mothering, a voice as well. Mothering is an act of power, but also one of recognized powerlessness, for mothering requires the protection and preservation of a child for the purposes of enabling that child to achieve independence. And so an acknowledged powerlessness takes over where power once was. This understanding of an ideal type of mothering, taken on by all—mothers and non-mothers—is an idea that has helped me to imagine a world where we can cultivate people who never think about power without thinking about powerlessness, who do not disempower to empower themselves or dismiss anyone out of fear that what might emerge is someone better than who they are. For Ruddick, to adopt mothering as a model is to imagine a world of maternal thinkers, and in so doing, to also imagine a world of people at peace with one another.

So it is up to us, I propose, to think as Sara Ruddick does, and to take on the mission posed by Mary Beard—to contemplate a new power model for our world that is grounded in what comes naturally to so many of us, mothering and the thinking associated with it. Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination is the first step in this process for me. I hope that it guides others in thinking about what mothering can be in the interest of change.

[1]. Note that since the publication of this essay Benjamin has written a monograph on this subject. See The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.



Antler, Joyce. You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Beard, Mary. Women and Power: A Manifesto. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Benjamin, Mara H. “On Teachers, Rabbinic and Maternal. In Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination. Eds. Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek, and Simon J. Bronner. Liverpool: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2017.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking. Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Marjorie Lehman is Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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Jewish Studies

Celebrating 10 years of Jewish Cultural Studies with Simon J. Bronner

2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the Jewish Cultural Studies book series in the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Ten years ago, the inaugural volume, Jewishness: Expression, Identity, and Representationedited by Simon J. Bronner, drew wide attention with its announcement of an emerging interdisciplinary field of Jewish cultural studies and a provocative cover photograph of Chai jewellery in the centre of a rock ‘n’ roll outfit. With chutzpah (the theme of the introduction), it set the tone for later volumes with rousing interpretive essays on Jewishness—expressions of Jewish culture, lore, and life–in the modern world.

Jewishness: Expression, Identity and Representation edited by Simon J. Bronner marked the first book in the Jewish Cultural Studies series.

In that first volume, for example, was an investigation of the “red string” bracelet in Jewish folk and popular culture. The ubiquitous Jewish delicatessen and its overstuffed meat sandwiches symbolizing persistence through immigrant struggles received original analysis as an icon of secular Jewishness. The Jewish roots of comedian Jack Benny were thoughtfully explored along with a separate chapter on the presentation of Jewish issues in Soviet cinema. On the folk cultural side, and as further evidence of the international scope of the series, the reception for Jewish folk music in Germany, and issues of memory it raised, offered a fresh perspective on the construction, and deconstruction, of Jewish heritage.

The series created a buzz in classrooms and conferences in Europe, North America, Australia, and Israel. Coinciding with the release of the first volume, the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław, Poland, and the Littman Library hosted an international conference titled “Modern Jewish Culture: Diversities and Unities” that became the basis of the fourth volume in the series, Framing Jewish Culture: Boundaries and Representations, edited by Simon J. Bronner. A year later, a standing-room-only crowd greeted editorial board members of the series a year after its inception at the Association for Jewish Studies convention in Los Angeles on the significance, and challenge, of Jewish cultural studies to scholarship. To enable the series to reach even further, editorial board members, and contributors to volumes, were added from South America. The impact of the series has been noticeable in many citations of it and books building on its themes, college course adoptions, and recognition of Jewish cultural studies as a scholarly field.

The series had its roots in the work of the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Section of the American Folklore Society. From 1987 to 2000, it had produced annual volumes on varied topics such as Yiddish culture, folk dance, and pilgrimage. The section entered into dialogue with the Committee on the Anthropology of Jews and Judaism in the American Anthropological Association about publications reaching a more global audience. Simon Bronner, professor and director of the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, as head of the section, led the discussion and viewed the organization of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry published by Littman, to be a model for crystallizing a field of interdisciplinary study. The Littman Library had already earned a reputation in publishing on Jewish history and theology, and Jewish Cultural Studies brought an innovative cultural component to its lists. Led by series editor Bronner, the goal stated at the series launch has held through six critically acclaimed volumes: “The Jewish Cultural Studies series offers a contemporary view of Jewish culture as it has been constructed, symbolized, produced, communicated, and consumed around the globe. More than a series on Jewish ideas, it uncovers ideas of being Jewish.”

Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination was named a finalist in the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards.

In documenting and interpreting the diverse ways in which Jews express themselves as Jews – in custom, festival, narrative, art, architecture, music, dance, dress, performance, language, and food – the series contributes to a greater understanding of the dimensions of Jewish identity as perceived by Jews and non-Jews. It comments on the societies in which Jews live, and the tapestry of life formed from cultural exchange, conflict, and integration. It explores the cultural dimensions of homeland and diaspora, assimilation and separation, in Jewish experience and belief. As an inquiry into cultural identities and expressions with wide ramifications for other fields, it also considers the range of institutions that represent and respond to Jewishness, including museums, the media, agencies, synagogues, and schools.

Coming soon to the Jewish Cultural Studies series: Connected Jews: Expressions of Community in Analogue and Digital Culture by Simon J. Bronner and Caspar Battegay.

In this anniversary year, the latest volume to be published, and hopefully create a stir, will be Connected Jews: Expression of Community in Analogue and Digital Culture, edited by Simon J. Bronner and Caspar Battegay (due December 2018). The sixth volume in the series, it follows on the heels of Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (volume 5, 2017), edited by Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek, and Simon J. Bronner, which was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Awards. The recognition was the second time that a volume in the series received this accolade; in 2010, Jews at Home: The Domestication of Identity, edited by Simon J. Bronner and featuring essays on the concept of a Jewish home materially and emotionally, collected the honour. Connected Jews encapsulates in many ways themes of the previous five volumes by interpreting how media technology—from the printing press to the smartphone—has both fostered and divided community. Contributors working in England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Madagascar, Israel, Hungary, and the United States examine the effects of mediated cultural expression, including television and radio shows, Internet blogs, and cyber-shtetls and other online virtual worlds. The title Connected Jews also speaks for a series that has made a connection among readers worldwide who are interested in the meaning of culture in Jewish, and non-Jewish, lives.

Piece by Simon J. Bronner.

Simon J. Bronner is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore and Founding Director of the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. He is also the convener of the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Section of the American Folklore Society.

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