Thursday, January 20, 2011

More about Jewish mothers

When I was a teenager mother and I drove by the place where she and her brothers had grown up. It's no longer there; it was torn down to build a highway, which was the best possible thing that could have happened to it.

Will Alley was squalid, dirty, cramped, mean. You did not have to enter the premises to see this. I had been in places like this before; some of mother's clients lived in similar places. I accompanied her to one or two of them to witness a will, or to visit a client who was sick.

Seeing this place and places like it opened my eyes to how bubbe succeeded in motivating her children. Of course, since they were Russian Jews, they indulged in a good deal of shouting, arguing, and dramatic pronouncements. But it was all theater and understood by everyone as such. Also understood by the children was how serious the stakes were. It was like God setting two choices before them, life or death. Only in this case, life was represented by learning the piano, going to Ohio State, and becoming doctors or lawyers. Death could be understood as growing up to live in Will Alley, toiling all your life without reward, and going to bed hungry. . It was never explained in so many words. The children learned this lesson by looking around them.

So bubbe pushed her children to practice the piano. It must have been an immense sacrifice to have a piano and pay for piano lessons. But the piano, like the lace curtains which bubbe also insisted on, was a symbol of aspiration.

How different from my coastal relatives, who also make their children practice the piano and want them to go to Harvard, or at the very least, some small and selective college in New England or Pennsylvania. It's not that they admire dear old Harvard's long and honorable history and rich traditions. Admission to Harvard is a mark of validation. It shows you have arrived. You are a member of the elect. You also meet the right people and doors are opened for you. You are admitted to a fancy law school or hired by a prestigious bank or an influential Congressman. In short, you've got it made.

My father demonstrated how important the right college was to him when my brother was admitted to MIT. For the first time in his life, he paid attention to a son he had never had much time for.


Kitten said...

It's no longer there; it was torn down to build a highway, which was the best possible thing that could have happened to it.

Interestingly, that's what happened to the Wisconsin farmhouse _my_ mother was born in. She also felt that it was most likely for the best.

airforcewife said...


It is in knowing the *why* of the work that makes the difference in success for many, I think.

A lot of the students I taught had no concept of the idea that (1) life could be better, and (2) life could be worse. To them, it was what it was.

And it wasn't because there was no exposure to other areas of society. For some reason, which probably had to do with trashy "reality" series, life just was to them.