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May 11, 2007

Evenings Out

Understanding Mom

A humorous guide to why she is the way she is

Mother’s Day is Sunday the 13th this year. It’s not as ominous as Friday the 13th, but there might be some triskaidekaphobic effect.

Everyone is running around like a decapitated barnyard fowl trying to figure out what to get Mom for her special day.

This year, though, mothers everywhere should get their children presents. After all, without the kid, what is the mother? There’s no Oops-my-biological-clock-ran-out Day or I’m-waiting-until-I’m-better-entrenched-at-work Day or My-partner-and-I-decided-to-get-a-purebred-Dalmatian-instead Day, so mothers owe their children a great debt.

Since people never understand their mothers until they turn into their mothers, perhaps a handy guide to comprehending and caring for Mama might be in order. That way, she can buy the gift this year, and for the rest of her life, her spawn will know exactly what to get her.

Thankfully, there is just such a book, released on May 1.

Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother  might be a little specific to help everyone, but it should be of great aid to Jews, Italians, and anyone with a sense of humor.

The book, from Hyperion at $22.95 in hardcover, is a written version of Gold’s one-woman show, currently touring the nation.

As a stand-up comedian, she has always made use of her mother in her act, to the point where the elder Gold has demanded residuals.

However, while being driven crazy by the woman, Judy realized she never really understood where her mother was coming from, why she is as she is.

So Amazonian comic Gold (over six feet tall, with a personality to match) and her writing partner Kate Moira Ryan began interviewing Jewish mothers across the country.

As first, Gold was hesitant to identify herself as lesbian to the women with whom she spoke, especially the Orthodox ones, fearing rejection.

As she went on, however, she discovered that many of the Orthodox Jewish women were the most open, one even asking her if Wendy, her then-partner, was as useless in helping with the children as the interviewee’s husband.

Traveling the country performing stand-up, Gold always researches the synagogues in the towns where she plays, and it was through this network that she got in touch with the women who form the backbone of the book. There were also the friends-of-friends and distant relatives, each person giving them more names and phone numbers for their project.

All the interviews began with the question, “What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” and then organically went through the remaining questions.

The answers to that first question ran the gamut, from the humorous (“the hand-wringing angst”) to the kind of crazy (a shouted, “Jewish mothers love their children more!”)

What makes the book so fascinating are people like the Jewish woman from Arizona, whose mother asked a Christian neighbor if she would hide her children if the Holocaust happened in the United States, much like Anne Frank’s family had been hidden.

“After I had my kids, and even though it was so many years later, I asked one of my Christian neighbors the same thing, ‘Would you hide my children if anything were to happen?’” she told Gold and Ryan. “What makes me a Jewish mother is that sometimes I look at my children and I feel afraid.”

The women also gave a variety of answers when asked what the best advice they ever received from their mothers was, ranging from chew with your mouth closed to never put anything in writing.

Of course, one of the prime motivators behind the book is that Gold is herself a Jewish mother. She has a son, 10, to whom her former partner Wendy gave birth, and another, 5, to whom she gave birth.

While her mother was, at first, very diffident about the whole issue, especially the child that Wendy bore, when Judy and Wendy broke up, there was one issue on Ruth Gold’s mind: Would Henry, the older of the two boys and the one to whom she was not related by blood, still be her grandson? Nobody was taking him away from her, were they?

The authors even tackle hot-button political issues like Zionism, asking the women whether or not they believe in having a Jewish homeland in Israel.

According to Gold, almost all of the women did, although her favorite answer was, “I believe Israel belongs to the Jews, but considering that I can’t stand most Israelis, I would never want to live there.”

Borrowing so much of the book from Gold’s act is both a strength and a weakness. It can sound a bit . . . schticky, if you will, but it also gives the reader the most in-depth introduction possible to Ruth Gold, who as much as anything else is the impetus for the creation of the one-woman show and the book.

Eventually, Judy finds out much of why her mother is as she is, and it’s a very emotional moment for the readers. All pretense of humor is dropped, if only for a short time, and the reader is let in on a moment of tragedy that shaped Ruth’s life, Judy’s life and, ultimately, will continue to have a part in the lives of Judy’s sons Ben and Henry. It is a moment completely without schmaltz, perhaps one of the few in the book that can evoke such perfect empathy from its readers.

After that tragic flash, the humor never really comes back. It’s probably a good thing that it happens about three pages before the end of the book. It cleanses the palate, while providing that last bit of nourishment to finish the meal.

So, once your mom buys you the book for Mother’s Day (or you buy it for yourself), curl up with a nice plate of rugelach and read it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and maybe understand just a little bit more about why mothers are like that.






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