The Jewish Week
Jewish mothers get in some parenting licks in favor of guilt, play, community.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
I recently learned the expression “Shanghai Jew” and, political correctness be damned, I just can’t resist using it to describe Amy Chua.
Chua is the Yale law professor and “Tiger Mother” who has quickly ascended to Sarah Palin levels of notoriety — no small accomplishment in a week when Palin herself was getting oodles of publicity for whining about “blood libel.”
Now, I’m not calling her a Shanghai Jew because she is a first-generation Chinese American married to a Jewish man. Rather, because “Shanghai Jew” is an admiring Chinese term for one who is “clever in business” — and while Chua’s Harvard graduate degree is a JD, not an MBA, the woman is not just clever, but brilliant.
By tapping into two of America’s biggest sources of anxiety —parenting and the loss of our superpower status to China — Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin) ranked No. 6 in sales on Amazon.com the day it was released, virtually unheard of in publishing. (A feat that no doubt disappointed her father, who she wrote once told her she’d “disgraced him” by winning a second, rather than first, place.)
Sure, she’s made herself loathed, even garnered some death threats if ABC News is to be believed, but as she notes in her book (think “Mommie Dearest” but from Joan Crawford’s point of view), she’s accustomed to being hated.
To be a “Chinese” parent, “you have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy,” she writes.
Reading “Battle Hymn” and the excerpt that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week (a stringing together of all the most inflammatory lines from the book), it’s not always clear whether Amy Chua, whose musical prodigy, bilingual, straight-A daughters are now 17 and 14, is for real or whether she’s simply doing whatever it takes to sell books.
My husband Joe, who is neither Jewish nor Chinese yet nonetheless bright and high achieving, insists the whole “tiger mother” thing is a ruse designed to make us “Western” parents feel better about ourselves. “Sure, I’m a helicopter parent, but at least I let the girls attend sleepovers and never threatened to burn their stuffed animals,” we’re supposed to think, according to Joe, who himself was raised on a steady diet of television. Or, “OK, I may be a little permissive, and Junior is an academic failure, but at least he’s happy, unlike those miserably hectored Chinese kids.”
Chua herself acknowledges in the (surprisingly entertaining) book that Chinese parenting is not perfect, that she’s come to believe in a “hybrid” approach melding the Chinese and “Western” strategies, and that “Battle Hymn,” in which she is ultimately “humbled by a 13-year-old,” is more memoir than how-to.
Of course whether it’s strictly factual or more “A Million Little Pieces” ultimately matters less than the far more important question: How does the Tiger Mother compare to the Jewish Mother?
It’s worth noting here that Chua’s two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, identify as Jewish, so technically she is both a tiger mom and a Jewish mom. In fact, she writes in the book that in the run-up to Lulu’s bat mitzvah, husband Jed Rubenfeld “handled the major responsibilities, but I was the one constantly haranguing Lulu to practice her haftarah portion — I was going to be a Chinese mother even when it came to Hebrew.”
Never ones to suffer in silence, and not ones with such a shoddy reputation when it comes to rearing accomplished offspring, Jewish mothers quickly appeared on the scene to do battle with the tiger.
Just days after Chua’s Wall Street Journal debut, Wendy Sachs, editor of the parenting site Care.com, lobbed back in the Huffington Post with “Chinese Moms vs. Jewish Moms: Who is Mother Superior?” According to Sachs, while “Chinese” moms insist on obedience, Jewish moms encourage argument. Where Chinese moms achieve their goals through “almost pathological” strategies, the Jewish style is “decidedly more passive aggressive.” And while Chinese moms forbid sleep-away camp, Jewish ones “tour the camps a year in advance to make sure it’s the perfect fit for their kvetchy camper.”
Within a week Ayelet Waldman, the Jewish mom who together with novelist hubby Michael Chabon (whom, she’s famously written, she loves more than she loves the kids) has made a career of publishing every detail of the parenting experience, had her own piece in the Wall Street Journal: “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.”
As a third-generation Jewish American mother of a 4-year-old and 7-year-old, I have to admit I find the tiger approach cruel and overly controlling even as I agree that too many American kids are coddled. I am troubled by how spiritually empty, joyless and, let’s face it, selfish, Chua’s nonstop and highly competitive push for achievement feels. If it’s all about making sure my child is No. 1 at all costs, where does that leave everyone else’s children? What about community, social justice, repairing the world? What about art and creativity? What about rest, relaxation and friendship?
I decided to talk to some Jewish mom experts: Joyce Antler, a history professor at Brandeis who is the author of “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother”; Lenore Skenazy, the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Kids (Without Going Nuts with Worry)”; and Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (which has been translated into Mandarin and Korean) and “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers.”
How do Jewish moms (or at least the stereotype of them) compare to Chinese moms (or at least Chua’s portrayal of them), I asked?
In many ways, Antler said, the stereotypical Jewish mother is “outwardly very similar” to the Chinese mother, in that she is “the original helicopter parent,” imposing high expectations of academic achievement.
But “Chua works by discipline, tyranny, a harshness that’s even cruel,” Antler said, while the Jewish mother method is “much more subtle,” using guilt, or “controlling through smothering with love” rather than controlling with threats.
At the same time, Jewish mothers, even back in the striving immigrant-generation days, have had a reputation for being nurturing, enabling, even “permissive,” Antler said.
Skenazy, a Jewish mom who achieved near-Chuaian levels of notoriety three years ago when she wrote a column in the New York Sun about allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the subway alone, told me that she likes Chua’s “base assumption that our kids are competent and can do things well,” particularly as it contrasts to the prevailing “my child can’t look at a train schedule or get himself to school or make lunch for himself” overprotective attitude.
But, she said, she is troubled by the limited choice and free time, not to mention the enormous amount of adult supervision that the Tiger Mom model entails.
“I’d like our kids to have more free time, some of which should be spent in what looks like completely worthless ways,” Skenazy said.
What about playdates, which (along with sleepovers, bringing home a grade lower than an A or participating in a school play) are verboten for Chua’s daughters?
Unstructured playtime, Skenazy said, encourages kids to be creative, to communicate, to cooperate and to “self-regulate.”
Playing “seems to me a far more pleasant way to hit all those developmental milestones than to be dragged to lessons,” she said.
That said, Skenazy is hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of Amy Chua bashers because she feels there is already too much judging and comparing and “microplaning of differences” among today’s American parents.
“Even if you’re off by a millimeter from the way your best friend does things, you’ll roll your eyes at that millimeter,” she said. “I can’t believe she still feeds her child non-organic pasta or makes him take piano or let him quit piano; everyone weighs in, and the reason is because we always wonder if we’re doing it right.”
Wendy Mogel, who draws on a wealth of rabbinic and biblical texts in her books, told me she admires some aspects of Chua’s parenting, particularly the emphasis on “honoring adults” and “not over-praising children for doing nothing or giving them trophies just for participating.”
But like Antler and Skenazy, she’s bothered by Chua’s harshness — particularly the frequent yelling, even calling her daughter “garbage.”
And the so-called Chinese value of “extreme achievement” violates rabbinic teachings about “not being prideful” and about the need for moderation over perfection and asceticism, Mogel said.
“There is a terrible epidemic of perfectionism in American girls,” she noted, adding that anxiety about being physically perfect and academically accomplished has triggered eating disorders and other destructive behaviors in many teenage girls.
Mogel is also troubled by Chua’s inward focus.
“There’s a general cultural phenomenon that’s going on right now that seems so pronounced in reading this book,” Mogel told me. “That’s the displacement of our worries about global warming, violence in public places and other [community-oriented] things we feel like we can’t control. We ignore all these things and instead narrow our focus to the one thing we think we can control, like whether our child gets the ‘good’ second-grade teacher.”
Not only does Chua fail to mention community in her book, but she “even mocks community celebrations at school,” Mogel said and she leaves out “self-expression/creativity/imagination and goodness.”
“How do we develop empathy, how do we make a contribution to the communities we’re in?” she asked.
“The Jewish formula of celebration, sanctification and moderation is such a good angle for parents to take, even in our dangerous, unsettled, excessive world. We need community, and we need to think of each child as b’tselem elohim, in God’s image.”
Interestingly, even Chua’s daughters’ bat mitzvah celebrations, described in “Battle Hymn,” take place at home, rather than in a synagogue.
And the bat mitzvah serves as a turning point in the relationship between Chua and her younger daughter, Lulu.
When Chua forces Lulu to play violin at the ceremony, the 13-year-old, who “has always had a strong Jewish identity” and “insisted on observing Passover rules and fasting on Yom Kippur,” protests that it’s “completely inappropriate” and that a bat mitzvah is “not a recital.”
Chua threatens to cancel the party if Lulu won’t play, and Lulu ultimately gives in, enchanting all the guests with a beautiful rendition of Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody.”
But that night, after all the guests have gone, when Chua tells Lulu how proud she is, that her playing was “brilliant,” Lulu is polite but chilly.
“She seemed distracted, almost impatient for me to leave, and something in her eyes told me that my days were numbered,” Chua writes.