Ethics of the Mother

Linda 2014

Empty nester Linda Haase considers lessons learned and progress made in her lifetime, through a Jewish woman’s lens.

Ethics of the Mother

The Chai life

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I turned 36 two weeks after I came to work at JUF, and it seemed auspicious that I was reaching my "double chai" birthday at that moment in time.

I'd never worked for a Jewish organization, or even with very many Jewish colleagues, and it felt like coming home.

During my first months and years at JUF, I experienced many intensely meaningful Jewish moments, moments which I vowed I would never take for granted-and which I now, of course, take for granted.

For starters, I was accustomed to having to be assertive to take off the High Holidays. Now I didn't even need to use my vacation days to do so. I couldn't believe my luck.

The first time I heard my co-workers call "Shabbat Shalom" to one another as they were leaving for the weekend, my eyes filled with tears.

I was delighted (and dumbfounded) to find that darn near every meeting seemed to involve food. When I went to lunch with a new colleague and she asked for one dessert and two forks, I knew we would be fast friends.

People invited one another to their simchas-and loved seeing pictures of each other's kids, grandkids and dogs. Staff and lay leaders also stood by one another in times of sickness and sorrow.  I will never forget how my JUF community filled the congregation for my father's funeral.

I loved the practice of slipping a few dollars for tzedakah to a colleague before he went on a trip to Israel. The gesture was purported to protect the traveler from harm, since he was now en route to perform a mitzvah.

The Yiddish phrases which seemed so foreign to me, growing up in a yekke household, seduced me with their eloquence. You should have seen my face the first time someone said they could see I was a balabusta and I struggled to discern the meaning.

Everyone had a sense of humor.

Then I blinked, and the years flew by. This month, I mark my 18th anniversary at JUF, and celebrate my "triple chai" birthday. One-third of my life has been spent at JUF.

It seems impossible. Weren't we just celebrating Israel's 50th Jubilee and the Federation's Centennial? Didn't we just launch the JUF Uptown Café, TOV Volunteer Network and Jewish Women's Foundation?

Those were wonderful times.

There also were times that were bittersweet. The attacks of Sept. 11 were awful, but what a balm it was to be with people who were like family as the news unfolded.  When natural disasters struck, at home and abroad, it felt good to help serve as a conduit for our Chicago Jewish community's generosity, rather than just standing by helplessly.

And then there were times that were simply awful: the terror attacks, the hate crimes, the wars. Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, images of all the tragedies flash before my eyes.

But most of the time I smile, thinking of some of the absolutely extraordinary people with whom I have had the privilege to work and to serve our community.

There's no telling what will happen in the next 18 years. In the meantime, may we all go from strength to strength.

L'Shanah Tovah.

Sometimes it's hard to be a Jew

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That metal taste in my mouth is back, a nauseating combination of rage, shame and fear.

It's been years since I have tasted it-perhaps not since the last time someone drew a swastika on the whiteboard hanging on my dorm room door.

With each Facebook post blaming Israel for genocide in Gaza, with every news account of anti-Semitic rampages in Europe, with any YouTube video resounding with chants for Death To The Jews, I have begun to flash back to memories that I thought were long buried.

In grammar school, I was the only Jew in my grade, and I was regularly pummeled for killing Christ. While I was in kindergarten, the Vatican issued Nostra Aetate, absolving the Jews of collective responsibility for deicide, but apparently this concept took a while to take hold in the boondocks. Years of being The Other twisted my sense of self in knots.

The taunts about the matzah sandwich I brought for lunch during Pesach.

The day I had to make a Christmas ornament in art class, and crafted it in blue and white.

The teacher who tried to get me to make the sign of the cross before entering her classroom.

High school was better. I wasn't known only for being Jewish, but also for being involved in theatre, speech and choir. Even though there were only a handful of students who were not white and Christian, most of the time I felt like I belonged. Except when I didn't.

The day members of the Nazi Party spoke at my high school.

The boy whose parents wouldn't let him go to the school dance with me because I was Jewish. 

The bomb threat that evacuated our synagogue during High Holidays.

I loved my small liberal arts college, but once again I was the first Jew some of my classmates had ever met. I was taken aback by some of their questions, given how intelligent the students were (i.e., no, my headband did not cover horns), but most seemed genuinely curious and did not mean to be offensive. My non-Jewish friends didn't understand why I bought into the construct of religion at all, much less Judaism, or why I felt the need to defend Israel when it was unpopular to do so. There were times when it was simply lonely to be different.

The Arab students who raged against Israel in a political theory class.

The theatre call-backs held on Yom Kippur.

The religion textbook that proclaimed Jews were "endowed by nature" with a talent for finance.

My first day of grad school was on Yom Kippur. I was not as brave or bold as Sandy Koufax; I attended class. When a North Shore suburban Village Hall refused to provide information to me or the student who was African-American, saying they would only work with our white classmate, I was not courageous or confident enough to demand the university take action-or to use my journalism chops to write an expose about the incident.

In two of my three positions before coming to JUF, I also faced some measure of anti-Semitism in the workplace.

The boss who continually grudged my taking a personal day for Yom Kippur, and deliberately ordered sandwiches instead of salads for lunch meetings during Passover. 

The supervisor who questioned the expense of sending news releases to Jewish publications.

The coworkers who told Jewish jokes every time they saw me.

When I came to work at JUF, it was a more than a job: it was a vow to never again have to explain, defend or tacitly apologize for who I was.

And now, walking with a group of co-workers to a JUF-sponsored Chicago Stands With Israel Rally, I taste metal again. And I am angry.

We can hear the pro-Palestinian chants growing stronger as we get closer, and my younger colleagues are chalk-faced. Seeing them frightened makes me angrier.

I will admit that in some small measure I am incredulous, even jealous, that they have never before felt threatened as Jews. In larger measure, I cannot believe we are fighting the same battles as when I was a preschooler.

The rally is a success. It is powerful and peaceful. The counter-protestors are small in number and manageable. We all relax. But after the crowd dissipates, as we re-trace our steps to return to the office, I think about my grandchildren and my heart hurts.

As Sholem Aleichem said, sometimes it's hard to be a Jew.

Heroes

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The group of parents at the next table was abuzz, dissecting the latest scandal involving a professional athlete. One of them shook her head sadly. Really, she asked, who is left for our kids to look up to?

Everyone wondered aloud where all the heroes had gone. 

I have a different question.

How did we get the idea that a hero is someone who does an impressive job catching, hitting or throwing a ball? When did we decide that bravery was defined by how fast a person could run or cycle? Why do we measure courage by how beautifully a person can sing or model a gown? 

When long hours on a practice field or in a practice room yield outstanding results, that's called success, not heroism. The pursuit of excellence does not equal valor. A hero isn't just accomplished; a hero makes personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Whether in fiction or actual history, true heroes do not walk through the flames unscathed. On the contrary, they often lose some of the things - and people - they love the most. From Moses and Moshe Dayan to Nathan Hale and Harriet Tubman, from Raoul Wallenberg and Hannah Senesh to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks - and even from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen - heroes take the hit. 

At times, heroes are even reviled. Two of the greatest leaders in history, President Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill, made bold, brave decisions that were unpopular with a large minority of the population. We remember the enduring importance of what they accomplished, often overlooking what it cost them personally. Lincoln's reward for saving the Union was assassination; Churchill's prize for standing up to Hitler was to be trounced at the polls immediately thereafter.

So, where can we find heroes today? 

Recently, I attended a beautiful college graduation. I will never forget the look on the faces of the couple seated near us, whose daughter was the first in their family to get a degree. That couple had worked for decades to make this opportunity possible for their child. The fatigue was etched on their faces - but that day fatigue was overshadowed by pride.

I looked at the couple, quietly holding hands, and thought: That's what heroes look like.  

We will never learn about them on the news. We will never know what opportunities they gave up - Night school? Nice vacations? More interesting jobs that paid less? - to ensure that their kids had a better life.

Good Samaritans who pull passengers from burning cars make the news. Quiet, everyday heroes like those parents fly under the radar.  There's no adrenaline rush or drama, just the steadfast pulse of people who make regular sacrifices for someone or something they love more than themselves.

The honors student who arises at 4 a.m. to work the morning shift before going to school, helping to support his immigrant family.

The Army wife (or husband) who lives as a single parent for months and months on end while her spouse is deployed. 

The executive heading a company reorganization project who decides her own job should be cut first.

The teacher who dips into his own pocket to buy needy students books and school supplies. 

The mom who ends a rewarding career outside the home to care for a disabled family member.

Where have all the heroes gone? They are everywhere; sitting next to you on the el or standing behind you in line at the grocery store, taking your order at a restaurant or giving orders at a construction site, in the next cubicle or the house next door.

Can you see me?

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Somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50, I seem to have grown invisible.

People increasingly bump into me on my commute. Bar hostesses look right past me. I am met with blank stares and silence at a community Oneg Shabbat.

The people who seem unable to see me have one thing in common: they are young.  When they look at me, I just don't seem to register with them. Or perhaps they look away because they don't know what to say to me.

They view me as "other" rather than a person perhaps worth getting to know.

I suspect that when some of my younger acquaintances and colleagues do see me, what they identify is a hetero-normative, cisgender, middle-aged businesswoman in a suit and sensible shoes. Many assume I am corporate, conservative and conventional.

In reality, I am none of those things.

It is disappointing to me that the same people who demand that their differences be acknowledged seem to view acceptance as a one-way street. They (rightly) resent being discounted because of their gender identity or political views, overlooked because of their tattoos or unconventional clothing. They ask not to be disregarded, challenging those of us who are older to see their creativity and brilliance and humanity as well as their youth.

They are right. When I spend time with women and men who are younger, and especially those who are "counter-culture," I learn that many of them are very much worth getting to know.

I discover that the young woman who is a fierce advocate for transgendered individuals happens to be an accomplished opera singer and a ferociously patriotic American. I find that my colleague with spiky hair and a nose ring is utterly passionate about providing health care to the disenfranchised, and happens to be a world-class cook. I realize that my friend's vegan child who identifies an anarchist is a frustrated idealist bursting to make a difference in the world. I understand that my child's friend who has rainbow-colored hair is a brilliant scientist with questions about the universe that could rock it.

My viewpoint expands, and my world right along with it.

I'd like to suggest that some of us who are older also are more complex than we seem. One of my closest friends is a pleasant, suburban Jewish mother of two, who happens to have amassed a world-class collection of antique Japanese kimonos and books. Another is a no-nonsense businesswoman who writes fantasy fiction for young adults in her free time.

I have coworkers who are deadheads, triathletes and marched for Civil Rights in the 1960s; one colleague had a successful career as a singer songwriter. My sister-in-law has studied with Second City. I have helped teach HIV/AIDs prevention and worked for LGBTQ rights since the mid-1980s.

So, here's an invitation to anyone who can look beyond the bifocals: Want to grab a beer?

Career crisis

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I recently lost the best job I ever had.

Not the telecommunications post I held during the whirlwind divestiture of AT&T. Not the job helping to establish the State's watershed AIDS program. Not the rewarding position I held at the American Cancer Society, nor even working for this incredible organization, which has leant meaning to the last 18 years of my career.

My favorite job was being a mom.  And I miss it.

Now my daughter is an adult.  I am still her mother, but not her mommy. It's not the same.

I am not grieving her growing up--that's all good; Jenna is a fabulous woman, great company and a wicked-sharp wit. Instead, I am grieving the loss of a huge and precious part of my own personal identity.

I miss being needed in such a primal way, miss attending softball games and skating practices, miss reading to her at night and planning her birthday parties. I miss the sound of her giggle while she was hiding in the clothes hamper.  I even miss fighting with her about homework.

Are these words of betrayal from a card-carrying feminist?

When I was young, if you had told me that one day I'd attend a school open house and simply write "Jenna's Mom" on my nametag, I would have reeled in horror at the implied subjugation of my own self.

When I graduated from college, I was determined to be a self-actualized woman, to make the most of the opportunities that had been afforded me by my parents and my coming of age at that fortunate point in history. I knew I was being given choices that my parents and grandparents had not had.  I also knew that women who had come before me had struggled and suffered for equal opportunity, and I did not want to take their sacrifices for granted.

By age 28, I had earned two degrees, studied and traveled abroad, worked in three fast-paced jobs, met with governors and senators and members of Congress, chaired my condominium association and served as president of a nonprofit board. I was productive, purposeful and passionate.

If you had told me, then, that someday I would feel just as energized and self-actualized by motherhood, I would have been at best confused. I expect I would have been utterly bewildered to learn that in a few short years, I would be happier being Jenna's mommy than I had ever been in my life.

Being a mother didn't make me enjoy my professional life any less; on the contrary, it inspired me and leant new purpose to my work, gave me a tangible reason to strive for a better world. It also made me a better boss and a more patient and intuitive coach. It was the best of all possible worlds: I loved my job and coworkers, and loved my husband and daughter.  I still do.

But for me, being a working mom was kind of an all-or-nothing proposition. I was permanently set on full-throttle. You'd think I would have been tired, but I generally wasn't--or maybe I have just forgotten. I rarely felt like my responsibilities at home collided with those at work. (Insert "props to awesome husband, parents and in-laws" here!) Also, I suspect I knew that soon enough I would miss the days when Jenna burst in needing to talk when I was in the bathtub shaving my legs.

Now, as someone who is used to spending a Sunday baking while writing a fundraising script, it is strangely difficult to switch to doing one activity at a time.  It feels empty. So I write blog posts and think about starting a novel. I learn about social media and try more complicated recipes.

And I dream of having grandchildren.

60 and counting

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As his 50th birthday approached, people constantly asked my husband: "Are you depressed?"

Joel smiled kindly at them and explained that no, he was not. Turning 50 was a privilege his father never had. He felt wistful, but Joel was utterly grateful to celebrate five decades on this planet.

He feels the same way about turning 60, which he did today.

I admire and envy his attitude. He doesn't care if he is going gray; he's thrilled to still have a thick head of hair. He is genuinely delighted, rather than freaked out, when our friends become grandparents. He doesn't care if he's too old to wear a hoodie.

I turned 50 on Yom Kippur, two weeks after our only child left for college. Suffice it to say that I did not take this well. I realized I was old enough to shop at Chico's, and have scowled ever since.  

Conversely, Joel seems to be aging like the best balsamic vinegar, getting sweeter, richer and more complex every year.

The first thing that attracted me to Joel (besides those beautiful brown eyes) was how very kind he is.  When I say kind, I don't mean a pushover, though I know one is often mistaken for the other. I mean that he has a big heart and isn't afraid to use it. He remembers all his friends' and relatives' birthdays. If it's cold or snowy outside, he drives me to the train. If a friend is having a bad day, he bakes him brownies. If our daughter needs more contact lenses, he will federal express them to her the next day. If someone is sick, he will show up at the door with chicken soup. If you need help with a drippy faucet or installing a ceiling fan or a ride from the airport, he'll be there in a heartbeat.

He is not just good to his mother; he is also good to mine.

As a musician, he is a consummate professional. He never, ever just "phones in" a performance-even when he's playing under less-than-optimal circumstances. His personal and artistic integrity would never permit it. He has never given in to cynicism and couldn't be indifferent if he tried.

He cares, and often cares deeply. When he does, he is not afraid to show it.

Joel is never bored or uninterested. He can cheerfully occupy himself with re-finishing a light fixture, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book about most anything. I am amazed by his capacity to learn, and to remember what he has learned. He knows so much about so many subjects that I have almost stopped asking him: "How did you know that?" (Hence his ability to fix a drippy faucet, install a ceiling fan and re-finish a light fixture.) He has a boundless sense of wonder.

Becoming a father seemed to enhance his ability to continually see the world through fresh eyes, and to expand his sense of joy and immediacy. Having lost his own dad halfway through his childhood left a chasm in Joel's heart; when his own child was born, I watched him fill that void with his love for Jenna. I have never seen a father and daughter who are closer.

He may not be rich or famous, but he is Jenna's daddy, and for him, that is enough.

To me, he is everything, and more than enough.

Happy Birthday, Joel.  May you live to be 120.

What’s the secret to a long and happy marriage?

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Julie's mother had cared for her bedridden husband for nearly a year. One day, as Julie* watched her mother suction her father's breathing tube, she had a moment of searing clarity:

Julie wanted a divorce.

After three decades of marriage, Julie and Ben* had fallen into a rhythm of chilly household détente, their routine punctuated by sarcastic asides and unhappy silence. Julie could endure the sad reality of daily life with Ben, but the thought of someday having to provide him with intimate care made her stomach roil.

I was shaken by Julie's announcement, and shared her story with another long-married friend who said, "Oh, yeah; as soon as the kids leave for college, I am so out of here." Her husband was a good father, she said, so she didn't want to separate and deny her children daily contact with their dad, but she'd fallen out of love with him years ago.

Another woman I know said that she couldn't imagine getting a divorce, because that would mean she couldn't afford to keep her house. Yet another felt it would be too complicated to leave her husband after all these years, but otherwise she probably would. A third acquaintance said the only thing that sounded worse than staying married was starting to date again.

And so it goes. Many 40- and 50-something women I know seem at best indifferent, and at worst unhappy, in their marriages.  

What gives? How do people fall out of love?

First, let's acknowledge that the last several years have been especially tough ones. The economic downturn, coupled with the rising cost of living, has put extra stress on many marriages. Workplace "right-sizing" and the never-ending demands of technology have left many of us emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the day, not to mention the end of the week. Plus, new family responsibilities have overwhelmed an aging population that is quickly becoming the club sandwich generation: I know more than one working mom who helps care for one or more parents and grandparents.

Unfortunately, bills and bedpans are hardly the stuff romance is made of-but sometimes they are the very things relationships are built upon. The challenge lies in how we handle these unending, and sometimes very unglamorous, demands on our emotional and physical resources.

I suspect that some people cope by turning to their spouses, while others of us have the tendency to turn on them. It is so easy to focus on what's wrong with our lives instead of what's right. The trick is figuring out how to improve the former without screwing up the latter.

And do you know why that's so hard? Because for most people, our weaknesses are the flip sides of our strengths. There is a point at which the spouse whose assertiveness you admire becomes combative and the one with the giving nature you adore acts like a doormat; the hyper-organized partner might over-plan a vacation and the laid-back one might be over-drawn at the bank. Perhaps the key to marital happiness and longevity is to try to remember that the trait you hate (in yourself and/or your beloved) is just the flip side to the trait you love. 

Every summer, my dad took his kids and grandkids to Cubs games. On the way out of the ballpark, without fail, he would purchase a bag of neon-colored cotton candy to bring home to my mom, who loves the stuff. It always made me smile to see that Dad was as intent on expressing his love as he was on expressing his opinion.   My mom saw that, too.

I suspect it's why they were married for nearly 54 years.

*Names have been changed