Weekend: FAMILY: Let Me Tell You a Story - It's Kosher; from Maureen Lipman's Beattie to the Yiddish Mamas of Woody Allen's Movies, Jewish Mothers Have an Overwhelming Stereotype to Live Up to. but What Is It Really like to Be a Kosher Mum? Jo Ind Investigates
Byline: Jo Ind
Sibyl Ruth does not regard herself as much of a cook until she starts making chicken soup. It is only then that she comes into her culinary own.
Sibyl, who is mother of sevenyear-old Hannah and literature programmer at the Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, chops carrots, celery and onions, drops noodles into a big pot and fills the kitchen with the delicious aroma of simmering fowl.
'I think it must be something in my genes that has been passed down from generation to generation and has surfaced in me,' she says with a smile.
Sibyl is Jewish. She is also a mother. Therefore she makes a mean chicken soup . . . or at least that is the way the stereotype goes.
Long suffering, a martyr to her children, a suffocating harridan who sees herself as beyond criticism, a benevolent provider of home-made food for every occasion, especially chicken soup - these are what a Jewish mother is meant to be.
The reality of course, is very different. Jewish mothers vary as much as any others do, but they have something in common, if nothing else having to negotiate with such a powerful stereotype.
It was partly in response to this that Mandy Ross, mother of Joe and writer of children's literature, has compiled an anthology, For Generations, Jewish Mothers.
'That stereotype was very present for me,' says Mandy, who lives in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. 'I felt it behind me as I became a mother and I didn't want to be like that.'
The idea for the book came when she had Joe six years ago and wrote a short story about a Jewish mother who came to see the Christian story of the nativity as a celebration of all births'In the Jewish tradition there's a lot about family and mothering,' says Mandy, 'but there's not much written about the actual experience of it.
'It's such a male tradition, the commentary and the commentary on the commentary and the commentary on the commentary on the commentary have all been done by men.
'People talk about the half empty book case - there are so many women's voices that have never been heard.'
So that is why, with a friend Ronne Randall, Mandy set about gathering the stories and writings of Jewish mothers - traditional and modern, religious and secular, Orthodox and Progressive, Holocaust survivors and those who have always felt secure, those who live in Israel and those who are part of the wider Diaspora.
Ruth Shire, who used to be a nurse and lives in Bearwood, Birmingham, was a refugee from Nazi oppression. She had to flee her native Germany at the age of 16 and come to live in England where she was cared for by a kind Christian family and went on to marry and have three children.
She says: 'Being a Jewish mother is a two-fold blessing or a burden. The blessing is the rich heritage and the family occasions.
'The burden is the awareness of anti-Semitism, the awareness of a stricter life than the general community, the awareness of greater expectations keeping values going and so on.'
In particular it was difficult for Ruth to know how much to tell her two sons and one daughter about the Holocaust.
'We never had problems talking about sex and so on, but we did have difficulties talking about whether we are different and how different are we and whether it matters,' shesays. 'I was very much aware that it was our duty to talk about the Holocaust and we have published a book which is called Survivors where people talk about their backgrounds.
'Our three children all reacted differently to being told about it. My elder son wasn't greatly affected by it; my second son was affected and has responded with great compassion; for my daughter, who was very highly strung, it was a terrific burden and she's still suffering from it. Yet we talked about it all the same way and it was the same story.
'We tried not to make it too gruesome but you can't help it, it is gruesome, and in a way you do want them to know. …