Judging from the title, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children may not seem to be the ideal choice for a modern parenting guide, but Marjorie Ingall’s wise, funny, and empowering take on parenting—for people of any background—is written for just this moment. Ingall, who also writes as a columnist for Tablet magazine, hopes to remind us all that the goal of parenting is to raise a mensch (for the non-New Yorkers among us, a “mensch” is the Yiddish word for a good person, someone with integrity and a noble character). Filled with Jewish teachings and personal anecdotes, Ingall’s book implores parents to trust their instincts, trust their children, and to make conscious decisions for each particular child which will help them to be adults with strong values. As a side benefit, her two daughters, Josie and Maxie, provide more than enough hilarious and endearing snippets to keep one hoping for children just like these.
What compelled you to write this book?
I didn’t want to write a parenting book because I was incredibly freaked out by the notion of telling anybody what to do. But then, I had been thinking [about the stereotype of the Jewish mother]. If Jewish mothers are so strangling and narcissistic and clingy, how is it that Jews, not just in times of acculturation and relative wealth, but also in terrible times when they were dealing with real strictures in terms of the kinds of jobs they could have, why was it that Jews have been so successful in so many different fields, in so many spans of history? It’s because of parenting.
This snarky stereotype of what it means to be a Jewish mother isn’t grounded in history. I realized I could do a
parenting book that wasn’t “do this,” but [saying] that if you listen to your instincts and your morals, and hopefully find support for them, you, too—whether you are a Jew or a non-Jew—can raise your kids with values that will help them succeed in a lot of different environments in a complicated time, like the one we’re living in. I also wanted Jewish readers to make sure that we listen to what has made our people successful over time, and not get sucked into some of the crappy values of the larger culture that most of us are living in now.
What is your idea of the new Jewish mother?
It’s like the old slogan for rye bread: You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Jewish mother. My hope is that the modern day “mamaleh” will be a thoughtful parent and think long-term about what is good for her kid, rather than short-term what feels good right now, both to your kid and to you. I joke that part of why Jews have been so good at comedy is giving the side eye to a lot of things and being able to comment on the culture in a snarky way, and I think we have to be able to do that as parents. We have to say: “This is how to raise a mensch,” not: “This is how I want to raise somebody who gets the highest test score or gets the most Valentines.” You want to raise a kid who will stand up against injustice, which is a big part of Jewish history, and will be kind. That should be the goal of parenting, to raise a kind person.
How do fathers contribute to this kind child you’re talking about?
Parental roles are changing, and fathers do a good chunk of the childrearing. If you do have a more conventional dynamic with the father as the primary breadwinner and the mom doing the home front stuff, I think it’s really important to have the conversation about how both roles are equally important. Talking about respecting women is something dads should do with sons.
For both parents, you have this visceral desire to excuse your child’s bad behavior, but both parents need to be constantly reinforcing the notion of being a mensch, and there are a million opportunities. On the subway, give somebody your seat; notice when you see somebody being kind, point it out in the media. Talk to your kids about your own struggles with being your best self, whether that’s a struggle with a project at work, or how to be a good person. I think kids mostly appreciate being talked to as if they’re interested in the wider world.
What’s the joy of raising your kids right now?
Nobody explained to me how funny kids were. I did not know how much free entertainment would be involved in raising children: The turns of phrase they come out with and the cockeyed way they view the world. If it’s not fun, then you really need to think about how to change the environment that you’re in to make it fun and maybe take the un-fun stuff less seriously.
I think for women in particular, you can find a community of other women with whom you can roll your eyes. If you are in an environment that is distressing in its affluence or values, then having one person with whom you can raise an eyebrow is very helpful. You can give each other pep talks on holding a firm line on not getting those jeans or I know everybody else is doing “X” and you’re just not going to. A lot of the choices we think are automatic choices are not automatic choices.
Your daughters are 14 and 11. Can you share a parenting win?
Well, a small decision I made had way bigger impact than I thought, which was not having the kids watch any live action kids’ television. I feel like that is the single best parenting decision I made. There are so many messages in those shows that you don’t think about: About how you talk to your parents, how you talk to strangers, about the importance of making your friends laugh rather than being kind, about what you’re supposed to look like, how you’re supposed to dress. And then there is the fact that most of these shows are utterly deracinated, even if there are kids of color in them, they really don’t celebrate difference in any way. The portrait of nerds in live action TV is terrible. They celebrate a kind of cool snark, uncool to me, but cool to them.
What do you hope your book adds to the larger conversation around parenting?
There’s really no point in anyone else writing a parenting book after Dr. Spock because the line “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,” is really what everything boils down to. And there are many different ways to say that, but I think that’s the best advice. If people read the book and say: “Okay, here are 10 things that I can focus on to chill out and learn to hear my inner voice more and worry less about what the rest of the world is doing,” those are good things.