By Mara Goodman-Davies, LICSW / Special to the BJV
“A yenta with a license!” was my own mother’s reaction after I passed the test to open a private psychotherapy practice. “You always loved to tell people what to do, and now you can get paid for it. Azey gezunt.” HA!
She should know – after all, I learned from the best. Mind you, I have painfully explained to her about a million times that therapists don’t dictate to clients how to live their lives. Instead, we are there to listen and support, and to encourage clients to make their own decisions and carve their own paths. We are mere partners on another person’s introspective journey, creating a safe space for healing and soulful reflection. Needless to say, my mother wasn’t having any of it.
As my Jewish mother, she knew that the positive traits for which Jewish mothers are world-famous would be among my greatest assets, and among the supreme gifts I could give to my clients. I went back to school at 48 years old to start a brand-new career and spent the next five years busting my tuchis to pass tests, write papers, thrive in hardcore internships/jobs, get licensed, and create a whole new life for my family and me – none of this seemed to move her. Training shmaining – she ardently believed I already had what it takes to be a great therapist because I was raised by a Jewish mother and was a very good Jewish mother myself. That was all I would need to help people make sense of their internal turmoil.
As much as I insisted that hot soup and a few rugelach couldn’t stack up to the teachings of Freud, Erikson, and the host of ground-breaking mental health professionals who spent years empirically testing their theories, she persisted.
“Jewish mothers can handle all the tsuris and kvetching. That’s what we do. If someone needs something, we give to them. If they don’t have it, we find it for them. If they are hungry, we feed them. If they need a place to live, we find someone who can put them up. If they need a job, we call someone we know who is in a position to hire them. As if they are SINGLE…well, don’t get me started. We bring people together. We’re always thinking, planning, and scheming. It’s who are. We do whatever we can.”
Maybe there was more than a mere iota of truth to what she was saying. In the evolved world of today’s reality, we’ve had it hammered into our minds that we are to IMMEDIATELY reject anything that even remotely resembles believing or condoning a stereotype. I agree with that, to a point. Sure, nobody likes or should accept the horrible image of the overbearing, guilt-inflicting, endlessly nagging, schmaltz-wielding Jewish Mother from days of yore. And to be sure, not all Jewish mothers are endlessly nurturing, coddling, and (in a lovely way) overly pushy.
I’m sure there are many Jewish mothers who actually let their children eat what they want, dress how they like, select their own university, pick their own profession, and marry whomever they choose WITHOUT making a single comment. I have no doubt that these free-spirited Jewish mothers are out there. However, if you meet one of them, please let me know, because I never have. I think it’s fair to say that most of us take a “healthy interest” in our child’s well-being and will go to the ends of the Earth to see our offspring succeed.
So, at the risk of being stereotypical and ticking off any socially-correct readers out there, here are some ways that being a Jewish Mother has indeed made me a better clinical therapist and social worker:
- Advocacy (Chutzpah): Let’s face it – a Jewish mother advocates for her children from Day One, settling for nothing but the best. In my social work, I am fearless and relentless in connecting my clients with the resources they need, be it food, shelter, mental health care, or help with the school system. I’m proud to say that I’ve been told that I go above and beyond to advocate for my clients, and, like a Jewish mother, I don’t stop until I get the job done. This can be a huge advantage for people who are suffering and unused to having someone step up for them.
- Compassion (Rachmanes): Jewish mothers feel your pain (even if we caused it). All we really want is for our children to be happy and successful. As clinical therapists, isn’t that what we want for our clients? Don’t we want to see them break through the barriers that cloud their minds and torture their souls? We absolutely do, and we are trained how to give them the tools to have their best shot at improving their lives.
- We Really Want to Know What’s Going On (Yentishkeit): Therapists are curious by nature. We want to hear our client’s life stories. The more details, the better! Isn’t that what Jewish mothers do, too? I’ve never met a Jewish mother who wasn’t interested to learn absolutely everything there is to know about their children, their friends, and their friend’s families. The longer the story, the more insider information, the better!
- We Love To Kibbitz: Even after a full day of clients, I’m rarely too tired to call my friends at night and have a fun chat. You would think I would be worn out, but I don’t want to miss a thing. I’m especially available if my daughter wants to show me the latest fashions or Tik Tok videos, dish about boys/sex, or educate me on the latest teenage trends. No matter how tired I may be, I will never shut one eye until she’s done sharing. I have a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out). I’m a Jewish Mother!
- Confidence/Spirit Building (Ruach): After people suffer repeated trauma, sometimes they are so destroyed on such a deep emotional level that they hardly trust their own sense of self. I am passionate about helping my clients discover or rediscover their many strengths, and showing them how they can use their own natural gifts to overcome their adversities. Trauma not only robs people of their dignity, but also falsely makes them believe they are stuck or doomed to suffer their way through life. Nobody can build confidence like a Jewish mother. From Day One, Jewish mothers tell the world their children are the very best. That’s a very powerful message to send to a child, but also to any human being who has endured great suffering.
Thanks to my cultural competency training and diverse life experiences, I am well versed in how to honor the variety of cultures I encounter in my work. I am also extremely proud to bring elements of my own culture into my practice. It’s not like I’m wearing a babushka and humming “Sunrise, Sunset” under my breath – I always try to remain familiar and approachable. Yet I’m not afraid to teach my clients words from our culture, such “mechaye” – a real joy – when they share a positive breakthrough after overcoming tremendous adversity and strife. It’s a funny-sounding word that can bring humor and an extra oomph of support, excitement, and encouragement to the alliance-building therapeutic experience.
Exposing my clients to a little bit of my culture allows them to see me not just as a professional but as a human being who isn’t afraid to bring who I am as a person into the mutual aid exchange. As a therapist, joining someone on a healing journey gives me a deep sense of personal fulfillment. I love to see people thrive and find their mechaye. When my clients discover the best parts of who they are and start to become the amazing person they always wanted to be, it leaves me, well, what can I tell you...a little verklepmpt and kvelling with nachus!
Mara Goodman-Davies LICSW is a clinical therapist and social worker in private practice and at The Brien Center Child and Adolescent Division.