Arts and Culture

Jewish moms taking offense to “Tiger Mother”

Amy Chua has frawn a firestorm of criticism over her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and its synopsis in The Wall Street Journal. (Penguin Press HC)

NEW YORK (JTA) — With her take-no-prisoners approach in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” author Amy Chua has drawn the ire of mothers across America who take exception to the draconian measures she recommends to ensure successful, prodigious offspring.

So it’s little surprise that prominent among her critics are another group famous — infamous, some might say — for what they have to say about how best to be a parent: Jewish mothers.

Chua’s book and a synopsis she wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 8, “Why Chinese Moms are Superior,” lay out her parental rules — no sleepovers, no play dates, no television — and admiringly relate a story of how she once reduced her daughter to tears when she couldn’t play apiano piece.

“If a Chinese child gets a B — which would never happen — there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion,” Chua writes. “The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.”

Chua’s article summarizing her book elicited a firestorm of criticism and became the most responded-to article in the Journal’s history. It also reportedly elicited death threats for Chua, a professor at the Yale University Law School.

A stream of offended Jewish mothers have waded into the debate, among them Ayelet Waldman, who drew some motherly opprobrium when she made a scandalous admission of her own some years ago — confessing in the pages of The New York Times to loving her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than she loved her children.

“The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose — between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones — is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected,” Waldman wrote in the Journal. “I was ashamed at my reaction.”

Ironically, Chua, who is married to fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, is raising her children as Jews. Rubenfeld has yet to weigh in on the brouhaha over his wife’s article — Rubenfeld did not respond to a JTA request for an interview — but Chua does acknowledge they don’t always see eye to eye.

“It’s more my story,” she told the Times. “I was the one that in a very overconfident immigrant way thought I knew exactly how to raise my kids. My husband was much more typical. He had a lot of anxiety, he didn’t think he knew all the right choices.”

Writing in the Huffington Post, Wendy Sachs, editor of the parenting Website, claimed that Jewish and Chinese mothers aren’t in fact so different. The difference is one of style more than substance.

“Chua says that Chinese moms don’t mince words when it comes to their children’s appearance either,” Sachs writes. “They can say, ‘Hey fatty — lose some weight.’ The Jewish mom would more likely kvell over her daughter than insult her, no matter how fat she had become.”

Echoing a similar theme, Allison Kaplan Sommer, writing in the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, claimed that Jewish and Chinese mothers are both uncompromising when it comes to their kids — they just don’t measure achievement the same way.

“It is their broader definition of ‘success’ — one that treats social status as important to climbing the American Dream ladder as academic success — that leads to their different ground rules,” Sommer writes. “Chua’s ‘Tiger Mother’ model dismisses activities that are crucial to gain social skills important for climbing the ladder in modern America. If one doesn’t master the politics of play dates and sleepovers, how are they going to handle dorm life and office politics?”

That was the line as well taken by the most prominent Jewish father to weigh in on Chua: New York Times columnist David Brooks. In a piece titled “Amy Chua is a Wimp,” Brooks writes that Chua is actually channeling her children’s attention into less mentally challenging tasks by depriving them of vital social outlets.

“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls,” writes Brooks, the author of a recently released book on how brain chemistry impacts human achievement.

“Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale. Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement.”