NEW YORK (JTA) — What do Golda Meir, Natalie Portman and Aviva Shalit have in common? They’re all on JTA’s Top Jewish Moms list for 2012.
With Mother’s Day on Sunday, we present our select group (in alphabetical order but for our final choice):
Bella Abzug — The first Jewish woman elected to Congress, who had two daughters, once famously said, “This woman’s place is in the house: the House of Representatives.” Abzug was a congressional star, but she also was a staunch Zionist, a pioneer in the synagogue and a one-time Jewish Theological Seminary student. What a role model; not to mention those hats.
Robert Edwards — He’s not Jewish or a woman, but the British scientist pioneered the process of in-vitro fertilization, which is used at a higher rate in Israel than in any other country. Arguably, Edwards has birthed tens of thousands of Jewish children. Just don’t ask him to name them.
Amalie Freud — Knowing what we know now about Sigmund Freud, the mother of the father of psychoanalysis must have been one crazy Jewish mother.
“Mrs. Goldberg” (as played by Gertrude Berg) — In her defining role as the irrepressible Mrs. Goldberg, Berg brought a lovable matriarch with a sing-song Brooklyn accent to radio, TV, film and Broadway. She paved the way for other Jewish domestic divas that followed, including Rhoda Morgenstern (played by Valerie Harper) and the Nanny (Fran Drescher), who proved that even a couple of WASP-y kids on Manhattan’s Upper East Side can use a Jewish mom.
Bessie Hillman — When Hillman (then Abramowitz) arrived in Chicago as a teenager in 1905 to escape an arranged marriage back in Russia, she wasn’t going to be just another button sewer earning 5 cents an hour. She started organizing and quickly became a union leader. While she eventually would have two daughters with husband and fellow activist Sidney Hillman, her establishment of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914 earned her the distinction of being the Mother of American Labor.
Golda Meir — OK, so she wasn’t Israel’s greatest prime minister. But this mother of two who led Israel for five of Israel’s most challenging years remains a favorite among American Jews. Why? One, because they don’t know much about her actual record, and two, because they just love the idea of a skirt-wearing, Milwaukee-raised Russian Jew making tea for global diplomats in her modest Israeli kitchen, plotting out the future of the Jewish state, and giving the Mossad the order to hunt down and kill the terrorists responsible for the 1972 Olympics massacre in Munich. We’re not sure what kind of mom she was to her kids, but she feels like a mother to the Jewish people.
Joan Nathan — Perhaps nothing is more central to being a Yiddishe mama than knowing how to make a good bowl of chicken soup — not to mention brisket, blintzes and borscht (just to name a few b’s). By this measure, Nathan is the tops.
Natalie Portman — This starlet, who seems to be on everyone’s list of favorite Jews, has a new baby, Aleph Portman-Millepied. Who wouldn’t want a talented, unabashedly Jewish, gorgeous, smart, Hollywood star for a mom? (Plus, her fictional children, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia of “Star Wars,” were key to defeating the Evil Empire.)
Aviva Shalit — After her Israeli soldier son Gilad was taken captive by Palestinian militants in a cross-border attack near Gaza in 2006, Aviva and Noam Shalit vowed to do everything in their power to bring him home. With strong parallels to the experiences of Ron Arad and Nachshon Wachsman — Israeli soldiers who never made it out of Arab captivity — there was plenty of reason for skepticism, especially as the years passed. But Aviva and Noam never flagged, mounting a relentless campaign for their son’s release. Last October, their persistence was rewarded when Gilad was returned home (albeit at a very heavy cost to Israel). Jewish mother to the rescue!
Ruth Westheimer — So you think your mother makes you uncomfortable? Try having Dr. Ruth as a mom. Still, you know it’s good advice. Nu, when are you going to get married, already?
Yocheved — She braved Egyptian decree for three months to save her son from certain death, then orchestrated it so he’d be raised in a royal household. And it all paid off: Her boy Moses went on to become the greatest Jewish leader of all time.
The Unsung Heroine — Every day and for thousands of years, Jewish mothers have been making sacrifices large and small to ensure the success of their children and their families, from managing households to raising kids with Jewish values and sensibilities, to giving us the security we need to go out into the world and make something of ourselves. They are not famous because they thought only of us, not themselves. We cannot name them because there are too many. But without them, the Jewish people would be lost. We salute you, Jewish mothers of the world!
(Deborah Fineblum Raub, consulting communications manager at the Jewish Women’s Archive, contributed to this report. For more information on these and other women, please visit the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia at jwa.org/encyclopedia.)