Nothing in Israel is simple. Even a secular holiday like Mother’s Day is seeded with conflict, starting with the fact that there used to be two Mother’s Days celebrated in Israel: one in Haifa and one in the rest of the country.
Although in the 1990s the day’s purview was expanded to “Family Day” in recognition of social and cultural changes in Israel, there are sectors within the educational system that still opt for the traditional “Mother’s Day.” Even the date — the 30th of Shevat — was disputed and had to be changed.
The first Mother’s Day celebration in Israel was initiated by the Ezra society, a women’s health organization headed by Sarah Herzog, mother of President Chaim Herzog, and Mariana (Miriam) Hoofien, wife of the general manager of the Anglo-Palestine Bank (later renamed Bank Leumi). Their Mother’s Day was celebrated April 6, 1947 in Jerusalem; Ha’aretz reported that the holiday’s spirit was “similar to [such] days in other countries.”
In 1951, Haifa, the Worker’s City, established its own version of Mother’s Day, initiated by Hannah Hushi, wife of the city’s legendary mayor, Abba Hushi. The mayor proposed to the city council that on Mother’s Day, “boys and men will participate in household chores and will present gifts to the mothers … a public park with be inaugurated on Mount Carmel, to be called Gan HaEm (Mother’s Garden). Mothers will plant trees on that day, and parties and balls will be held throughout the city.”
The park Hushi had in mind had already been planted in 1913 and was appropriated by the British during the Mandate Period. It was later taken over by the Haifa municipality.
Hushi further proposed that the date of Haifa Mother’s Day be linked to Maccabean matriarch Hannah and for many years, the city celebrated Mother’s Day during Hanukkah. Other cities that adopted the holiday decided to couple the celebration with tree-planting on Tu B’Shevat.
Toward the end of 1951, the newly launched children’s newspaper Ha’aretz Shelanu declared its own Mother’s Day initiative, and asked its young readers to suggest a date. Eleven-year-old Nehama Frankel suggested a date to honor the memory of Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah. Szold had run Youth Aliyah, an organization that rescued 30,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe.
For several years, two Mother’s Days were celebrated in Israel: one in Haifa during Hanukkah and the other in February on the anniversary of Szold’s death.
In the 1990s, Mother’s Day was reconfigured as “Family Day.” As a 2011 Channel 2 News report put it, “In recent years, there has been a serious attempt to deal with the variety of configurations of the nuclear family and all combinations are welcomed with love: children with two mothers, or two fathers, or single-parent families — all are part of the celebration, so as not to repeat the errors of the past.”
According to a 2006 Ministry of Education document outlining preschool activities for the day, “The division of roles in the family has changed and has become more egalitarian. Mothers are a significant economic factor in the family, and fathers share the relationship with the children from the stage of pregnancy and take a large part in their education and growth. These changes led to a change in the essence of the special day and its transformation from Mother’s Day to Family Day.”
Today’s Family Day customs are fairly similar to those of its predecessor: children prepare cards and gifts for parents and siblings. The holiday is considered more of an educational tool than an actual celebration, although in recent years, some enterprises — flower delivery services, ice cream parlors and the like — have tried commercial tie-ins.
As for Haifa’s Gan HaEm — the park that Abba Hushi named — it was expanded to its current size of 100 acres, today serving as a gathering place for families of every kind, and hosting events ranging from the International Film Festival to the Haifa Pride Parade.
A longer version of this article originally appeared on www.israel21c.org.
Rachel Neiman’s journalism credits include ISRAEL21c, Globes Online, The Jerusalem Post and LINK magazine. She has served as marketing communications director at several Israeli innovation-based startups. Neiman attributes her vast knowledge of Israeli nostalgia to her Palmach-generation folk-singer mother and Jewish historian father, as well as her own lifelong obsession with all things pop culture.