Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Things I have learned from my mother.

By David Zilberman

My mother died 20 years ago. We had a good relationship. I gave her flowers on every occasion possible and told her I loved her, but only now, as I get baby David and parentsolder, I realize how much she affected my attitude and my thinking.

My mother was born during the First World War in Jerusalem. She never met her father, who died during this period of disease, hunger, and abuse. Her widowed mother sent her two older children to work, a third son was sent to an orphanage, and my grandma cared for the two younger ones: my mother and her brother. Family and the community supported them. My mother’s family was orthodox, but somehow, my mother was sent to the first modern Hebrew school for girls in Jerusalem–the Lemel School–pictured below. The school introduced my mother to secular topics and even had a gymnasium. After fourth grade, she was forced to leave school by one of the leaders of the orthodox community in Jerusalem (Rabbi Porush’s father, whose decedents continue to lead the orthodox community in Jerusalem) and who didn’t like secular education or education for women. My mother never forgot or forgave this termination of her education, and instead of going to school, she was sent to work as a maid. She worked mainly for well-to-do immigrants from Germany and grew to appreciate modernity, cleanliness, and openness. As she grew older, she worked as a technician in her uncle’s cartography shop. As we know, she had a boyfriend who died in the Second World War. She married my father in 1945, after World War 2.

level school

The young couple was poor and rented a room from a two-bedroom apartment. I was born in this apartment in 1947, my parents got the lease on the apartment around 1950, and my two sisters were born shortly afterward. In 1966, my parents bought and moved to a three-bedroom apartment in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, and their economic situation improved. However, in 1975, my father passed away. I was a second-year doctoral student in Berkeley and suggested to my mom that I come back to support the family. My mother’s response was, “No way. You build your life, and I will care for the family.” My mother started a career as coordinator of a senior center with more than 150 participants, thrived in her job, and continued working till her 80s.

As you can tell, my mother’s life was tough. But she seemed to be happy most of the time. She spoke with me quite a lot, and one of her sayings was, “It is what it is, and you have to make the best of what you’ve got.” She grew up in a religious family and said, “God helps people who help themselves.” When I was a kid and was upset that other kids called me names–fatso, turtle, to name a few–she always told me, “When you get upset, you give them power over you.” She emphasized, “You know the reality and can change it. But it has to be your choice.” This desensitized me to random insults. She helped us understand that all people, including us, have strengths and weaknesses when discussing people. She stressed: “Don’t let your weaknesses define you; build on your strengths.”

My mother, my sister, Eyal, and me
My mother, my sister, Eyal, and me. A diverse family.

My mother was a big believer in science and modernity. More than once, she told us that if they had Penicillin her favorite cousin wouldn’t have died from infection. She admired Dr. Helena Kagan, a pediatrician who saved my life and gave me a shot against an allergic reaction when I was one year old. My mother cherished the transition from kerosine to electric stoves, from wood-fired water heaters to solar heaters, and from an ice box (I hated carrying the ice) to a refrigerator. In mid-life, she enjoyed connecting with us through the phone and at an older age, being entertained by TV. She wasn’t a science skeptic. She grew up in a religious environment and while she loved Jewish tradition and respected the religion, she believed in the power of science. My pious brother-in-law once asked her, “Why do all these people listen to scientists when all the truth is in the Holy Torah?” My mother answered, “I would tend to agree with you, but without science, I couldn’t hear you.”

While admiring science and encouraging us to study, my mother always distinguished between being learned and being wise or smart. She told us that being educated doesn’t make you smart and to never look down on people who don’t attend school or have minimal education. She loved to analyze people and instilled in us the ability to love people despite their weaknesses. I admired her work in her senior center, where she was able to help people discover some of their strengths and talents and always emphasized that it is never too late to study and improve your skills. Indeed, when she was in her late 60s, she studied psychology and in addition became a certified exercise trainer for the elderly.

My mother, my mother-in-law, and Shai
My mother, my mother-in-law, and Shai.

My mother was a feminist before the term was invented. She expected my sisters and me to be financially independent and pursue our dreams. She also expected my sisters to go to the army and study at University, and she fumed against discriminatory regulations. Once I asked her, “Why do you ask me to go to Synagogue every Saturday when you never go there?” She said, “I don’t like to sit behind the cloth barrier that separates men and women.” I soon joined her and my grandmother in having coffee and reading the newspaper on Friday nights. When my son Eyal had his bar mitzvah, she was very happy to participate in the ceremony and read from the Torah in a “mixed” temple, which is against the orthodox tradition she grew up with.

It took me many years to realize how much of my past was influenced by my mother. I want to say thank you on this Mother’s Day, and I love you, Mom.

Celebrating with family
Celebrating with my family.