When my mother turned 70, I wrote a tribute to her that asked the question why the Bible includes “Honor your father and mother” among the ten most important moral commandments.
Is it really as important as “Do not murder” and “Do not steal”? I answered that gratitude is the mother of all virtues.
The Bible is telling us that without our parents we would have no life, no love, no security, no future. Forget that and your humanity has been fundamentally compromised.
Now, on her 75th birthday, it’s time for me to offer a tribute, however inadequate, to a woman of extraordinary power and steely determination.
My mother raised five children on her own, working two jobs to support us, clothe us, feed us, and send us to a Jewish day school where I could discover the tradition of my ancestors. I am currently returning from a weekend as scholar-in-residence in Munich, Germany. Without my mother I could not have become a rabbi and so much of the work I do in the Jewish community would not exist.
Single parents are the unsung heroes of our community.
Raising five children by herself involved my mother getting up early to prepare us for school, running to her job at a local bank, coming home to make a dinner, and then, for a few years, working as a checkout clerk in a supermarket to earn extra income for her kids.
All this my mother did for my siblings and myself so we could enjoy a normal life and know, amid significant financial challenges, that we were loved.
There are so many stories of her sacrifices that I will never forget, and I often share them with my children, who adore their grandmother. But one story especially stands out.
I was a child of perhaps six and we were driving in her unreliable station wagon on a night in Los Angeles where the heavens opened and a torrential downpour descended. The car stalled and we were stuck in middle of traffic. My mother got out of the car, refusing to allow us to follow her so we wouldn’t get soaked. She opened the hood of the car and tried her best to get the car to start.
Soon, she had cut her hand and blood was dripping out.
Still, she refused to allow her children out of the car, now asking passersby to help. I was a little boy but it was on that unforgettable night that I learned what a mother is prepared to do for a child.
When my wife and I lived in Oxford for 11 years, where six of our nine children were born, amid constant money issues, there was never a family celebration my mother missed. Not when a first daughter, Mushki, was born, not when we had a bris, not when our three-year-old son Mendy had his hair cut, and not when our girls pleaded with her to join us for the Jewish holidays. When she walked through the door the children’s eyes would light up, “Grandma!” Their hero had arrived.
Most of all – and this is painful – I remember my mother’s loneliness. When you’re a boy of eight and your mother divorces, you’re convinced she’s in her 60s. You can’t compute that a mother of five children is really such a young woman.
Just a few years ago, with my wife Debbie sitting next to me, I made a calculation of how old my mother was at the time of her divorce. I was shocked when I realized she was 32. She remained alone for many years, save for a few intermittent relationships many of which had no future, because my mother always put her children first.
Still, she never once complained, always bearing the most positive outlook on life and bidding me to do the same. The other night I was speaking to my children about their grandmother and they told that she is the most positive person they have ever met. She never complains, never has a bad day, is always a blessing and never a burden to anyone. Her sunny disposition raises her grandchildren up.
When her financial situation improved after she and my siblings in Miami opened a jewelry business in Miami – free plug, it’s called Sibling and a great place to shop – she instituted a policy of giving money to every representative of a yeshiva or poor family who came through their building requesting support. And she regularly sits down with Jewish newspapers and if she sees a story of tragedy or woe, she sends a check, unsolicited, to the families who are suffering.
Named after Queen Esther for her Hebrew name and Eleanor Roosevelt for her English, my mother always endeavored to bequeath to me her positive values.
When she would call me and I would sound despondent because of mounting bills or a professional challenge, she would not let me off the phone until I heard her out completely.
“Shmuley, the only blessing in life is the wife that loves you and healthy children. It was what I told your father all the years we were married. You are such a blessed man. You have five healthy children. How could you let anything else bother you?” Sometimes, as she repeated this mantra, it became almost irritating. “I hear you, Mom. You’re right. But I have to go.” No, she would not let me off until I listened again and absorbed the truth of her words.
And as I have matured, my mother’s voice has begun to play like a loop in my mind. Few things matter other than the strength of our relationships and the well-being of our loved ones.
And one more things really matters to her – the strength of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.
My mother bequeathed to me an iron Jewish identity and she regularly tells all her children and grandchildren that keeping the religion and sticking up for Israel is paramount.
Now, my mother is thankfully with a man who appreciates her and with whom she has built a life. My siblings and I are ever grateful to him for taking loving care of a woman who always took care of others. At her 75th birthday, my mother is, thank God, an adored matriarch of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I have dedicated several of my books to her as the inspiration behind so much of me that is decent or good.
Mom, I wish you a happy, happy birthday. I cannot equal you in nobility or heroism. Less so can I ever climb your heights of sacrifice. But know that I will never forget, for the length of my days, that I am blessed with a mother who is extraordinary in every way.The writer is the international best-selling author of 31 books, most recently ‘The Israel Warrior.’ The winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Award, he has been called by ‘Newsweek’ ‘the most famous Rabbi in America’ and named by ‘The Jerusalem Post’ as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.