What’s in a day? The Human Spirit

Israel director of public relations for American Women's Zionist Organization Hadassah Barbara Sofer shares her insight into Mother's Day and International Women's Day.

HENRIETTA SZOLD, activist and medical pioneer, seen in 1940.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
HENRIETTA SZOLD, activist and medical pioneer, seen in 1940.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Before International Women’s Day became prominent, there was Mother’s Day.
Americans associate Mother’s Day, which takes place on the second Sunday in May in the US, with a spectacularly commercial holiday. A quarter of the fresh flowers purchased all year are bought on Mother’s Day. About half go to the shopper’s mother, a quarter to wives, and 17 percent to mothers-in-law! In addition to the bouquets – bonbons, breakfasts and beauty treatments rank high in popularity.
Despite the festivity of Mother’s Day, the holiday’s origins are surprisingly somber. After the trauma of the Civil War, a woman named Ann Jarvis suggested a day devoted to healing families divided by ideology and battle lines, and to focus on bereaved moms in the North and the South. Her daughter Anna (sic) Jarvis further promoted the day. Anna reputedly organized a church service and wore a carnation, her mother’s favorite flower. The special day was adopted by many other countries, and became official in the US in 1908. That was three years before International Women’s Day. Often, Mother’s Day was adapted to dovetail with previously existing religious holidays.
My problems with seemingly innocuous Mother’s Day hail back to the fifth grade in Colchester, Connecticut, where I grew up. Our teacher insisted that we copy a Mary Dow Brine poem Somebody’s Mother from the blackboard, and present this gift to our mothers.
Copying from the blackboard was never a beloved activity for me. My handwriting was wanting; copying was tedious.
Afterwards, we were instructed to paste the poem onto red construction paper and decorate the margins. The paste was messy, the construction paper was too large to fit in the schoolbag without folding, and the gift got hopelessly mangled.
Nonetheless, on Mother’s Day morning I came downstairs to breakfast and presented this handiwork to my mother.
She read the first stanza aloud.
Somebody’s Mother ‘The woman was old and ragged and gray And bent with the chill of the Winter’s day.’ With a motion I would later come to associate with Chaim Herzog’s reaction to the “Zionism as Racism” resolution at the UN, she tore the paper into shreds.
“Next time,” she said, without a smile.
“Write your own poem.”
Only after moving to Israel did I learn to appreciate Mother’s Day once again.
Our Israeli Mother’s Day, now renamed Family Day, is celebrated on the first of Adar (some say 30 Shvat). That’s the anniversary of the death, what we call yahrzeit, of Henrietta Szold, a woman I admired even before working for Hadassah, which she founded.
Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) was the oldest daughter of Rabbi Benjamin and Rabbanit Sophie Szold, who had moved from Austria-Hungary to Baltimore.
Like Ann Jarvis, Henrietta Szold lived through the Civil War, and her earliest memories were associated with it. The only Jew in her high-school class, she was also the valedictorian, and recruited to begin teaching after graduation.
That was the time of mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to America, and Baltimore was a major gateway. The polyglot Szold home became a gathering place for immigrants.
Szold recognized that citizenship and success in the US required English skills. She set up a night school for immigrants, where she was both teacher and principal, and it became a successful model throughout the US.
Later, after suffering a broken heart when immigrant scholar Louis Ginzberg announced his engagement to someone else, Szold’s mother Sophie suggested a recuperative voyage to restore her spirits. After visiting Jewish communities in Europe, the two women were horrified by health conditions in prestate Israel. Sophie Szold wept at the sight of flies gathering in children’s eyes. She charged her daughter with changing the status quo. When they returned to the US, Szold converted her women’s study group into the more pragmatic Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which remains the largest women’s membership organization in the US until today.
Szold moved to prestate Israel to nurture the nascent medical work. In her 70s (!) she took on responsibility for organizing Youth Aliyah, started by Recha Freier in Berlin. Szold personally met the boats of youngsters who arrived without parents from Hitler’s Europe.
They called her “Ima.” One such youngster, today a great-grandfather, recalls being picked on at the kibbutz where he’d been placed. He posted a letter outlining his sorrows to the only mother he had left – Henrietta Szold. The following week, the diminutive figure of Miss Szold appeared at the kibbutz. He never learned what she’d said to the kibbutzniks, but he was never treated badly again.
In the US, Henrietta Szold is recognized for her achievements along with women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Helen Keller in America’s National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York, a center of the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. I was there for Szold’s posthumous induction in 2007, and was glad to see her name up there with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Oprah Winfrey.
Still, the Israeli accolade seems more significant. Henrietta Szold never married, and never had biological children.
Choosing her as the central figure of Israeli Mother’s Day redefines parenthood.
That means that whether we have given birth or not, all of us are responsible for children and for protecting the next generation. Israeli Mother’s Day both rectifies prejudice that might exist against women who have not had babies, and removes any excuses for not ensuring a better future.
International Women’s Day – at first called International Working Women’s Day – was begun by Clara Zetkin, leader of Germany’s Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party and a close associate of the famous revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. The choice of March 8 date is reputedly arbitrary. Leon Trotsky suggested that women striking on that previously established day gave birth to the Russian Revolution on Women’s Day in 1917. In modern-day Russia, men celebrate International Women’s Day by – you guessed it – buying flowers for the women in their lives.
In most countries, modern “Women’s Day” is more political and work-related than Mother’s Day, highlighting the struggle for physical and emotional integrity and advancement. Still, working women’s struggles cannot be divorced from the roles we play as mothers and grandmothers.
The events listed on the official internationalwomensday.com website offer potpourri of activities: literary readings, political meetings, even cooking events.
At Harvard, there’s an exhibit of women in law. In Kuwait, the oil company is hosting a nebulous “Crystal Me” event that has been created with the aim “to replenish women from the inside out.”
A hospital in Korea is offering free medical consultations to women by Skype.
Oddly, there are no activities listed in Israel. The Women’s Day activities here reflect those popular abroad. I once found myself at odds with an Israeli prime minister who wanted to deliver flowers to new mothers in the maternity department on International Women’s Day, instead of honoring the achievements of women nurses and doctors.
We’re still groping for a proper expression of both Mother’s Day and Women’s Day. The two dates fall close together in Israel. Although we might think of Mother’s Day as a time which might find us at a spa, and Women’s Day a time to be standing on a picket line, they’re really not so different – particularly in a country where Mother’s Day is associated with feminist Henrietta Szold. I suggest we come up with a single day that’s really significant for women.
No copying from the board this time.
Time to write our own poem.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.