A tribute to my mother on her 80th birthday - opinion

Mom, on your 80th birthday, your son wishes to offer you a Biblical item of praise. Said by King Solomon, “Many women have behaved with valor. But you have surpassed them all."

 THE WRITER (left) poses with his brother Chaim, wife Debbie, sister Ateret, and their mother Eleanor Paul. (photo credit: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach)
THE WRITER (left) poses with his brother Chaim, wife Debbie, sister Ateret, and their mother Eleanor Paul.
(photo credit: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach)

Readers of my columns and books will know that at the age of eight, my parents divorced and my mother moved me and my siblings from Los Angeles, where I was born, to Miami Beach, Florida, where I grew up. She raised us as single mothers, working two daily jobs to afford a roof over our heads, the clothing on our backs and expensive Jewish day school tuition.

The unsung heroes of America are the single moms who slog through endless financial challenges and everyday obstacles and hurdles to provide their children with life’s necessities. They do so without a romantic partner to nourish their own sense of loneliness and the unquenchable human need to be appreciated and loved, not just by offspring but by a romantic partner who is an equal. 

And among this cast of heroes, my mother, Eleanor Paul, stood out. And now, on the occasion of her 80th birthday on October 23, it behooves me to offer the gratitude of a son who would be nothing without the dedication and sacrifice of a mother who placed herself second to all of her children’s needs.

Early childhood memories

One of my earliest childhood memories was a torrential downpour on a Saturday night. We always had very little money and we were thrilled when my grandparents bought us a shiny new red station wagon. But it had terminal problems and kept on breaking down. As my mother took us for an outing after the Sabbath, the car broke down again.

 RABBIS POSE in front of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, in 2018. After the writer returned to New York for rabbinical ordination, a rabbi from Sydney asked him if he was ready to date.  (credit: MARK KAUZLARICH/REUTERS) RABBIS POSE in front of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, in 2018. After the writer returned to New York for rabbinical ordination, a rabbi from Sydney asked him if he was ready to date. (credit: MARK KAUZLARICH/REUTERS)

My mother got out of the car and made sure her five children stayed inside so they didn’t get sick as she tried to get the car to start. She went out, forced the hood open, and cut her hand deep in the process. As the blood gushed from her hand, I remember feeling simultaneously a sense of my own helplessness as well as my mother’s limitless dedication. I wanted to help her but I could not bring myself to walk into the whirlwind. I just watch her pain and her sacrifice with awe.

She had five children in just three and a half years (my siblings Chaim and Ateret are twins), and with little finances, she almost never had help. Yet she never complained as she cooked, washed, ironed, cleaned and somehow got us to school each morning and picked us up in the afternoon. Even as I type these words I wonder how this was all possible.

I took my parents’ divorce very hard and one of the most difficult things about it was witnessing my mother’s loneliness. I distinctly remember that as a young teen, when I would go out on a Saturday night to a movie with friends, I always felt bad that my mother was home alone. But she always pushed us to enjoy our lives, never asking anything for herself.

She worked as a bank teller during the day. When that income was not sufficient, she became a cashier at a supermarket at night. She would rush home from the bank, make us dinner, and then rush to her second job. It was imperative for her that we attend a Jewish school, even though she could scarcely afford it, and no job was beneath her if it would pay the yeshiva’s tuition.

All this dedication I remember. All this sacrifice I will never forget.

As I drew closer to Chabad from a very early age and then told my mother, at age fourteen, that I was planning to go three thousand miles away from home to attend a Chabad yeshiva, my mother did not take it well. She felt the Chabad movement was stealing away her son. We were already an orthodox family. Was this increased level of observance that I was embracing a rejection of her and the way she raised me?

Would I, her youngest, her baby as she called me, remain as close to her even as I lived across the country in a yeshiva dormitory? She expressed her displeasure to Shneur Zalman Fellig, the Chabad student who had, of all my numerous Chabad associates, the greatest influence on me. Was her son joining a cult?

She need not have worried.

What single moms need to know is that children see everything, notice everything, and remember everything. I knew what my mother had done for me. Judaism, if anything, would always bring me closer to her. And then, she need not have worried because the Rebbe taught all his students that the essence of Judaism was love for one’s fellow man, not to mention one’s mother.

Perhaps it’s ironic that my siblings and I will be making kiddush for my mother at the Chabad Synagogue in Miami Beach, which she now calls her own because so many of her grandchildren, including my siblings’ children, have gravitated toward Chabad.

My work as a rabbi from its very inception has been distinguished, I’d like to believe, by my outreach to non-Jews, especially the Black-American community, something I largely credit my mother for. Our Shabbat table was the most diverse of any orthodox Jewish family in Florida. On any given Friday, we had people who were Black and Christian, white and gay, atheists and Muslims, single and married, divorced and widowed, and any combination thereof. And so it remains till today.

My mother’s Shabbat table is renowned throughout Miami Beach as a home for everyone, including and especially those who are so often overlooked. Every week, my mother hosts some 30 people without fail from every nationality and ethnicity on earth. 

My mother taught me to see the divine spark in all and that each person was a child of God. While she rooted me in the most ferocious Jewish identity, especially with regard to fighting for my people and for Israel, she instructed me to see beyond the borders of the Jewish community. She taught me that I was part of a larger, universal human family.

And when a decade or so later, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me to Oxford University as his emissary with my wife Debbie, we sought to create that same diverse community, with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Christians, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists and everyone in between joining together each Friday night in their hundreds to honor and love each other under the banner of Judaism and Chabad. 

Cory Booker became the first Black-American president of a Jewish organization. Mike Benson became the first Mormon officer of a major Jewish organization. And Ron Dermer, my student president who would later become Israel’s ambassador to the United States, brought his Muslim friends to Shabbat dinner every week. My mother’s example of treating every person as possessing infinite worth is what guided my steps and what guided the ethos of the Oxford University L’Chaim Society.

I remember watching my mother read the Jewish Press and other Jewish publications every week. She would read about women in shelters for the abused, fathers who were struggling with a child’s life-threatening illness and families who could not pay their rent. We had little money. But I will never forget how she would write out checks to these total strangers whom she had never even met but whom she could not ignore. Their stories touched her. It taught me and my siblings of our eternal obligation to those in crisis.

Readers of my writings will also be aware that my father passed away two years ago and that I have taken it very hard. I have just published a new book about the experience of not missing a Kaddish for my father through the entire first year of COVID and the blessings that can sometimes accrue from the devastating experience of grief and loss.

I dedicated that book not just to my father Yoav, of blessed memory, but to my mother, may she live a very long and healthy life. I wrote in the dedication that my mother has no choice but to live until the Messiah comes because I refuse to ever have to go through losing a parent or saying Kaddish again. And I know that a just God – who has watched my mother’s endless optimism despite hardship, infinite acts of kindness despite desperate times, and incalculable devotion to the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who adore her – will bestow his endless blessing on her, as she now celebrates her eightieth birthday.

And I’m grateful to God that my mother’s aloneness was finally assuaged with her life partner Yitzhak, who could not be more devoted to her.

Mom, on your eightieth birthday, a grateful and awe-stricken son wishes to offer you a Biblical item of praise. No one said it better than King Solomon in Proverbs, “Many women have behaved with valor. But you have surpassed them all.”

Happy Birthday, Mom.

The writer, whom The Washington Post and Newsweek call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” and whom The Jerusalem Post lists as one of the fifty most influential Jews in the world, and The New York Observer called the most famous Orthodox Jew in the world, has just published Good Mourning: Finding Meaning in Grief and Loss. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.