by Wendy Kenin, Jewish Solo Mothers Concierge for the SF Bay Area
Jewish solo mothers came together with their children from across the Bay Area on Memorial Day 2016. We mothers came from Marin, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro and San Francisco to gather at the Julius Kahn Park in San Francisco. The beautiful state-of-the-art gated park was named for Julius Kahn, one of the early Jewish politicians of San Francisco.
The park was pretty big with a fence around it, and us mothers were able to sit and relax with some nosh and catch up while the big kids ran off and played together. We even had a precious new baby among us to pass around and hold and coo with.
The mothers who met up this day forged a common understanding of the broad and inclusive makeup of our group. We talked conception and birth stories, family histories, current family structures, professional backgrounds. We shared about support groups we are part of, Jewish organizations and our experiences with them, and identified the strongest professionals who helped us find scholarships or access to Jewish education for our children. We discussed plans for upcoming group activities and communications systems, renting a house as a community of Jewish Solo Mothers, Jewish big brother/grandparent program ideas, parenting challenges, isolation and dating.
We Jewish solo mothers are diverse in our identities, stories and lifestyles. Yet there is so much we have in common.
There is this precedent in the Torah, where the women ensured the continuity of the Jewish people. With leadership from Miriam, also known as the midwife Puah, the women took action to have babies in hard times. When the men were separating and refusing to bring more children into slavery, Miriam confronted her father who then rejoined her mother Yocheved, the midwife also known as Shifrah, and Moses was conceived. Miriam inspired the Jewesses with her prophesy that redemption would come, that the Jewish people were destined to be free. She stood up to Pharoah, she protected the newborn baby boys, she rescued her brother and set up her mother to be his actual wet nurse in the palace. The women applied makeup, adorned themselves with bling, approached the men with food and conceived children.
The warrior spirit that Miriam exemplified for her generation was tempered by her water and her celebratory song. Miriam’s miraculous well flowed wherever the Jews camped, providing sustenance to the entire camp. Miriam and the women brought tambourines with them on the journey out of Egypt, and danced and sang at the sea. The song was a prayer to God of gratitude and awe, an expression of the women’s endurance and steadfast faith.
The women in our Jewish Solo Mothers Group in today’s diaspora are ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people, birthing and raising children in difficult circumstances, and without partners. The incredible determination of these solo mothers, who on average are highly educated, in their 40’s, and earning poverty wages — these are some of the warrior Jewesses of our generation.
We mothers who gathered on Memorial Day in San Francisco talked about how despite our diversity, we have many needs in common. We are a segment that research has shown is being dropped from the organized Jewish community, and we will not let this happen so we must help lead the change. We and our children have Jewish heritage and must have a seat at the table. We will not allow our families to be erased from the Jewish people.
Same time, we know that our needs are the needs of many Jewish people who feel alienated from Jewish communal life, whether they be single, partnered, married, widowed, old, young, abled, disabled, gendered or whatever. The Torah does not mention Miriam as a mother. Miriam is a powerful and important figure in our history, regardless of her mother status. Diversity and pluralism have always been valued in our Jewish culture.
We have a contingent of San Francisco Jewish solo mothers of grown children too. They bring with them the legacy of a continuing stigma for being Jewish mothers on their own, separated or divorced. We have also heard from some solo mothers who have had to completely start over after leaving the ultra Orthodox world, and have lost custody or even visitation with their children. All these families matter.
We hope that the Jewish Solo Mothers Group listserve and facebook presence will be a path to liberation from the shadow of communal exclusion. The support mechanisms we Jewish solo mothers use to communicate, build community and unite our voices should also serve as points of reentry into Jewish communal life. Just as the women led the redemption of our people in past generations, so too do Jewish women of our day hold the key to the survival of our people.
This article first appeared on the blog of Big Tent Judaism June 3, 2016.