American Olympic gymnast–and, by all appearances, nice Jewish girl–Aly Raisman qualified for the womens individual all-around gymnastic final at the Olympics Sunday night (doing her routine to Hava Nagila, yet!). Big news–but apparently not as big as her parents’ reaction.
The video of her parents’ reactions as Raisman was doing her qualifier round has gone viral, and was posted here at Kveller as well as everywhere else in the world [ed. note: the IOC has blocked all footage on copyright grounds]. Raisman’s parents are transparently stressed out as they watch their daughter. They constantly fidget in their seats, looking, as one commentator noted, as though they were in dire need of a restroom. They move back and forth as though being shaken in a kaleidoscope, their eyes 100% trained on their daughter. They mumble and mutter encouragements (possibly dropping one f-bomb) in a Tourettes-like stream of words. Vanity Fair called their parental reactions “hilarious” and “SNL-worthy.” When watching them, anyone can see that they are clearly completely focused on and invested in their 18-year-old daughter’s performance, finally letting loose with a relieved yell at the end of the routine (thank you, Mr. Raisman).
Um, am I the only one here who was raised by Jewish parents? Because I gotta say, to me, the Raisman parent reactions looked kind of…well, tame. There was only one little scream at the end. There was no visible nail-biting, and no self-inflicted woundings were visible on camera. It didn’t even seem to me like Mr. Raisman’s arm was punctured by Mrs. Raisman’s nails digging into it. I don’t know why they were miked, or who did it–but will say that I don’t think their behavior was anything to be ashamed of (even the one f-bomb!).
One friend of mine, however, felt differently, saying on Facebook that she “hates Aly Raisman’s parents. They really should be banned from the Olympics.” When I asked her why, she said she thought they were “pathetic.”
“They looked ridiculous and are ridiculous,” she wrote. “That’s what happens when your mom is a high school gymnast who is super pushy and obviously has no class…You don’t see other parents acting like that and you don’t see other parents dropping the F-bomb. You can only imagine how pushy and overbearing she is. Let’s not even start with her dad.”
“Pushy,” “no class,” and “overbearing.” Hey, Jewish mothers–have you heard these words before? Perhaps they were being used to describe…you, as a Jewish mother generally?
I find that when people talk about “Jewish mothers,” they often denigrate them–sad, but true. They carp (ha!) about how domineering, meddling, and neurotic Jewish mothers are. They draw what they think are witty portraits (obviously, I disagree) of bitchy, never-satisfied shrews calling their daughters-in-law from beyond the grave to check on the status of their brisket. In short, it’s not a pretty picture. Jewish fathers, on the flip side, get the unfair reputation of being “henpecked,” beaten down and subservient.
I’d argue that the real picture is a much prettier one. The Jewish parents I know are loving and dedicated to their children. We sometimes talk too much, become too visibly emotional, and invest too much of ourselves in our children’s success. But for the most part, that investment is rooted less in sublimation and selfishness than it is in love. It is rooted in the idea that no matter what we accomplish personally in this life of ours, our greatest happiness can only come from seeing our children grow into themselves and be happy.
Obviously, generalizing my stereotype is no more “true” than generalizing the Domineering Bitch stereotype of the Jewish mother. And obviously, the “loving parent” concept isn’t uniquely Jewish, by any stretch.
But it is worth noting that Judaism and Jewish culture does perpetuate the idea of the centrality of children. By “centrality of children,” I don’t mean that it is not incumbent on children to respect their parents–respect for parents, on the contrary, is a paramount Jewish value embodied in no less a place than the Ten Commandments.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar states, “Don’t call them your children, call them your builders.” Without vowels, the Hebrew words for “children” and “builders” are the same. In Judaism, it is incumbent upon us, as parents, to build children–and they, in turn, will build the world anew. The purpose of Jewish parenting is to build people who can go forth and build their own cities, castles, and dreams.
I have no idea what Mr. and Mrs. Raisman are like as parents personally. I have no idea if they’re pushy and overbearing or loving and supportive. I know that to raise an Olympic-level athlete takes a level of determination and dedication that is in and of itself superhuman (read this article about what Olympic training did to the family of US skier Lindsey Vonn for more of a sense of the would-be Olympic life).
I don’t begrudge the Raismans a second of their fidgeting, their awkward mutterings, or their pride. Let them kvell! I hope we can all kvell with them.