4-month-old Mayim with her mom and Bubbie Bialik
I haven’t read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua’s somewhat controversial book advocating the strict style of discipline and parenting her Chinese immigrant parents raised her with, and I don’t know if I will. I have heard a lot about it, though, both from her and from other people, and I’m sure you are not surprised that I have some opinions.
Generally speaking, Chinese folks and the Jews have a lot in common when it comes to our track record with our offspring: high achievement and lots of awards for science, math, and music. I would guess that a number of the Jewish Nobel prize winners, world-renown physicists, surgeons, etc. were likely raised with a strong dose of “Tiger Mama” similar to what Chua describes. It’s an immigrant intensity motivated in our own people by the Holocaust or the Great Depression or fleeing from one of the many countries that have kicked us out.
Where I come from, there was no crying over lost parts. Three of my four grandparents (blessed be their memories) were immigrants from Poland and the Czechoslovakia/Hungary border. Their personalities were defined by struggle, loss, tragedy, cautious curiosity, and tremendous fear of the “other” (ironic, no?). They were intense, somber, and they had a strong work ethic and a pretty small worldview. Basically, they were Tiger Grandparents. My parents were one generation removed from this intensity, so was there crying over a school play? Yes. But mentioning it to my grandparents? The reply would be either: “Vos is dos?” (Yiddish for “Huh? What’s a play?”) or they’d say “Psha!” with a disdainful look and hand wave, possibly also with an eye roll (Yiddish for “What’s the big deal? I lived through a war.”)
Bubbie Winkleman says: "Eat! Eat!"
Although some of the “Jewish” stereotypes also existed for my grandparents–the pushing of food until it was literally coming out of your nostrils and pockets, the overwhelming pervasive guilt, the complete lack of respect for privacy, and psychological enmeshment worthy of many, many sessions of psychotherapy–for the most part, I had some version of Tiger Bubbies and Zaydes to learn from.
Here is some of what I learned from my Tiger Bubbie in particular:
1) Be wary of “The Man.” We always have been and always will be the “other.” Don’t get too comfortable where you are; we may have to flee come morning. Never lose a sense of being a stranger in a strange land, and thank God for the State of Israel.
2) Never ever ever spend money unless you really truly have to. Save it for a rainy day. How you’ll know when the rainy day arrives was never elucidated.
3) Aesthetics are just that: aesthetics. Make do with what you have and be grateful–and creative. Be not deceived by the supposed need to repair a holey couch, for example; simply place shmattes strategically over the holes and no one needs to know any different. These shmattes do not need to match the pattern of the sofa, in case you were wondering.
Bubbie Bialik pregnant with Mayim's dad, 1942.
4) Comfort over style. Polyester pants swept through this great nation and my religious Bubbie never looked back.
5) Don’t be afraid to cry when you are any of the following emotions: happy, elated, joyous, content, serene. All are equally good occasions for weeping and sobbing audibly and copiously even if you make everyone around you really uncomfortable. God made tears for a reason: use them!
6) Do not waste food. Fish eyes? Can do. Marrow of chicken bones? Who wouldn’t!?
Now that I am a vegan, this is one I have to skip. I hope my Tiger Bubbie forgives me. If not, in the Next World, she will greet me with a platter of marrow-soaked fish eyes, crying with joy in her polyester pants.
That’s one fierce Bubbie. Grrrr.
Want more Mayim? Read about her take on extreme parenting, her Mormon husband, and having to be the parent that’s “not nice”.