Tag : Children

January 25, 2021 by

Honey on the Page

Yiddish children’s literature, created all over the world, largely during the period between the two world wars, includes writers who considered themselves secularists, and nevertheless shared stories about the magical aspects of keeping the Sabbath; as socialists they wanted to encourage workers not to let capitalists own them seven days a week. On the occasion of the publication of Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, editor and translator Miriam Udel, was interviewed by Laura Shaw-Frank, on the feminist underpinnings of her research on Yiddish children’s literature. Many female writers still did not have “a room of their own,” so there is a limit to the number of female authors she was able to include. But she highlights some iconic female protagonists such as Dovid Rodin’s Shprintse and Kadya Molodovsky’s Olka. This webinar was co-sponsored by JOFA, Maharat and Svivah.


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September 9, 2020 by

My Hair as a Metaphor

I lived trying to fit in. It was much more than “curly hair wasn’t in style back then.” It was: “You can’t exist.” It was: “Do not exist.” It was expressed as: “What’s wrong with your hair?” with the questioner trying not to laugh when asking.  

My hair was a problem to be solved. From inside and outside the walls of my house, my hair was a symbol of something larger that had nothing and everything to do with me.


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September 8, 2020 by

It’s the First Day of School. Institutions Are Failing Our Kids.

Parents of young children are masters at winging it. Scary movie? Apply some magical thinking and it qualifies as a comedy. Laundry to fold? Transform the chore into a game show. Healthy dinner? Add broccoli to boxed mac and cheese.

But few of us have had to wing it on such a huge scale. On a Sunday evening in mid-March, New York City public school families learned that school was to shut down beginning the next day, Monday, March 16. Like so many, my children went to school on a Friday and at the end of the day gathered a few belongings, bid goodbye to the teachers they loved and never set foot in their classrooms again.

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July 27, 2020 by

Relative Privilege in a World of Suffering

YAEL SCHONBRUN is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Brown University and a co-host of the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast.

Brandishing the Captain America shield we crafted out of duct tape and a Tupperware lid, my three-year-old proudly said, “Mommy, you will never be alone. I will always be protecting you.” I told him (very seriously) that I appreciated it.

Later, though, I half-joked to my husband that our son had just confirmed my deepest fear: I’ll never again have a moment alone.

In a larger world of suffering over health, economic crisis, and horrifying social injustices, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that pandemic working parenthood has been hard. Like many female co-parents with the more flexible job, I’ve taken on the bulk of parenting for our three boys. I yearn for a better choice than snippets of work time with three hyper bodies bouncing off the walls or getting work done after an exhausting day of parenting is done. I pine for rest and I fantasize about alone time.

At times I feel ashamed. I have no right to complain.

I am with my small superhero and his two big brothers, enshrined in my privilege of having a job, health, a stable residence, and White skin. But as I often tell patients who see me for therapy (virtually, now), pain doesn’t acknowledge hierarchy. If you stub your toe, it hurts. It hurts even if your neighbor has broken her leg. It hurts even if your neighbor has shattered his spine. To be sure, your neighbor isn’t likely to rush over to console your toe pain. But you don’t do yourself any favors by pretending your toe doesn’t hurt.

Pain—physical and emotional—is meant to be felt. Without pain, we can’t know when something has gone awry, we can’t determine what problems need to be addressed, and we are without a compass toward healing.

We need to open up to our pains, even as we contextualize them in the larger world. For parents during this time it means the weariness of never having a moment alone, the exhaustion of needing to work late into the night to make up for the day you spent parenting is real. The injustice of women taking on more childcare burden and suffering greater loss of work is real—as is the peril facing the long-neglected childcare industry which so many depend on, and the fear that gains in gender equality both at home and work will be undone if these trends continue.

All this is accompanied by the broader horror of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to Covid-19. And the horror of fellow humans being brutalized—yet again—by those meant to keep them safe.

All of this pain needs our thoughtful attention. If we are willing to let it in, that pain will teach us what matters to each of us, and to our society. And that clarity in “what matters” can become a superpower guiding us towards a better future.

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April 20, 2020 by

A Trans Boy and His Remarkable Parents

What We Will Become: A Mother, A Son, and A Journey of Transformation
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) tells two riveting stories of transformation, in alternating chapters of sublime prose. The first is that of the author, Mimi LeMay. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Israel and the U.S., she studied for years at Gateshead Seminary, the prestigious girls’ yeshiva in England, attended college in Boston and ultimately leaves behind her religious tradition, which she found stultifying, and demeaning to women. Though we may have read narratives of this sort before, the complicated details of Lemay’s own mystery-filled childhood feel very fresh.

The second story is the journey Mimi takes with Em, the pseudonym Lemay uses when referring to her child as female. Em was born a girl, but identifies strongly as a boy from the age of two. We join the loving and hyper-alert Mimi, her husband and her two other young daughters on the difficult journey they travel to help Em become Jacob a few months before his fifth birthday.

We understand that Mimi’s ability to see her child’s pain clearly and embrace the necessity for him to be himself, despite some social opprobrium, comes from her own journey away from Orthodoxy’s religious and social constraints. “Jacob my love, it is you that have transitioned us to a life less ordinary and so much more meaningful than it ever would have been. Thank you deeply for your sacred trust.” Mimi’s intent in making public this letter she wrote to her five-year-old son (and her expansion of it into this book) is to “provide comfort and strength to another mother or father with an aching heart. To provide this message. It doesn’t get better. It gets awesome.”

But do not imagine that this is a sickly-sweet portrait where everything goes smoothly. We are allowed to witness the internal confusion and despair that Mimi experiences in both of the transition stories she tells.

For Mimi, in her religious life, it is her mother, an Orthodox woman, who feels betrayed by her daughter’s choices. Their relationship, with some unexpected twists and turns shapes Mimi’s own responses as a mother. But I was most taken by Mimi’s words about her mother in the prologue:

“I am grateful for my mother, Judith. Ours is a complex love built on a complicated past, but I have no doubt that every choice she has made for her children has been true to her strong
moral compass and deep, abiding faith… I admire her. I remain wounded by her. She is a mystery I may never solve.” This description deserves its own book.

We also meet the naysayers who disagree with Mimi’s decisions about her child. Em’s loving older sister, Ella, worries about the kids who are not nice to Em, because Em is different and gender non-conforming. There is the child at a party who says “What is THAT?” pointing to Em. As Mimi explains to her daughter and to anyone who will listen, “What you are in your heart and your mind is far more important that what you are in your body.”

Early on in the journey, Mimi learns about the extremely high rate of suicide and attempted suicide in transgender youth; a recent study found that 51% of female-to-male transgender
adolescents report having attempted suicide. This fact is always with Mimi as she navigates a largely unmapped path, along with the indicators that a child’s gender transitioning is not some mere whim; the clue is that the expression of desire to be a different gender from that assigned at birth must be “insistent, persistent, and consistent.”

And then there are moments when the path is illuminated. On a family trip to Disney World, Jacob’s sisters dress as princesses, while he dresses as Prince Charming. All the Disney characters in the park see and accept him as a boy. He is elated, and for once seems comfortable in his own skin. When he is treated as a boy, his anger, his sadness, his twitchy gestures fade away. This trip, where nobody knows their child as a girl, reinforces for Mimi and her husband that the time has come to offer Em the choice to transition socially. Em becomes Jacob, starts to present as a boy outside his home, and switches to a new, supportive school. Not every child is so fortunate.

This book could not come at a more crucial time. In January 2020, the South Dakota House passed a bill that would fine or imprison pediatricians who offer gender-affirming care for trans children under the age of 16. Since then, conservative legislators in Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky have followed suit. Gender-affirming care, which is endorsed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics, supports children and their families in social transitioning (changing names, style of dress and pronouns) and offering puberty blocker medications at puberty. These medications are a reversible intervention, one that allows teens more time to confirm their identity and not experience the anguish resulting from developing secondary sex characteristics which feel alien to them. It appears the politicians in South Dakota haven’t yet read the medical literature, which shows that these interventions save lives. Children who are affirmed are much less likely to be depressed or attempt suicide. South Dakota is ground zero for this culture war, as it was the first state to pass legislation restricting transgender students’ bathroom rights. Fortunately, that bill was vetoed by the governor, but became the model for several other states where it became law.

I predict that What We Will Become will become a classic, one of those books that changes the way we, as a society, view the transgender experience, particularly the lived experience of
very young children and their families.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD., is a psychologist in private practice and the author of several articles and children’s books about developmental milestones in the Jewish family, including
When a Grandparent Dies and When the Hurricane Came. This review is dedicated to the memory of Jayme Schlenker.

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October 3, 2018 by

Interfere Less, Observe More

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.29.53 AMWith all eyes riveted on images of babies and toddlers separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and with thousands of these children placed in institutions or in last-minute foster-care arrangements, the patterns of caring for infants and children nearly 80 years ago have a lot to teach us today.

The images of crying refugee children accompanied 16 of us—parents and early childhood professionals from 10 countries—attending an annual weeklong seminar on how to best care for infants and toddlers at the Pikler House in Budapest, Hungary in June. It was my fifth year there. What keeps me coming back is the deep font of wisdom held by the experienced staff of this amazing place— wisdom that could well help U.S. officials now causing untold trauma to young children. 

Today a day care, research and training center, the Pikler House—known as Lóczy, after the street on which it is located— was established by the visionary Jewish pediatrician Emmi Pikler as a residential infants’ home right after World War II at the request of the city of Budapest. Over more than 60 years, it functioned as a home for 2500 orphaned infants and young children and those whose parents could not care for them. Pikler applied her path-breaking approach there, documented the life of the children in photos and films, conducted research and published scientific papers. A 1968 World Health Organization study found that children reared at Lóczy turned into well adjusted adults—a stunning outcome for children raised in orphanages. Following that study, Lóczy became known as a model orphanage, and at the request of the Hungarian government, its staff regularly visited other orphanages to train them in the Piklerian approach. 

What was so different about the way children at Lóczy were raised? What is it that keeps people—including seasoned professionals— from throughout the world flocking to the former mansion in the green hills of Budapest to learn Pikler’s approach?

The children at Lóczy were cared for with respect and sensitivity and were given the freedom to follow their own impulses in movement, play and exploration. This was in sharp contrast to babies in many other orphanages who were (and still are) kept in cribs all day, given bottles to drink by themselves, and roughly hurried through care routines. 

I encountered Pikler’s ideas 33 years ago when my firstborn, Ilana, was three months old. I had travelled from my home on New York’s Upper West Side to visit family in my hometown of Los Angeles. A friend’s mother had been holding Ilana, and before returning her to my hands, she turned to the baby, looked her in the eyes, and said, “I’m giving you back to your Mummy now.” Then she turned to my friend and said, “Did I do that right?” 

I was intrigued. It turned out my friend, Hari Grebler, was being trained by Emmi Pikler’s protégé Magda Gerber, who had founded Resources for Infant Educarers in Los Angeles. I visited the RIE Center, was inspired by what I saw and bought the only book on the Pikler approach that was then available in English. (Today, there are at least a dozen, including Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect by Magda Gerber; Respecting Babies: A New Look at Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach by Ruth Anne Hammond; and Baby Knows Best by Deborah Carlisle Solomon.) 

Pikler’s ideas resonated deep inside me and I started implementing them with Ilana and later with my two boys. Rather than trying to get care routines over with as fast as possible, I tried to slow down, connect with my babies and ask for their cooperation when I changed their diapers, bathed or dressed them. Whereas other moms around me strapped their babies into seats and swings and felt pressured to constantly entertain or stimulate their little ones, I gave mine lots of time on the floor to move and play freely. I saw that they were perfectly capable of and happy to stimulate and amuse themselves. The moms in my mother’s group would comment on how active Ilana was, not realizing that their babies, often propped up with cushions before they could sit on their own, were not free to move as they pleased in that position. Despite what I saw around me, I never sat them up before they could sit by themselves, or held their hands up to walk them before they walked on their own. I also didn’t interrupt their play. In short, I trusted that if my children got the love and attention they needed during care routines and at other times, they could be free during playtime to follow their own initiative. It would take them where they needed to go.

After we moved to Israel and once my youngest was old enough for me to leave home for a couple of weeks, I began traveling to Los Angeles and Budapest for training to become a parent educator in this approach. I wanted other parents to learn what I had learned and what felt so right. I’ve been teaching parent-baby classes inspired by the approach in Jerusalem since 2013. In August, I brought the first two-week RIE® Foundations™ training to Tel Aviv.

Who Was Emmi Pikler?

Born Emilie Madleine Reich in Vienna in 1902, Pikler was the only child of an Austrian mother and Hungarian father who moved with her to Budapest when she was six. Her mother, a kindergarten teacher, died when she was 12, a development that may have influenced her choice of profession and her passionate commitment to orphaned children. Her father, an artisan who manufactured baking implements, was, “a believer with a kippah,” according to his granddaughter, psychologist Anna Tardos. 

Pikler attended medical school in her native Vienna during the 1920s, a time rich with post-World War I reformist ideas. She was influenced by the confluence of Marxism, psychoanalysis, the back-to-nature movement and the new education movement, which had roots in the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. That movement aimed for social change through education, saw children as equals and influenced Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Janusz Korczak. Pikler had the good fortune to be trained by doctors who saw the child as a whole person to be treated with respect. 

When she began her private medical practice in Budapest in 1935, Pikler was more interested in promoting healthy physical and emotional development than in curing illnesses and, according to Tardos, her patients were rarely ill. During weekly home visits (as a Jew in Hungary, she was already prohibited from working in a hospital or other institution), Pikler advised parents to interfere less and observe more. She taught them to have a predictable rhythm to the day, enable their babies to move and play freely and to respect the children’s developmental timetable. She asked them to take their time during the caregiving routines, to respond to the child’s signals, to tell the child what they were doing each step of the way and to ask for the child’s cooperation. “I want to put your shirt on. Can you give me your hand?” She encouraged parents to follow the child’s lead when he moved and played during caregiving. 

At the basis of Pikler’s philosophy is the view of a baby as a person. Of course a baby is person! you may be thinking. But how many times have you seen a parent or caregiver approach a baby and, without first saying a word about what is about to happen, simply scoop him up from behind and carry him to the changing table? Would we ever treat an adult so cavalierly? 

Pikler encouraged her patients and caregivers to approach the child, see what he is doing, tell him she is going to change his diaper, hold out her hands to pick him up and wait for a response. She saw diapering and other care routines as critical components to building the parent/caregiver-child relationship and the child’s sense of security and confidence. Rather than something to be gotten through, the care routines were seen as golden opportunities for connection. Indeed, her principles of free movement and play were dependent on conducting the daily care routines of bathing, diapering, dressing, feeding and putting to sleep in a manner that was enjoyable for the infant and that deepened the relationship between him and his caregiver. In addition to this kind of quality time contributing to emotional stability and growth, Pikler sensed what research later proved: that social/emotional relations affect brain development. Indeed, psychologist and neuroscientist, Natasha Khazanov PhD, associate clinical professor at UC San Francisco, called Pikler “an incredible visionary (who was) ahead of her time.”

Pikler’s ideas went against prevailing child-rearing practices. She was opposed to binding babies in seats or other contraptions; placing them in positions they could not get into themselves; entertaining them constantly; jiggling toys in front of them; hanging mobiles over their heads and teaching them how to sit, walk and play. 

“Dr. Pikler came out vehemently against the prevailing view of our time: to do with the baby what the adult wants—to dance with him, to sing to him, to throw him up in the air; to teach him to sit, to teach him to speak,” says Yardena Avi-Dor, who was a student of Pikler’s in the Seminary for Mothers and Teachers in Budapest in 1943. “She advocated letting the baby do what he wants at his own pace and not to struggle over food or toilet training.” 

Although she was Jewish, and the Nazis were on Hungary’s doorstep, Avi-Dor said 1943 was the best year of her life. 

“Europe was at war. We had no hope, no horizons,” Avi-Dor told Lilith. “But every one of the 23 Jewish girls in my class remembered it as the happiest year of her life. It changed our relationship with ourselves. Emmi Pikler turned our worldview on its head. I wasn’t the only one who had a stern, punishing mother, and suddenly we could breathe, we got respect. We grew up…She gave us back our childhood confidence.”

Training Jewish Girls — And Saving Them

I found Avi-Dor through a Google search in Hebrew for “Emmi Pikler.” She had been one of dozens of girls trained as caregivers by Pikler during World War II. In 1940, Pikler already had a reputation as an outstanding pediatrician and was well known through her popular Hungarian book on child-rearing (“What Can the Baby Already Do?”; in German, Peaceful Babies, Contented Mothers). That’s when Rabbi Dr. Imre Benechowki asked her to organize the curriculum and recruit teachers for the seminary he founded in response to the government’s almost total ban on Jewish high school graduates attending university. The seminary, which met in a basement on Tigris Street, was sponsored by the Jewish community of Buda and authorized by the Ministries of Education and Religion. Each year from 1940 to mid-1944, about 25 Jewish girls were trained at the seminary. One of them, Judit Falk, went on to become a pediatrician and directed Lóczy after Pikler retired.

I’m speaking to Avi-Dor, now in her late 80’s, in a café in downtown Jerusalem. White-haired and walking now with a cane, she is excited to be sharing memories from this formative time in her life.

“I could talk about what I learned from Pikler forever,” she said. “It’s as if there is a box in my head full of ancient treasures and suddenly the box opens and its contents spill out and I can’t stop the flow.” 

Indeed, Avi-Dor remembers her training in great detail. She said the charismatic Pikler hired the best teachers of education, psychology, movement, crafts, philosophy, drawing, classical music and gardening—and even a teacher of children’s songs. And she taught there herself. She required that those of her students who had unresolved issues with their parents undergo psychoanalysis so they wouldn’t unconsciously act out their issues with the children who would be in their care. 

“My mother called me bad, ugly, stupid,” said Avi-Dor. “The therapy saved me. I was allowed to feel what I felt. I began to accept myself.” 

Pikler had definite views and not only about child rearing. “She wouldn’t allow us to take notes during class,” Avi-Dor said. “We were to listen, to look at the lecturer and only later at home, to write down what we remembered.” Avi-Dor continued this practice in her university and graduate studies in Israel. 

The Hungarian seminary’s curriculum included progressive elements such as the movement education of “bodywork” pioneer, Elsa Gindler, whose work on sensory awareness influenced Wilhelm Reich, the radical physician, psychoanalyst and body therapy pioneer. Some of what went on in that seminary in the 1940’s resembles today’s hippest yoga studios. “Our exercise teacher, Lili Edelstein, said ‘Listen to the body, the body speaks’,” said Avi-Dor. “She taught us to lie down on the floor and relax, to pay attention to the breath.” 

Forced to close the seminary in May 1944—six weeks after the Nazis invaded Hungary—Pikler used her connections with high officials to ensure that her students were hidden and/or given false papers if they weren’t spirited out of the country to safety. 

“Emmi was very much in demand as a doctor, especially by government ministers, the aristocracy, members of parliament, all the big Nazis,” said Avi-Dor. “She was famous—a German speaking doctor with new methods. She used her connections to send everyone she could to safety. She placed my friend, who studied in the seminary the year before me, as a nanny at the home of the Hungarian justice minister, who had been her patient. Like the others, Osnat had forged papers.” 

When asked if Pikler herself had forged the papers, Avi-Dor proudly said, “We did,” referring to her fellow progressive Zionist youth movement comrades. (Avi-Dor escaped Hungary with her youth movement in 1944 and reached Israel the same year.) 

“We had two methods,” she continued. “The boys pretended to be drivers or warehouse workers and would steal blank documents from Interior Ministry warehouses. We girls would fill out the certificates and stamp them with the stamp of the Jewish National Fund. The police didn’t check that carefully. If they had, they would have realized… The smarter girls would stand in line at the Interior Ministry behind a person declaring a death and asking for the right forms, and listen for the name. It takes time to issue a death certificate and in the meantime, they would go to another department and ask for that person’s birth certificate.” 

Two former patients provided false documents for Pikler, her daughter, Anna, and her husband’s parents (her husband was a political prisoner at the time). Anna acted as a nanny in one of the families and Pikler pretended to be a governess in the second family’s home. By October, Pikler had arranged for her daughter to join her in the home in which she was hiding. “I wasn’t allowed to call her Mommy,” Tardos recalled. The Piklers survived the war and continued living in Budapest.

Pikler’s Influence

Word of the work being done at Lóczy began to spread outside of Hungary in the 1970’s. Inspired by a visit, French psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Myriam David and psychologist Geneviève Appell, wrote Lóczy: An Unusual Approach to Mothering in 1973, which spread Pikler’s ideas around the world. In the documentary film, “Lóczy, a Place to Grow” by Bernard Martino, David calls the caregivers there “angels serving humanity.” Indeed, we see the caregivers in the film providing care with exquisite attunement and even joy. (I saw the same attuned, sensitive, joyful care when I observed at Lóczy in 2007.) To achieve this extraordinary level of care, Pikler fired the experienced caregivers she had initially hired who were too set in their ways to learn a new approach, and engaged inexperienced high school graduates from the countryside who loved babies. Each of them went through a rigorous training and shadowing process, as do the caregivers at the Lóczy day care center today. 

Today, Pikler’s influence is international, with the late Princess Diana’s niece, among thousands of others, being raised according to her principles of free movement, autonomous play and mindful caregiving. Over the years, thousands of early childhood professionals and parents from dozens of countries have flocked to Lóczy to observe and to attend training sessions and seminars. Others learn about the approach from the many books and films produced by Lóczy and RIE. Among Pikler devotees are many Waldorf and Montessori early childhood teachers. They say the Pikler approach is congruent with their philosophies and fills in the crucial birth to age three gap, which is not the focus of the other two approaches. 

Says Liz Hagerman, a therapist, Pikler student and Waldorf teacher in Washington, D.C.: “Pikler is the ‘how to’ for Steiner’s ideas about supporting the development and well-being of the child from birth to three. It’s a perfect complement.” Pikler students who are Montessori trained agree, adding that both approaches emphasize respect for the child, self-initiated activities in a prepared environment and the importance of observation in enabling adults to understand and empathize with young children. 

A growing number of day care centers—including in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and even Israel—are also adopting Pikler’s recommendations. Her emphasis on primary caregiving and continuity of care (that is that children stay with the same caregiver throughout their day care years and that one caregiver be primarily responsible for each child) is finally being adopted by national early childhood organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

There is, however, some misunderstanding in many articles and blogs; it is simply incorrect that Pikler advised against picking up a crying child or singing or playing with one’s children.

Changed My Mothering

“I encountered Pikler’s ideas when my firstborn was an infant and they dramatically changed the trajectory of my mothering,” said Countess Karen Spencer, the late Princess Diana’s sister-in-law and one of People Magazine’s “25 women changing the world.” 

“It was liberating to learn that my daughter could have time to explore on her own and that so long as I was really present during caregiving, it was okay for me to be getting on with everyday tasks in between those moments of togetherness. It was a framework that allowed me to cope with the 24/7 nature of motherhood. It took the pressure of constant perfection off and unlocked a very natural and connected relationship.” Inspired by what she learned, Spencer founded Whole Child International in order to improve conditions in childcare institutions around the world, using Pikler’s approach as her basic philosophy. 

Emmi Pikler directed Lóczy for 33 years and continued to lecture and to conduct research and consultations after her retirement until shortly before her death in 1984. While she was invited to Israel by Feldenkrais practitioners, she never made it there. A handful of Israeli early childhood professionals, including Miri Keren, M.D., former president of World Association for Infant Mental Health, director of the Geha Infant Mental Health Unit and a lecturer at the Sackler Medical School, have traveled to Lóczy for trainings. Keren, who also is the consulting psychiatrist to a residential baby home in Tel Aviv, says, “This approach facilitates growth and well-being in infants, teaches parents to observe without intruding or overstimulating and is a tool for prevention. A number of these principles have been implemented in an Israeli residential nursery with positive impact on both infants and caregivers.” 

Now widowed and living in a nursing home near her grandchildren in Jerusalem, Avi-Dor is gratified that Pikler’s ideas have spread around the world and that there are more than 450 mothers in a Pikler Facebook group in Israel, dozens who have participated in Pikler-inspired parent-child classes there and several Tel Aviv preschools that work to implement the approach. 

“My studies with her were worth more than everything I learned in teachers’ seminary here in Israel, or at university for my master’s degree,” said Avi-Dor. “If not for Emmi, I could never have done what I did—working in special education with juvenile delinquents and being able to honor their spirit, to give them respect and a sense of security. 

“It was the experience of my life.” 

Ruth Mason is a journalist and certified parent educator living in Jerusalem. She works at Shatil and blogs at timesofisrael.com.


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September 6, 1976 by

The High Price of “Failure”

Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her within the gates. (Proverbs 31:31)

If anyone needs to be convinced of the urgent necessity for re-evaluating our sex roles, let her spend a week at a Jewish family service agency. The following observations stem from the writer’s experience over a 7-year period working as a psychiatric social worker in two such agencies in two medium-sized cities.

Women’s liberation has tended to ignore the particular group of women that form the clientele of such agencies. I have yet to be at a meeting where there is talk about organizing the lower middle class wives of husbands who have not moved fast enough in the intensely upwardly mobile urban Jewish culture. Yet, many of the women from this group have had their lives profoundly stunted by rigid Jewish notions of male and female roles. The Jewish mother has been seen as pure grotesque; it is about time we see her as victim as well as vampire.

First, a word about the husbands who come to Jewish family service agencies. Most of the men whom I have interviewed over the years see themselves as occupational failures. They are working, but not at jobs that give them the necessary status that the Jewish culture demands that they have. They work as taxi drivers, salesmen, small store owners in stores that are not doing very well, harassed high school teachers who must take a night job to make ends meet, mechanics, factory workers, and so on. (The reason social workers see such people is simple. If they were more “successful,” they would have the money to go to a higher status, more expensive kind of mental-health treatment, from analysis, to a week at Esalen.)

These men exhibit a profound sense of failure. They literally sag under the enormous pressures on Jewish males to succeed in this country. Given their culture, they are not mensches, they are schleps and they know it. They have not excelled in some intellectual endeavor, or they are not a success financially. “There goes my son, the doctor,” “that’s no profession for a nice Jewish boy,” are gag lines they have been weaned on, gag lines that give the clear message of the kind of financial and intellectual standards that are expected. The South American machismo is mild compared to the machismo pressure they have received.

This pressure, has, of course, produced some remarkable results. The Jews are the great American success story, and their rise has been phenomenal. 1 was struck by the fact that almost every husband I worked with had a close relative who was described as having made it in some visibly distinguished way. One constantly heard, for example, of “my brother, the surgeon,” or “my nephew who just got into Harvard.”

What this does to a man who has not “made it” in the merciless terms of the Jewish culture is obvious. It does not come as much of a surprise, that a man selling shoes while his brother is a famous doctor should be filled with self-contempt. However, the question rarely asked is, what happens to the women under these circumstances?

The wife is operating under two commandments, considerably more crucial than the first ten she was given. The first is that her “success” identity must come primarily from what her husband does. Second, under no circumstances is she to be allowed to be vocationally more successful than her husband.

It is clear that although wives are applauded for standing behind their husbands, they had better not be seen standing in front of them. Thus a wife needs a successful husband, simply to have room to maneuver in.

If no such person is available, the trap begins to close, and it closes in a very specific way. If the culture tells the wife that the normal way of achieving identity is through what her husband does, then his career, or lack of one, must become an all-consuming concern for the wife. As she exists in a culture where enormous success demands are made, this becomes even more paramount.

However — and this is the terrible catch — the woman cannot achieve this goal for herself. Her culture tells her that she must work through her husband to get her status in the community. Thus, if the husband is “unsuccessful,” the wife must do everything to help him to do better.

And lo, the famous Jewish woman emerges, the shrew, the bitch, the nag, the schemer. Everything is tried by these women, except the one thing that might take some real pressure off, that is, to find one’s own way somewhat apart from the husband. These wives are aware of the kind of angry, nagging people they are turning into. They are frightened, and often filled with self-hate. Anger and disappointment with the husband inevitably follow, for the one avenue sanctioned by society for the wife to walk forward on is being blocked by him. So she nags, suffers and hopes and hopes, more often than not becoming ultimately bitter.

In the last resort, the wife sometimes turns to the only other glory allowed, that is, the reflected glory of the sons. If this turn toward the son and away from the husband is made, the wife’s contempt for the husband is often increased. There are few more painful and debilitating emotions to live with than contempt for one’s husband, and the wife begins to feel like the monster that she is often portrayed as. No caricature of the Jewish mother can match the actual self-mocking, self-hating descriptions that a social worker hears daily at a Jewish family service agency. (The havoc that this wreaks in the son, as he wins the oedipal battle, is a horrifying, but better known story.)

I was struck by many wives’ attempts to make their families intellectual. Since Judaism emphasizes the importance of the mind the book, the “love of reading” in the modern Jewish family is something that is generally felt to give high status. I often heard a wife complain bitterly that her husband never read. She would then follow with an elaborate strategy of how she was trying to make him read more. This involved buying books, joining book clubs, nagging, screaming at him, and so on. The same kinds of strategies were used with the children.

However, when I asked if she liked to read, or was making any effort to read more, more often than not, the answer was no. The crucial fact was that the wife did not feel that my question was relevant. Her activity could not define her family as an intellectual family, only her husband or perhaps her children could do that. Therefore, she felt powerless to define herself and act on her own behalf. Once this sense is taken away, one’s real ability for true growth, change and health is severely crippled.

A look at the greatest play written by a 20th-century American Jew is enlightening in this regard. Willie Loman, in Death of a Salesman, is a recognizable person to any social worker in a Jewish family agency, although Arthur Miller chooses not to label him as Jewish. Willie is absolutely obsessed by his own failure. He is eager for his sons to make the success that he didn’t. He even has the typically successful older brother who haunts him. One has the feeling that Miller conjured Willie out of the guts of his own experience.

Not so with Mrs. Loman. She is all Loving Concern. She is never angry, never ambivalent, never contemptuous, always understanding. She always sides with the husband against the sons. She is maternal strength, the female rock. She sits there, sewing her torn stockings, offering comfort. And as she does so, she is driving Willie closer and closer to suicide. I do not think that Miller meant to make that point. I think he was much more interested in a more general statement about false American standards, than with female and male roles. But Miller was perceptive enough to have Willie tortured by his wife’s life-long suffering.

Linda Loman is portrayed as a totally sympathetic romanticized figure. One has the feeling of a Jewish boy writing his fantasy of what a good gentile wife should be. One could not find two more different wives, for example, than Mrs. Loman, and Mrs. Portnoy. These two women came from the pens of two of our finest Jewish writers, and it comes as no surprise that the bad wife is Jewish, the good wife, gentile.

Miller never suggests that Linda play an alternative role, as he suggests for Willie. The play is rightly entitled Death of a Salesman, not The Life of a Salesman’s Wife. Miller has Linda suggest that if Willie had done something else — grow things in the earth, for example — he might have been a happier man. But Miller never suggests that if Linda had not been such a giving, long-suffering wife, had not lived entirely for and through her husband, she might have been happier and Willie might not have had to commit suicide.

The second commandment our Jewish wife lives by, “Thou shalt not be more successful than thy husband,” is obeyed by many women by doing volunteer work. In a culture in which “you get what you pay for,” the unpaid wife can feel that she is not a real threat to her husband.

However, many of the women I have interviewed feel excluded from this kind of activity because even the volunteer position is dependent on the status of the husband. The facts of Jewish life arc that if one’s husband has little status or power to give, the wife often feels unwanted on the Board, the Sisterhood, etc., and tends to stay home. Her resentment is aimed at her husband who is unable to give her the entree, rather than at the system that tells her that her ticket of admission to the voluntary activity can only come from him.

A possible second route the wife can take is to go and get a paying job. Often wives have little education that prepares them to do anything but boring and low-paid work. Despite or perhaps because of the frequent real financial need of the family, even this kind of job is sometimes seen by the wife as a threat to the husband’s masculinity. The wife’s concerns about hurting her husband’s already much beleaguered sense of self, are invariably mixed with anger and contempt for the man she now regards as her feeble partner.

An even more difficult problem comes when the wife wants to plan a more ambitious career for herself, one that will enable her to develop and grow in a world of outside work. Here, the second commandment, “thou shalt not surpass thy husband in money, prestige, or job satisfaction,” has devastating results. For if one’s husband has a job in which he feels successful, this enables the woman to develop without fear of surpassing him. If, on the other hand, as in these families, the husband has little job satisfaction of either a financial, intellectual or status nature, the woman feels her space for growth painfully limited. I have observed an amazing variety of cop-out strategies that wives use to prevent any really constructive vocational development for themselves. After the cop-out often comes resentment against the husband, physical symptoms, profound depression and a feeling of being dead inside.

All in all, it is not a pretty picture. But sex oppression it is, and it’s about time we begin to look at it.

Mary C. Schwartz is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, State University of New York at Buffalo. She has taught Social Work there for six years, and has published numerous articles on the subject of casework issues concerning women. Before teaching, she practiced for seven years at Jewish Family Service agencies in two different cities. She is married and has two children.

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