Moms in the middle
Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions.
By Tova Hartman Halbertal. Harvard University Press, 193 pp., $29.95.
The place of honor on my office bulletin board goes to my favorite Roz Chast New Yorker cartoon, a page of "Bad Mom" trading cards. The women in this collection are hardly an edifying lot. Take, for example, the case of #61, one Deborah H.: this woman never even tried to make Play-Doh from scratch. Then there's #17, the infamous Gloria B., who promised to take her daughter to the mall after school--and then didn't. Even worse, readers may contemplate the moral depravity of #48, Suzie M., who let her kid play two hours of Nintendo just to get him out of her hair. The list goes sadly on. For a while I prided myself that I could name at least one "bad mom" transgression I hadn't fallen into--until that frazzled morning when I ran out of orange juice and found myself serving orange soda to my children instead. At that point I knew my ruin to be utter and complete.
Truly bad parenting is no joke, of course. The trading cards are amusing not because they make light of parental responsibility, but because they so cleverly expose the impossibly high standards of "good" mothering. Who among us has always been patient, always been selfless, always remembered to put up the St. Patrick's Day decorations? In real life, as countless Erma Bombeck anecdotes remind us, mothering is an art, not a science, an inelegant exercise in negotiation and compromise.
Consider then the case of women in religious traditions with little tolerance for disorder. How does one reconcile the approximate graces of motherhood with strict communal standards backed up by authoritative scripture? In her evocative and insightful study, Tova Hartman Halbertal, a lecturer in education at Hebrew University, probes this question in conversation with women from Orthodox Jewish and Roman Catholic backgrounds. Her subjects are articulate, well educated and firmly committed to faiths which make no bones about the divine origins of patriarchy. They are keenly aware of the many contradictions of their lives, situated at the nexus of feminist ideals and traditional religious practices. Above all, they are mothers who have cast their lot with the faiths they were born into, and who are determined that their daughters will do the same.