I've had five motherless Mother's Days but this is my first childless one in over twenty years. Joe College leaves tonight for a month in Austria. Spuds is enjoying his first spring in Annandale. Himself’s annual quip, which never gets old (for him) is “You're not MY mother.” My only wish for Mother's Day is that the spawn take the time, using those expensive phones that I pay for, to at least text me. HPPY MTRS DY will be just fine. Who am I to expect vowels?
Until the kids flew the coop my office was a refuge from trails of pungent garments, stacks of sticky dishes and a throbbing sub-woofer. Now that the house is orderly and quiet I beat the traffic and return home after lunch and work from there. Watching Judge Judy with a bowl of popcorn every afternoon has become sacrosanct. When were we in London and I turned on the telly. There was Judy, in her lacy collar, chewing out a brainless miscreant. I was pretty stoked.
My own mother was quick witted and had a wicked sense of humor. Then she grew so ravaged by dementia that her ability to form coherent words faded. Towards the end, she knew that I was a person that she was glad to see, but my name and relationship eluded her. Still, when she saw me something primal kicked in. She examined me and then snapped, “You should color your hair.” Later, when I rose to leave, more clear words slipped out of some ancient repository, “Drive carefully.”
I feel guilty that after serving for years on the temple board of directors that I've devolved into a High Holiday Jew (and not even the second day of Rosh Hashanah). My drift from organized Judaism doesn't make me any less the stereotype, perhaps even a cartoon, of a Jewish mother. When Spuds reports a fever and runny nose I spend hours attempting to locate a Hudson Valley purveyor of chicken soup willing to make a dormitory delivery. A totally futile effort, but despite the lack of Jewish penicillin, the child miraculously survives.
This nearly pathological over protectiveness ironically goes hand in hand with another trait often ascribed to a Jewish mother. I yell. When the same child who recovered from his first away-from-Mom cold exhausts our cellular data plan, doing God knows what, on the aforementioned expensive phone, instead of studying at the expensive college which we make many sacrifices in order for him to attend, I have no compunction about giving the lad a piece of my mind.
I grew up in a house with lots of yelling but also Christmas trees and frilly dress Easters. My parents were Depression kids and had a conflicted relationship with Judaism. They believed that Jews were smarter than everyone else but I was admonished never to admit to being Jewish. My mother would hiss “Yid!” derisively when, what she referred to as an M.O.T., engaged in a behavior around gentiles that she deemed Jewish-ish. Like bargaining. My mother, of course, was a habitual bargainer but in her own mind's eye she herself negotiated so charmingly that it was beguiling and not the least bit Jew-y. However, if you dated a guy who needed you to co-sign for a car loan or whose deli order was ham with mayo on white bread and a Coors you had a “goyishe kopf.”
The legacy of centuries of persecution seemed to confer to my mom and dad a license to bend the rules a little. Well, as much as necessary. This is not an indictment of my hard working parents. I attended college on their many dimes. I was raised with ample food and in a beautiful home. But I was taught that exaggerating an insurance claim or using fuzzy math on a tax return is the American Way. Others share my experience that in a household with parents who'd experienced hunger and discrimination, expediency usually trumps ethics. Then in college they made me read Martin Buber. For the rest of the world, there's Judy.
I confess about my Judy infatuation to a friend. “But she's so mean,” is her reaction. “Not really,” I respond. “You just haven't watched enough reality TV. It's just a form of theater.” As Judge Judy, Judith Sheindlin plays a version of herself. Some of the disputes she hears are legitimate, as the production staff combs small claims court filings. Other potential litigants write into the show directly, mainly regarding family disputes. The tacit bargain is that litigants and witnesses get a free trip to Hollywood and the production company pays for any damages that Judy awards. Claimants are typically familiar with reality show conventions. Entertainment value is priority one. Litigants perform accordingly. The quid pro quo is that in exchange for travel and remuneration, disputants are required to subject themselves to the sting of Judy's acid tongue.
Recently a defendant, having caused an accident while uninsured, is unable to purchase a car himself without showing proof of expensive liability insurance. He registers his car in his girlfriend's name. Judy practically blows a gasket explaining why this is wrong but the man is truly baffled. Judy goes apoplectic when recipients of Social Security Disability have surfing accidents or indolent boyfriends are supported by way of a girlfriend’s child support payments. Even if unwitting, attempts to “work the system” raise Judy’s hackles. Her quips and one-liners keep the audience engaged but her challenge to the perception that the government and society are separate from people's actual lives and not deserving of respect or allegiance must resonate. The show is Sheindlin's bully pulpit. While Judy rakes in a bundle she metes out subliminal civics lessons.
In addition to providing her millions of viewers a palatable course in Ethics 101, Judy advocates for fierce parenthood. As ruthless as she can be with adult litigants she is consistently a champion for children. Even if it isn't necessarily germane to a ruling, Judy never misses an opportunity to caution the audience not to make babies unless they're financially and emotionally prepared to care for them. And as far as Judy is concerned, parenthood is a life sentence. A mother is suing her adult son for repayment of his hospital bills. Judy is irate. “You're his mother. You're supposed to pay for things like this.” She often illustrates her philosophy of parenthood with personal anecdotes.
My own children have taken my cars and had accidents. Once, one of my sons went over an embankment into a ditch; then he told me that the earth opened up because of severe rain, that was how the car slid down the roadside. Needless to say, that story didn't work; but I didn't SUE him, either.
Judy's quick wit and sparky vitriol has made the show one of the most popular daytime programs in history. While pop psychology has taught us that guilt is something to transcend, Judy and Jewish mothers since the beginning of time, know that guilt is actually an indispensable tool. A recent survey shows that Americans trust Judge Judy more than any of the justices on the Supreme Court. While she seems harsh sometimes, it makes me proud that Judy is face of Jewish motherhood all over the world
I still hear my mother’s critical/loving voice all the time. I presume that the fear of my wrath at least influences my children to make smart decisions. I hope that their sureness of my love encourages them make brave ones. Judy reminds me of the mother I miss and the mother I should be. Judith Sheindlin is the surrogate Jewish mother to the world. For millions of viewers she plants the suggestion that if you act stupidly you risk being screamed at and made to feel guilty. But your mom will always love you. Even if you forget to text her on Mother's Day.