Mother’s Day, Jews, and Jews for Jesus
The most obvious connection between Jews and Mother’s Day would seem to lie in perennial jokes about Jewish mothers (think of the scene in Woody Allen’s film where his mother appears to him in the sky). Or maybe in riffing Saddam Hussein’s “the mother of all ….” (fill in the blank; think of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon of a guy delivering the “mother of all pizzas” to Saddam’s war room).
But a look at the history behind Mother?s Day in the United States suggests another direction. Apparently, the U.S. version of Mother’s Day first got off the ground about 1870, when Julia Ward Howe issued her Mother’s Day Proclamation. Howe is best known as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Whatever her sentiments were when she penned that song, a dozen years later she was an activist, protesting battlefield deaths, calling on other mothers to join her. Both a war protest for moms and a positive celebration of peace, by 1873 some eighteen cities were observing the day on June 2.
It failed to catch on permanently, but the slack was picked up by Anna Reeve Jarvis of West Virginia. Her “mother?s day” was meant to reunite families separated by the Civil War.
Finally, Anna’s daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the day both to remember her own activist mother and to promote peace. This time, amid much agitation on Jarvis’ part, things took hold. Starting with a few churches, then spreading to state recognition, the day finally became a national holiday, under Woodrow Wilson’s signature, in 1914.
Alas, as the holiday became more and more mainstream, Jarvis’ activism took on a new turn, as she came to oppose what she considered commercialization: the sale of flowers on Mother’s Day, or the issuance of a postage stamp with the image of her mother. TIME magazine covered her in 1938. She trademarked Mother’s Day; she became reclusive and cantankerous.
Today, of course, Mother’s Day is about as far as you can get from activism. It’s become a huge industry built on sentimentalism. Just try getting into a restaurant on Mother’s Day.
(By the way, here’s a test to see if you’re really on board with Mother’s Day: do you feel pangs of guilt when you shop for a card at the last minute and can’t find one that actually says, “Dear Mom,” full of sappy poetry? And you have to settle for “To a Special Person—May you have a most pleasant Mother’s Day?”)
So what’s all this have to do with Jews, or with Jews for Jesus? In the near future, we’ll be addressing the issue of activism on the pages of our Havurah publication (link to Havurah main page) a quarterly newsletter for Jewish believers in Jesus. One talking point we’ll be raising is that activism — for all kinds of causes —has had a long history, surging in the 60s and now seeing a renewal among the current generation of young people. Yet interestingly, whereas previous generations of Jewish believers in Jesus felt as free to speak to other Jews about Jesus as they did about disarmament, labor strikes, or women’s suffrage, it’s different today. People are happy to get “in your face” over global warming or AIDS in Africa, with a full barrage of viral videos, indie films, and Bono-level music stars to get out the word. But in speaking to Jews about faith in Jesus — or for that matter, anybody about Jesus —persuasion is wrong, insensitive and offensive. Activism now comes with a laundry list of what’s acceptable to be an activist about, and what isn’t. But shouldn’t discussions on faith be at home in the world of activism, where creative persuasion and issue-raising are to be found?
Mother’s Day went from a day with a message to a commercialized day of cards and eating out. (I confess I do send a nice card and gift to my own mother, but you get the point.) In the spirit of the original Mother’s Day — raising issues and rallying for a cause — Jews for Jesus invites Jewish mothers and everyone else to enter the conversation about Jesus.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.