Monday, January 31, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Jewish Daughter

It has often been observed, notably by Toby Perlman (the wife of Jewish virtuoso violinist Itzhak) in this article, that the Chinese and the Jews share common values such as education, achievement, and strong ties to family. This has perhaps led to the assumption that the stereotypically Jewish mother is essentially the same thing as the stereotypically Chinese mother.

While I am quite pleased that the Jewish mother no longer solely occupies the "nutcase parent" place of honour in popular culture, this could not be further from the truth. And as I am pleased to report that I have just finished reading Amy Chua's much talked-about book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I feel perfectly equipped to discuss the differences between the two parenting styles. My understanding of "Chinese parenting" is taken from Ms. Chua's description of it.

So here are the differences:

1) Whereas the Chinese mother will not praise her child in public, the Jewish mother does nothing but praise and indeed boast about her child in public. The Jewish mother will frequently moan that she never sees her friends anymore, the reasons for which I will leave to your imagination.

2) The Chinese mother does not believe in over-the-top celebration of her child's achievements. The Jewish mother believes in over-the-top celebration of her child, never mind his achievements. I have often suspected, though of course have never been told, that non-Jews tend to raise their eyebrows at the extravagance of many Bar Mitzvah parties. While these non-Jews see the Bar Mitzvah as a flagrant celebration of the family's means, the Jewish mother sees it as a flagrant celebration of her child for which she need make no explanation or apology.

3) The Chinese mother is unconcerned with her child's happiness, assuming that it will come as a by-product of high achievement. Thus, if the Chinese child does poorly in school, his mother will berate him so that he knows better than to continue to do poorly. Conversely, the Jewish mother is obsessed with her child's happiness and actually considers herself to be his psychologist. Thus, if the Jewish child does poorly in school, his mother will ask him which girl he has a crush on and will wonder aloud whether he might fear large-scale social rejection, experience compulsions, or be inwardly suffering. Later that night, she will check the history on his computer. Obviously, he too knows better than to continue to do poorly.

Amy Chua sees herself as the quintessential Chinese mother, but I disagree. I think Ms. Chua, whose husband incidentally is Jewish, is equal parts Chinese mother and Jewish mother. Yes, she makes her daughter Sophia practice piano for hours and hours every day and threatens her if she puts up a fight, which is very Chinese mother. But then she tells you about the couture gown she bought 14-year-old Sophia for her Carnegie Hall debut, and how she rented a huge van to drive all of Sophia's classmates to watch her perform and planned an elaborate reception for them afterwards in the banquet room of a nearby hotel, and all of this is extremely Jewish mother.

But I guess both types of mothers would go to the ends of the earth for their child's well-being and feel they are experts on that subject, so perhaps the differences between them aren't that great after all.



  1. oh god this whole thing is so hilarious, but there are definitely many chinese mothers who cannot stop going on about their progeny, but IN THE DISGUISE OF COMPLAINING ABOUT THEM:
    "oh it's so hard, her teacher simply INSISTED we buy a top-end violin since only that will do justice to her quality of playing, but they never think about how we can afford it" or "she had to skip a grade and I worry about her leaving her friends behind" blah blah blah

    on this note you should definitely watch this if you have time:
    Simon Amstell is a comedian playing himself in a Seinfield-esque mini-series, it's all about him and his relationship with his Jewish family - one of the best things to come of this year in TV for me.

  2. Haha, thanks for sharing! That guy is like a really handsome British version of Seinfeld with a better nose and lots of hair. Is he single?

  3. Well, I've just looked him up on Wikipedia and he's gay. Of course.

  4. As the daughter of very hands-off parents I have always been secretly jealous of those with Jewish parents. I have known more than one Jewish guy over 30, living as far away from his mom as possible but still taking to her everyday and she would manage to know more about the details of his daily life than I think most moms know about children living under their roof! While I've often felt sorry (but also admiration) for Chinese friends who seem to place achievement above personal happiness, I continue to admire the way Jewish moms are involved with their kids. Although one thing I learned the hard way is NEVER go on a blind date with a Jewish guy based on his mom's appraisal on him. He may be a complete and utter a-hole but she will have painted him as a saint!

  5. I love this!

    I definitely had a bit of a tiger mother, and sadly, no lavish ANYTHING for me. We didn't even get birthday or Christmas presents.

  6. @Kristin: Ha, I think going on a blind date with anyone based on his mother's appraisal of him would probably be taking an unwise leap of faith.

    @eemusings (awesome name btw): But I'm sure you're very disciplined. Now go find yourself a Jewish spouse.

  7. Very interesting comparisons. I am Chinese myself and did not closely know a single Jew until I went to a high school in a very Jewish neighbourhood where all my friends were not surprisingly Jewish. I had a pretty deep conversation about this with one of my friends as we were having dinner on our vacation in the Dominican Republic but you brought up some very insightful points. Keep it up!