What’s in a day? The Human Spirit
Israel director of public
relations for American Women's Zionist Organization Hadassah Barbara Sofer
shares her insight into Mother's Day and International Women's Day.
Before International Women’s Day became prominent, there was Mother’s Day.
Americans associate Mother’s Day, which takes place on the second Sunday in
May in the US, with a spectacularly commercial holiday. A quarter of the fresh
flowers purchased all year are bought on Mother’s Day. About half go to the
shopper’s mother, a quarter to wives, and 17 percent to mothers-in-law! In
addition to the bouquets – bonbons, breakfasts and beauty treatments rank high
Despite the festivity of Mother’s Day, the holiday’s
origins are surprisingly somber. After the trauma of the Civil War, a woman
named Ann Jarvis suggested a day devoted to healing families divided by ideology
and battle lines, and to focus on bereaved moms in the North and the South. Her
daughter Anna (sic) Jarvis further promoted the day. Anna reputedly organized a
church service and wore a carnation, her mother’s favorite flower. The special
day was adopted by many other countries, and became official in the US in 1908.
That was three years before International Women’s Day. Often, Mother’s Day was
adapted to dovetail with previously existing religious holidays.
problems with seemingly innocuous Mother’s Day hail back to the fifth grade in
Colchester, Connecticut, where I grew up. Our teacher insisted that we copy a
Mary Dow Brine poem Somebody’s Mother from the blackboard, and present this gift
to our mothers.
Copying from the blackboard was never a beloved activity
for me. My handwriting was wanting; copying was tedious.
were instructed to paste the poem onto red construction paper and decorate the
margins. The paste was messy, the construction paper was too large to fit in the
schoolbag without folding, and the gift got hopelessly mangled.
Nonetheless, on Mother’s Day morning I came downstairs to breakfast and
presented this handiwork to my mother.
She read the first stanza aloud.
Somebody’s Mother ‘The woman was old and ragged and gray And bent with the
chill of the Winter’s day.’ With a motion I would later come to associate with
Chaim Herzog’s reaction to the “Zionism as Racism” resolution at the UN, she
tore the paper into shreds.
“Next time,” she said, without a smile.
“Write your own poem.”
Only after moving to Israel did I learn to
appreciate Mother’s Day once again.
Our Israeli Mother’s Day, now renamed
Family Day, is celebrated on the first of Adar (some say 30 Shvat). That’s the
anniversary of the death, what we call yahrzeit, of Henrietta Szold, a woman I
admired even before working for Hadassah, which she founded.
Szold (1860-1945) was the oldest daughter of Rabbi Benjamin and Rabbanit Sophie
Szold, who had moved from Austria-Hungary to Baltimore.
Like Ann Jarvis,
Henrietta Szold lived through the Civil War, and her earliest memories were
associated with it. The only Jew in her high-school class, she was also the
valedictorian, and recruited to begin teaching after graduation.
the time of mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to America, and
Baltimore was a major gateway. The polyglot Szold home became a gathering place
Szold recognized that citizenship and success in the US
required English skills. She set up a night school for immigrants, where she was
both teacher and principal, and it became a successful model throughout the US.
Later, after suffering a broken heart when immigrant scholar Louis Ginzberg
announced his engagement to someone else, Szold’s mother Sophie suggested a
recuperative voyage to restore her spirits. After visiting Jewish communities in
Europe, the two women were horrified by health conditions in prestate Israel.
Sophie Szold wept at the sight of flies gathering in children’s eyes. She
charged her daughter with changing the status quo. When they returned to the US,
Szold converted her women’s study group into the more pragmatic Hadassah, the
Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which remains the largest women’s
membership organization in the US until today.
Szold moved to prestate
Israel to nurture the nascent medical work. In her 70s (!) she took on
responsibility for organizing Youth Aliyah, started by Recha Freier in Berlin.
Szold personally met the boats of youngsters who arrived without parents from
They called her “Ima.” One such youngster, today a
great-grandfather, recalls being picked on at the kibbutz where he’d been
placed. He posted a letter outlining his sorrows to the only mother he had left
– Henrietta Szold. The following week, the diminutive figure of Miss Szold
appeared at the kibbutz. He never learned what she’d said to the kibbutzniks,
but he was never treated badly again.
In the US, Henrietta Szold is
recognized for her achievements along with women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa
Parks and Helen Keller in America’s National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New
York, a center of the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. I was there
for Szold’s posthumous induction in 2007, and was glad to see her name up there
with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Oprah Winfrey.
Israeli accolade seems more significant. Henrietta Szold never married, and
never had biological children.
Choosing her as the central figure of
Israeli Mother’s Day redefines parenthood.
That means that whether we
have given birth or not, all of us are responsible for children and for
protecting the next generation. Israeli Mother’s Day both rectifies prejudice
that might exist against women who have not had babies, and removes any excuses
for not ensuring a better future.
International Women’s Day – at first
called International Working Women’s Day – was begun by Clara Zetkin, leader of
Germany’s Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party and a close associate
of the famous revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. The choice of March 8 date is
reputedly arbitrary. Leon Trotsky suggested that women striking on that
previously established day gave birth to the Russian Revolution on Women’s Day
in 1917. In modern-day Russia, men celebrate International Women’s Day by – you
guessed it – buying flowers for the women in their lives.
countries, modern “Women’s Day” is more political and work-related than Mother’s
Day, highlighting the struggle for physical and emotional integrity and
advancement. Still, working women’s struggles cannot be divorced from the roles
we play as mothers and grandmothers.
The events listed on the official
internationalwomensday.com website offer potpourri of activities: literary
readings, political meetings, even cooking events.
At Harvard, there’s an
exhibit of women in law. In Kuwait, the oil company is hosting a nebulous
“Crystal Me” event that has been created with the aim “to replenish women from
the inside out.”
A hospital in Korea is offering free medical
consultations to women by Skype.
Oddly, there are no activities listed in
Israel. The Women’s Day activities here reflect those popular abroad. I once
found myself at odds with an Israeli prime minister who wanted to deliver
flowers to new mothers in the maternity department on International Women’s Day,
instead of honoring the achievements of women nurses and doctors.
still groping for a proper expression of both Mother’s Day and Women’s Day. The
two dates fall close together in Israel. Although we might think of Mother’s Day
as a time which might find us at a spa, and Women’s Day a time to be standing on
a picket line, they’re really not so different – particularly in a country where
Mother’s Day is associated with feminist Henrietta Szold. I suggest we come up
with a single day that’s really significant for women.
No copying from
the board this time.
Time to write our own poem.