Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother


In a book that began as a mother's heartfelt letter to her college-bound son and daughter, the author of "The Jewish Family Book" offers a volume filled with hard-won wisdom and life lessons.
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In a book that began as a mother's heartfelt letter to her college-bound son and daughter, the author of "The Jewish Family Book" offers a volume filled with hard-won wisdom and life lessons.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Strassfeld's newest book of homespun wisdom (she coauthored three editions of The Jewish Catalog) grows out of the mini-books she compiled as gifts for two of her college-bound kids as a kind of "armor/treasure to take on [their] journey." In the three sections ( "Know where you come from..."; "Know where you are going..."; "And before whom you will one day stand in judgment..."), Strassfeld attempts to help readers navigate difficult questions of faith and identity through family lore, anecdotes, advice and even recipes imparted in catchy one-liners as well as longer, more thoughtful pieces. Her family stories reflect the importance of being a mensch--to be generous and not to hold grudges. She advises her kids to perform active volunteer work rather than sit on boards; to realize that interesting people exist in all walks of life; and to participate in the raising of their own children. While her "Basic Life Rules" invoke universals ("Take care of your body," "Trust your instincts," etc.), her advice remains grounded in traditional Jewish life. Strassfeld encourages people to form personal relationships with Israel and lets her children know that in searching for a mate, her bottom line is "no intermarriage." While Strassfeld's writing doesn't always transcend idiosyncrasy, her rough-hewn charm and honesty are often as comforting as a bowl of hot soup. (Aug.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684847252
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 7/7/1998
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 7.35 (h) x 0.69 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter 1

My mother told me this story once when I was young. I asked her how she could tell that her mother loved her. The reason I asked my mother this is that my bubbee (grandmother), Chai-Raizel, was a very strong woman. She could be very dictatorial, critical, and even abusive to her children (although she was never that way to me -- I adored her). Because of Chai-Raizel's constant criticisms, I could never understand how my mother was sure she was loved. She told me that she found out her mother loved her once when she was a little girl, and she never forgot it. What happened was this. Upstairs from where my mother lived as a girl lived a woman named Mrs. Hominoff. Mrs. Hominoff had an only son. One day, when a hurricane was predicted and the foul weather had already begun, Mrs. Hominoff called my mother upstairs and asked her to go to the store. My mother went to the store and delivered the groceries to Mrs. Hominoff. When my mother returned home, Chai-Raizel asked her where she had been. She explained that Mrs. Hominoff had sent her to the store for groceries. My grandmother marched upstairs and demanded to know why Mrs. Hominoff had sent her daughter Ruchel to the store in the rain. My mother listened in the stairwell and heard Mrs. Hominoff explain to my grandmother that since my grandmother had four daughters, all, thank God, healthy, and since she herself had only one son, she had asked Ruchel to go. At this, my grandmother drew in her breath sharply and answered with a fierce anger: "Mrs. Hominoff, I don't have four daughters. I have only one daughter. I have one Libbe, one Ruchel, one Miriamele, and one Yette. So the next time you need something from thestore, never again send my one daughter!"

In our family, to this day, we never walk around the house in socks without shoes. We consider this to be a sign of mourning (because a mourner is not allowed to wear leather and so could often be found during shiva in socks without shoes). When I would slip up occasionally as a child, my bubbee, Chai-Raizel, who was never stern with me, would reprimand me firmly.

My mother used to endure our good-natured teasing about her constantly taking pictures whenever the family was together. Now I am incredibly grateful to her for those faded, blurry pictures because they serve as a visual documentary of our life together. So...everywhere you go, take pictures. You will never regret it.

My mother was adamant that we never sew anything while the person was wearing the garment (i.e., that we not sew a button on while the coat was being worn). Someone years later told me that the superstition arose because the only time a person remains passive while something is being done to him is when the person is dead and his body is being prepared for purification, dressing, and burial. Therefore, the custom in some families was not to do anything like sewing a garment while the wearer stood passively waiting. If it is absolutely necessary to sew a garment while it is being worn, the person who is wearing the garment must chew on a cracker or on something else the whole time.

My mother loved sweet corn so much that she would eat it until she made herself sick. I loved this quality in my mother.

There is a story connected to the diamond ring I wear. My mother, who was from the poorer side of the family, got engaged to my father at the same time that her wealthy cousin Adele got engaged to Lenny. Lenny gave Adele a beautiful diamond engagement ring. My father had saved up much of his army pay and was about to choose a ring for my mother when she forestalled him. "Uncle Abe, the head of the family, asked me to bring you to Elizabeth, New Jersey, so he could meet you. He also said he would talk to you then about a ring." The next weekend my mother and father made the trip from Providence to Elizabeth and Uncle Abe met my father. He sent my mother from the room and asked whether my father had bought the engagement ring for his niece yet. "Not yet," replied my father. "I was going to do it next week." Uncle Abe then asked, "How much money have you set aside to buy it?" "I've saved up two hundred and fifty dollars!" replied my father proudly. "Don't buy anything," said Uncle Abe. "I have a connection in the jewelry business and can get it for you wholesale. You come back next weekend and I will have the ring for you then." The next weekend my father brought Uncle Abe the $250 and in return Uncle Abe gave him a 2 1/2-carat diamond ring in a platinum setting surrounded by baguettes. My father, who remains as naive and trusting some fifty years later as he was that day, thanked Uncle Abe, returned to Providence, and brought the ring to his sister to show it to her before giving it to my mother. Aunt Shirley gasped when she saw the ring and asked in amazement, "Where did you ever get the money for that ring?" "Ruthie's uncle has a connection in the diamond business. The ring cost two hundred and fifty dollars," he explained to her. "Two hundred and fifty dollars!" she replied in astonishment as she reached into her drawer. "Here is two hundred and fifty dollars. I want a ring just like Ruthie's." My father took the money and went back to New Jersey later that week. He handed Uncle Abe the money and said, "My sister wants a ring just like the one you got for Ruthie." Uncle Abe handed him back the money and explained gravely, but with a certain twinkle, "Such a ring, Saul, happens only once in a lifetime."

About the same ring there is another story. I never knew my mother had an engagement ring because she never wore it. I think perhaps my mother thought wearing expensive jewelry was ostentatious, but I am not sure. Whatever the reason, when Kayla was nine months old, my mother called from Providence at six in the morning one day and said, "I'm getting on the seven A.M. train and coming into New York for a visit. I'll be there by eleven." At 11:15 A.M. the doorbell rang and my mother came in and handed me a crumpled tissue. "Here," she said. "This is for Kayla. Put it away for her until she's old enough to have it." I unwrapped the tissue and stared in astonishment at the ring I never knew my mother had owned. I was overwhelmed by hurt that she had not decided to pass her one piece of jewelry on to me, her only daughter. I, of course, understood that while my mother's relationship with me was complicated -- entwined and occasionally even gnarled -- my mother's relationship with my daughter was unrestrained, loving, and gentle, but knowing this did not lessen my sense of rejection. Wordlessly, I handed it back to her and, unable to summon the words to explain my hurt, only said stonily, "I will not be the caretaker of your gifts to my daughter. If you want her to have it, give it to her yourself when you think she is ready to have it." My mother, who knew me very well, understood, and was furious with me. She took the ring without a word, rewrapped it in the tissue, and left the house. Four hours later, at 4:00 P.M., the phone rang. "It's me," said my mother. "I'm back in Providence. But I'm getting back on the train and I'll be there in four hours." Sure enough, four hours later my doorbell rang for the second time that day. My mother walked into the house and handed me the tissue. "You were right," she said, looking me straight in the eye. "The ring is for you." "If you give it to me, then it's mine," I said. "I can do anything I want with it." "Yes," she replied, "you can." "I can even wear it," I announced blandly. My mother gulped audibly but said, "Yes, you can wear it. It's really yours." I put the ring away for a month and thought about it. Then, after a month, I took it out, put it on my finger, and I have never taken it off since.

My mother searched for "American" recipes to cook for my sweet sixteen party. She asked her coworkers for suggestions, and one Italian woman gave her this r

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