Life Lessons From a Jewish Mother Joke

Melanie SturmOther, Meaning of Life4 Comments

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“Everyone has two lives,” Hunter Thompson famously said. “The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

That’s the moral of Alfred Nobel, whose obituary was mistakenly published, memorializing him as the inventor of dynamite.  Not wanting to be remembered for death and destruction, Nobel pivoted, endowing the world with the Nobel Prize, for which he is most known today. 

The lesson here is that each of us is capable of tremendous change, because we’re forever a work in progress. That’s why mortality is life’s greatest gift, as Thompson’s quip suggests, for facing death reawakens the vitality, urgency and aspiration that slumber under blankets of complacency.

Therefore, we should ponder how we want to be remembered; how to mold ourselves differently to live a more meaningful life, to enhance our community and be remembered as we wish.

As Aristotle said, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  What habits do you want to adopt to accomplish your legacy goals?

A Jewish mother joke reveals two redemptive ideas:

A young Jewish man excitedly tells his mother that he’s fallen in love and wants to get married. To challenge his Mom he says, “just for the fun of it, I’m going to bring my girlfriend over with two of her girlfriends and I want you to try and guess which one I want to marry, and the mother agrees.

The next day, he brings the 3 home and sits them on the couch, and they chat for a while. Then he says, ok Mom, can you guess which one I’m going to marry? She immediately replies, the one on the right. That’s amazing mom, you’re right, how do you know.

The Jewish mom replies, “I don’t like her.”

This joke is funny at the expense of the hyper-judgmental Jewish mother. But the truth is, judgementalism is a universal problem for our words can have unintended consequences, damaging people, families, and communities – even degrading our national discourse. 

Today, one in four report that the political climate is a source of tension, exacerbated by social media’s curated tribalism where biases are confirmed by one’s self-selected feed.  

That’s why text conceals – and conversation has the power to reveal – a thoughtful mind. But only if we’re willing to listen and understand, reversing Stephen Covey’s observation that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

So that people feel heard not hurt, be mindful of Maya Angelou’s insight that people won’t remember what you said or did but will always remember how you made them feel.

Despite all, we’re lucky to live in a vibrant, open, argumentative culture.  As a nation of immigrants, people bring different perspectives, traditions and ideas to the public square, making us the greatest continuing experiment in the history of humanity – the idea that people from different places, of different races, with different creeds and religions can together forge a freer and fairer society.

But in hashing things out, better to appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln urged. If in his Second Inaugural Address – before an audience that included slavery-supporters – Lincoln could assert, “with malice toward none and charity for all,” we can too. 

Guarding the tongue is everyone’s responsibility. Take a deep breath. Find what’s right, not just wrong with a situation. Recognize that those who disagree aren’t necessarily adversaries and can become allies as we learn to engage, understand and even validate concerns, restoring civil discourse. 

So, in speaking, may it be with respect, civility, and thoughtfulness!

The second lesson the joke teaches is that we’re all role models, for better or worse. As my Mom put it, “it’s not what’s taught, but what’s caught.”  By learning from wise examples, and passing on that wisdom, we bestow a great legacy, from generation to generation.

The great challenge of life is sustaining and hopefully growing one’s legacy. As the rabbinic sage Maimonides taught, we should think of our deeds as perfectly balanced so that our next act will tip the scales toward the good. Every day in seemingly insignificant ways, we can promote grace, beauty and kindness, helping improve the world.

Remember, it’s never too late to change or start again, tipping the scales toward the good. May you live your second life with great purpose, health and happiness!

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