For Mother’s Day

This coming Sunday we have two special days on the calendar. This Sunday, of course, we celebrate Mother’s Day. That, everyone knows. But this Sunday also marks the newest of Jewish holidays, Jerusalem Day. Jerusalem Day celebrates the re-unification of the City of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty after the Six Day War in 1967. So, of course, the topic of this sermon is going to be Mother’s Day – in Jerusalem!

The first Mother’s Day in Jerusalem was proclaimed in 1947 to be celebrated in April. It was proposed by Sara Herzog, wife of then chief rabbi Isaac Herzog, who was president of an organization that helped women after childbirth. In 1951, the City of Haifa proclaimed their own Mother’s Day. This Mother’s Day was to be celebrated during Chanukah. This date was chosen because of its link to the story of Hannah. As told in the Book of the Maccabees, Antiochus arrested Hannah’s and her seven sons and tried to force the sons to eat pork to prove their obedience to the King. They defiantly refused to do so and each was put to death. The King then appealed to Hannah to convince her youngest son to comply with the King’s command, yet she refused to do so, urging him instead to follow the path of his brothers. Thus all her sons were put to death in a single day, yet Hannah bore it bravely, trusting in G-d.

Later that year, there was another proposal for Mother’s Day. This was to be held on the first of Adar, the anniversary of the death of Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah.  Already in her 70’s, she had run the Israel part of Youth Aliyah, which rescued 30,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe. Henrietta Szold would personally meet the ships of the children who came to Israel without their parents. Of course, many of them would never see their parents again. These children referred to her as “imah”, or “mama”.

So for a period of time, Israel had three Mother’s Days. One was a traditional Mother’s Day connected to the experience of giving birth, celebrated in April. One was celebrated during Chanukah and connected to Hannah, who lost seven children. The other was celebrated in March in honor of Henrietta Szold, who never married and had no biological children.

I can understand the symbolism for evoking Hannah on Mother’s Day. After all, 1951 was only three years after the War for Independence, in which one percent of the Israeli population at the time was killed – over 6000 soldiers. There were a lot of grieving mothers in Israel at the time, and identifying Mother’s Day with the courageous Hannah, who sacrificed so much, made a great deal of sense. On the other hand, in celebrating Mother’s Day on Henrietta Szold’s yahrzeit, Israelis were implicitly rejecting a purely biological definition of motherhood and honoring all women who have contributed to building the future.

In the early 1990s, responding to the changing nature of the nuclear family, Israel changed the name of the holiday from “Mother’s Day” to “Family Day”. As a 2011 news report put it, Family Day recognizes that “all combinations of families are welcomed with love: children with two mothers, or two fathers, or single-parent families — all are part of the celebration…” But “Family Day” has never really caught on in Israel, and there is a budding movement to return to the celebration of a Mother’s Day of some kind.

Chaim Weitzman, who was to become the first President of the State of Israel, even used Mother’s Day to advance the argument for a Jewish State in what was then Palestine.  The story goes that a British gentleman said to him: “Dr. Weitzman, what do you need to start a Jewish country for in that God-forsaken corner of the Middle East?  Why don’t you take your Jews – who evidently need some refuge from persecution – and take them to Argentina or Uganda or the Canary Islands or someplace else?  What do you need Palestine for?”  And Weitzman said to the man: “You may be right, but before I answer you, let me ask you a question.  I understand that every year on Mother’s Day and on a good many other occasions during the year, you drive all the way across the city of London in order to visit your mother at the nursing home where she lives.  There are lots of other old ladies in London.  Why don’t you visit some other woman who lives closer instead of visiting your mother?”

Just as we can never find a substitute for or forget our own mothers, so, we can never find a substitute for or forget that this small slice of land in the Middle East is our Jewish ancestral land. “If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem, May my right hand lose its power” goes the Psalm. Let us remember our mothers on Mother’s Day this Sunday, and let us remember Jerusalem as well.  To that let us say, AMEN.