‘I Want Them to Learn about Israel and the Holidays’: Jewish Israeli Mothers in Early-Twenty-First-Century Britain

June 20, 2016

Source: Religion and Gender. 6(1), pp.80–94

Research has shown that the presence of children in the Jewish Israeli emigrant family intensifies their ambivalence about living abroad, but encourages greater involvement with fellow Israelis as they seek to transmit a Jewish Israeli identity and maintain their children’s attachment to the Jewish state. This article explores this assumption by focusing on the experiences of mothering of a group of Israeli emigrants in Britain. Based on twelve oral history interviews, it considers the issues of child socialisation and the mothers’ own social life. It traces how the women created a social network within which to mother and how they tried to ensure their children preserved a Jewish Israeli identity. The article also seeks to question how parenting abroad led the interviewees to embrace cultural and religious traditions in new ways.


In recent decades, mothers’ experiences of transnational migration have begun to receive scholarly attention and research has revealed the difficulties of mothering while simultaneously developing new lifestyles in a new country (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2003; Ishkanian 2002; Lutz 1995; Parrenas 2005; Phoenix 2011). By focusing on their relationship with their Jewish as well as Israeli identity, this article adds to the existing literature by exploring mothers’ attitudes towards religion, which, as Steven Vertovec notes, has as yet received surprisingly little consideration (Vertovec 2004). The study confirms the findings of existing research which has shown how migration can enhance the key role women play in reproducing religious practice, particularly in the domestic realm, and that migration can lead to increased religiosity (Vertovec 2004). Many interviewees discussed how they took the lead in ensuring their children were introduced to Judaism at home or in school and indicated that they felt it was their responsibility as mothers to do so. Consequently it was they who organised playdates and parties with the other Jewish Israeli mothers to ensure their children were exposed to Hebrew and could celebrate the Jewish holidays together. They offered to teach in the Cheder in order to integrate their families into the local Jewish community and enable their children to go to the local Jewish schools. They ensured the family celebrated Erev Shabbat or the Passover Seder, even when they modified the traditions to suit their new circumstances, in order to pass on their Jewish Israeli identity to their children. While none said their religious convictions had changed as a result of parenting in Britain, in that those who said they were secular or did not believe in God did not say their beliefs altered, their practices did change. Several said they had joined synagogues in Britain when they would not have thought of doing so in Israel. Celebrating the holidays and performing other religious rites grew in importance as they wanted to bring up their children with an attachment to Judaism. There were minority voices who were more critical about which aspects of their Jewish or Israeli identity they did or did not wish to transmit, but rarely did interviewees reject all aspects of their national, cultural and religious heritage.

The interviewees also indicated that there were facets of their experience that were particular to their background as Jewish Israelis and their upbringing in a culture in which nationalism and religious identity are interlinked. Discussing the role played by the Israeli and Jewish communities in their lives as mothers, the interviewees stressed the importance of child socialisation taking place at the group level. The women said they sought out other Israeli mothers to provide the communal experience they believed was necessary to instill an attachment to Israel. Often this went in tandem with seeking institutional support from the local Jewish community, with many interviewees valuing a Jewish education for their children, whether at school or Sunday school. While most of the mothers interviewed classed themselves as secular, when discussing how they wished to transmit a sense of Jewishness to their children they often downplayed their own personal beliefs saying their priority was that their children would maintain a Jewish Israeli identity and this required subsuming their individual beliefs to the group. For example, they made friends with people they felt they would not have done so normally, or attended Shul even if they did not see themselves as religious, in order that their children would have the chance to socialise with other Israelis and feel part of the local Jewish community. Moreover, they saw it as their responsibility, as mothers, to provide their children with this opportunity. This attitude was, I suggest, specific to their status as Jewish Israelis and born out of the communal nature of Judaism in Israel with which the interviewees had grown up, but it also reflects how mothers see themselves as playing a central role in the transmission of religious culture.

Updated: Jul. 27, 2016