Marjorie Ingall wants you to know that the stereotypical Jewish mother—fretful, guilt-inducing, clingy—is a tired, old trope. In Mamaleh Knows Best, Ingall blends personal anecdotes, humor, historical texts, and scientific research, and reveals Jewish secrets for raising self-sufficient, ethical, and accomplished children. She shows how Jewish mothers have nurtured their children’s independence, fostered discipline, urged a healthy distrust of authority, consciously cultivated geekiness and kindness, stressed education, and maintained a sense of humor. And the good news is, you don’t have to be Jewish to encourage the same qualities in your own children. Her tongue-in-cheek book is funny and thought-provoking for all parents.
Recently, Marjorie spoke with us about the enviable book stack at her bedside, her litany of loved and hated words, and how The Velveteen Rabbit embraces cruelty and beauty all at once.
Illustration: Lorenzo Gritti
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What’s the book on your bedside table?
The current bedside stack: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, a children’s historical fantasy set in 1242 during the Inquisition (whee!). Under that is Untangled by Dr. Lisa Damour, about helping teenage girls into adulthood. Under that is Queen of Thieves: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and Her Gangs of New York, a biography of a female Jewish Lower East Side crime boss during the Gilded Age.
Name three characters from literature or authors (dead or alive) that you’d want in your ideal book club?
Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, Potiphar’s Wife from the book of Genesis, and Wendy Wasserstein.
What word do you love and why? What word do you hate and why?
I love the word “susurrus” — whispering or rustling. A word that sounds like what it is! I’d feel pretentious using it in my writing, though. As for hate: Like everybody, I cringe at “moist.” But I also loathe “extrude,” “munchies,” “pustule,” “flan,” “bolus,” “chum,” the neologism “mompreneur,” “youngling,” (so many fantasy novels with younglings!) “preggers,” “cashew,” “hillock,” the abbreviation “EVOO,” “cannula,” “silken,” “nucleolus,” “unguent,” “palpate,” “grub,” “stricken,” “scabrous,” and “sammich.” I may actually kill you if you say “sammich” to me.
What’s the one book you love to give as a gift and to whom do you give it?
I love giving board books to new parents. I kvelled to watch my own kids gnaw on the cardboard and sit in piles of books and page through them with their fat little fingers, chatting to themselves. My book, Mamaleh Knows Best, talks about the way literacy has saved the Jewish people, and I believe it. My go-to gift is the hugely oversized version (they call it a “lap board book”) of Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, illustrated by the brilliant Marla Frazee.
What’s the one book you read as a kid that has stuck with you?
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, illustrated by William Nicholson. It was not cuddly. It had darkness and cruelty and unfairness and ambiguity and profound beauty. I’m offended by the newer, cuter illustrated versions. This book does not want cute.
What’s the one book that never fails to delight or inspire you?
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I love immigrant stories. I love wordless books. And I love books that feel both hopeful and true, but also have harshness in them.
What’s the last book you read on a long flight?
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Not as soul-crushing as I expected! A lot of humor, and certainly as much about how to live as how to die.
If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Young Adult. That answer is cheating, since young adult is truthfully an age designation, not a genre. So if I say Young Adult I actually get ALL THE GENRES. I win.