My American “Mommy”

When I was little, I called my mother, “Mamma.” After I started Israeli kindergarten, I sometimes switched to “Ima,” only for when she annoyed me, because as a true Italian mom, she preferred “Mamma.” But I never imagined having an American Mom, one who would grow so attached to me that I would gain the privilege of calling her “Mommy.”

I moved to the U.S. three days after my wedding. I had never even visited the country before. Needless to say, I experienced a real culture shock. In addition, moving into an unfamiliar home and becoming part of a new family was extremely hard. I felt that I did not fit in at all. I wore funny Israeli clothes; I spoke broken English. I also did not understand the direct American sense of humor and was frequently offended by it. I truly miss, and still miss, my family, friends and country. I was quite convinced that I would never become an American. But, I must say, if I am one today, I owe it to my American mom, Jean Kelman, of blessed memory. My mother-in-law totally and completely adopted me as her own. I became one of her children, and it felt so natural for me to respond to her kindness by calling her “Mommy.” She quickly made me feel accepted, loved and cherished. We shared a passion for fashion, and she bought me the most beautiful, elegant clothes. She introduced me to American culture and humor. Mommy shared her love for great literature, art and music. She taught me her best, most secret recipes. She introduced me to her friends. She was proud of my accomplishments and encouraged me to be my true self, to be colorful, to always be unique and outspoken no matter what people said. She was frank and honest, and she expected the same in return. Most importantly, she always forgave me and everyone else, if something went wrong.

Jean loved my cooking and hospitality. She also loved spending time with us in our seven previous homes (unfortunately, she never made it to Schenectady, but she truly wanted to come). Mom and Dad (who I am also honored to call “Daddy”) spent Pesach with us for more than twenty years, even when we lived overseas. My Mommy, Jean, would enthusiastically say, “I love it when you have us over!” and I would feel so lucky and blessed.

Two special occasions stand out in my memory which I will never forget. The first happened when we moved to Israel. We were so sure that it was what we wanted. However, it did not work out so well. One day, I was feeling homesick for the States and I picked up the phone and called her. “Mommy,” I said, “I miss home.” Astonished, she replied, “But you are home! You’re by your Mother…” I remember that I even cried, saying “No! Home is with you in New York.” She told me later that she was crying too, and that she missed me in the same way.

The second event I remember, was at a Passover, when I had the challenge of hosting my Israeli parents and my American parents together for ten days! To say the least, it was not easy to cater to them both, with all the language, culture, and cuisine barriers they had between them. It took a lot of diplomatic (and acrobatic) skills on my part, in addition to the regular Pesach “slavery” chores, to make the holiday a success. On the morning of the first day, all of us women and girls finally made it out of the house, dressed in our best finery, to go to Shul. My strict Italian mother took one look at me and frowned with distaste. My vivacious American mom took one look at me and beamed with approval. I remember feeling confused: What was going on? The Italian Matilda told Jean in Hebrew: “Liora looks terrible: too many colors, too many accessories!” American Jean disagreed in English: “Liora looks fantastic – lots of great colors, enchanting accessories.” Did they understand each other? I think they did. I think at that moment my Italian mother realized she gave birth to an American daughter… My inner me was in some ways discovered and liberated by my American “Mommy,” Jean Kelman. May her memory be for a blessing to all, as her friendship always was for me. Yehi Zichra Baruch.