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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

Lessons From My Mother: On Hatred and Our Responses To It

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

I'm having some thoughts on some of the responses to the hatred brewing in the US, namely the two following ideas: no one is born knowing how to hate, and you can't fight hatred with hatred.

I'm not going to say these statements aren't true. On the contrary. However, I will say I think they are only part of the truth.

Let me share a personal experience.

I grew up in a house that believed in inclusivity, acceptance, and love. I was taught these values. I was not born knowing how to hate. But I was not born knowing how to love either. I was born ignorant. I was taught how to love.

This is illustrated best in an interaction I had with my mother when I was young, maybe 6-7 years old. It is a memory that brings me shame, but it is the shame that has made it stick so clearly in my mind. I hope this story does not embarrass my mother, because I am grateful for the myriad lessons she has given me.

I remember we were in the kitchen. We were making hamantaschen. She was teaching me the story of Purim. As she was telling me about Haman, she said he was "ruthless." I asked what that meant, and she asked me if I knew who Ruth was. I said I didn't. She said ruthless means without kindness, compassion, or mercy. She said the word comes from our matriarch Ruth, who was a convert. I said I didn't know what a convert was. She said a convert was someone who was not born into Judaism, but chose it later on in life.

It is my response that gives me shame. I want you to know I did not say this out of hatred. I said it out of ignorance.

I said, "So she wasn't a real Jew?"

My mom stopped what she was doing. She looked me in the eye and said, sternly, "Don't you ever say anything like that again. Ruth chose Judaism, which makes her more of a Jew than someone born into it who rejects it. She was just as much of a Jew as you or me. Do you understand me?"

I didn't understand why she was angry. I didn't understand why it felt like I was in trouble for asking a question. But I understood her. And I want you to understand, she did not say this out of hatred.

My mom chastised me so sternly because she loves me, and it pained her to hear such vile words coming from someone she held so dear. My mom rose her voice because she loved me, and she wanted me to be the best person I could be, and that was a person who doesn't think they're better than someone else because of the family into which they were born.

No one taught me that hatred. Because even though my words were hateful, it came from a place of ignorance. But I had to be taught to love in a way that did not come naturally to me.

My mom didn't fight my hatred with hate, she fought it with love. But she also did not fight it with kindness. She did not coddle me. She did not hold my hand. She did not comfort me when I felt shamed by her admonition. She wanted to leave no doubt in my mind that what I said was wrong, and that it would not be tolerated. And she was successful in that endeavor.

As I'm sure many parents know, you can be mad out of love. You can yell out of love. You can sometimes even be mean out of love.

I certainly felt that day that my mom was being mean. I felt like I did not deserve that response. I felt like there were better ways I could have been taught. I still feel that there were better ways, without anger or shame. We are not perfect. But even if imperfect, I never forgot that lesson. I would be reminded of that same shame I felt when I saw others expressing the same kind of ignorance that ends up being so hateful. And I have been proactive to fight against that hatred, just like my mom fought against mine.

People spewing hate are still people. I am commanded to love my neighbor and the stranger alike. But that doesn't mean that I can't yell and cry and argue. Loving someone isn't always rainbows and butterflies. Sometimes it's a stern look, a raised voice, and a harsh admonition. And it may feel mean, but that does not make it similar to the hatred it is speaking out against.

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