I Asked the New York Public Library to Research my Anxious Jewish Mother’s Concerns

Don’t leave the house with your hair wet. You’ll catch a cold!

Here — eat all the food in my kitchen. You’re getting too skinny.

You can’t run in the dark. You don’t know who’s out at night!

Warnings like these sound familiar? Then perhaps you too have grown up with an overprotective Jewish mother.

As a child, there’s no good way to disprove statements like these. You can try logic and common sense all you want. At the end of the day, you’re still your mother’s daughter, and she still knows what’s best. She may be overly anxious and live in a world where anytime after 10 p.m. means danger and every future without a medical degree means professional doom followed by certain death, but she has life experience on her side. You have no choice but to at least pretend to abide by her fears.

And the thing is, she’s not necessarily wrong. Some of these warnings hold water — but some of them don’t. Luckily, there are places where we lowly daughters can go to access a wide array of information, proving or disproving our mothers’ anxious proverbs.

These places are called libraries. And thanks to the New York Public Library’s dedicated question answering service, curious young women (well, curious anybody) needn’t even set foot in a building full of books to begin their research. They can simply send an email full of their burning esoteric questions and get answers, supplied by extremely competent library employees.

Yes, it’s like Seamless for *knowledge*.

(Side note: I learned about this service from fellow Alma writer Emma Lowe, who heard about it on an episode of RadioLab — a podcast that also happens to be full of great, esoteric information. You can send questions to the New York Public Library here.)

I emailed the library as follows: My anxious mother has warned me about many things. I would like to see if her worries have statistical, etc. foundations. Could you please help with the following? 

Then I included my questions. A little over a week later, I got well-researched answers.


To the question: How likely are you to catch a cold if you go outside with wet hair? 

The library said: Page five of the 2017 book Does an Apple a Day Keep the Doctor Away? by Sandy Donovan answers the question, “Can You Catch a Cold If You Go Outside with Wet Hair?”:

“NOPE. Going outside with wet hair may give you a big headache. (Some people call this a brainfreeze headache.) But it won’t give you a cold. A cold is a virus. Cold viruses travel through the air in invisible droplets. When they get inside your body, your immune system kicks in to fight them. This leads to a stuffy nose, sore throat, and headache — in other words, a cold. You have to come in contact with the cold virus to get a cold…”

There you have it. Mom: 0, Public Library: 1.


If you are a young woman and you walk home alone late at night, what are the chances that you will be attacked? 

The library said: The United States Department of Justice offers a study on violence against women: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvv.pdf

While it doesn’t have statistics for the exact situation you describe, it does indicate that attacks by random strangers are far less frequent than attacks by persons known to the victim.

The CDC also offers statistics on sexual violence that indicate dangers are more often from people known to the victim: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf

In short, if you’re aware, prepared, and walking in well-lit and trafficked areas, the odds are on your side: https://youngwomenshealth.org/2015/02/03/street-smarts-quiz/

(I got a 5/6 on the above quiz, by the way, which the website still considers an A+. But the question I got wrong was about going upstairs with a boy at a high school party — to which I said I would bring a friend — and I’m years past being in high school, so honestly I would be the creep in that equation.)

Mom: 0, Public Library: 2


Are most wild berries you encounter in the Northeast US poisonous?

(This question reflects my mother’s worry that everything you encounter in nature has the potential to kill you. I asked about the Northeast because that is where I live, and I didn’t want to unnecessarily overwhelm this poor public library researcher.)

The library said: The short answer is it depends on the color and composition of the berry.

The 2001 book Wilderness Living by Gregory J. Davenport offers the following on page 106:

“… In general, the edibility of berries can be classified according to their color and composition. The following are approximate guidelines to help you determine if a berry is poisonous…The only berries that should be eaten without testing are those that you can positively identify as non-poisonous.

  • Green, yellow, and white berries are 10% edible.
  • Red berries 50% edible.
  • Purple, blue, black 90% edible.
  • Aggregate berries such as thimble berries, raspberries, blackberries, are considered 99% edible…”

That said, even though the odds are favorable for many shades of berries, it only takes one poisonous berry to ruin your day.

Okay, fair enough. But 99% represents pretty good odds…

Mom: .01, Library: 2.99


Will you get an eye infection and/or ruin your skin if you leave your makeup on when you go to bed?

The library said: The 1999 Reader’s Digest Association book, Is it harmful, is it healthy: A complete guide to what’s good for you, has the following advice:

“… Remove eye makeup before going to bed to prevent infection. Mascara blocks pores and clogs hair follicles …”

What’s that? Your mother used to read Reader’s Digest? Well, now you know how she got to be so smart.

Touché, public library…

Mom: 1.01, Library: 2.99


Will eating a lot of chicken soup and other hearty foods actually help cure my cold?

The library said: Does an Apple a Day Keep the Doctor Away? has this on page 15:

A cold is caused by a virus in the nose, throat, or chest. Special white blood cells rush around those areas attacking the virus. These cells are called neutrophils. But while neutrophils are rushing around fighting the virus, they’re also doing something else. All their rushing makes mucus grow. Mucus is the stuff that clogs your nose during a cold. A scientist at the University of Nebraska wanted to see if chicken soup had any effect on neutrophils. He added some chicken soup to the white blood cells. He found that the soup actually slowed down the movement of the cells, this in turn slowed down the growth of mucus. There it was: scientific evidence that chicken soup could slow down cold symptoms…” 

Okay, Mom is catching up!

Mom: 2.01, Library — 2.99


If I don’t become or marry a doctor, am I more likely to die at younger age?

The library said: While we didn’t find a source that compared mortality rates of those married to doctors to those married to lawyers or cowboys or such, we did find a study indicating that marriage in general is linked to longevity:


Long and short, regarding warnings of mothers and others, it may be wisest to listen closely, ask for citations, and investigate further.

Final points: Mom: 2.51, Library — 3.49


Thanks, New York Public Library! I have concluded that I should abide by my mother’s irrational anxieties… sometimes. And also that I may as well marry a cowboy.

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