In Our Jewish Mother-Daughter Book Club, We Bond Over So Much More Than Words

So began an intergenerational tradition that is still being written.

When I signed onto Zoom for my first virtual book club in 2020, everyone was a little sheepish. The last time we had all been together — my mother’s college friends and their daughters — was at a University of Michigan football weekend eight years before. Since then, many of us graduated high school and then college; our mothers had become empty nesters, setting up the next stage of their lives. We weren’t yet sure how to relate to each other in this next phase. We didn’t know then how a generation of memories and a shared love of good stories would bring us all together that COVID year.

As a child, I was embarrassed easily. My mother, meanwhile, has never been embarrassed in her life. At least, that’s how it felt to me when I was 17, standing with her outside a home in Ann Arbor, whose residents had changed many times since she last stepped foot in there decades earlier. I begged her not to knock on the door of this house belonging to complete strangers.

A raucous Michigan football game had just ended, and my mom and her best college friends decided they wanted to meet the current tenants of the home they occupied for one memorable year in the late 1980s. My sister and I and the other kids in our group were tired, and we were mortified to think of asking a group of 21-year-olds none of us knew if we could go on a tour of their home. We were certain the students who lived there would say no.

We were wrong. Inside the house at 719 Arbor were six Michigan seniors, all women, who were delighted to see that a group of friends just like them had returned to Ann Arbor, kids in tow and friendship intact. They ferried our group inside and took us on a tour of the house, which, according to my mother, was remarkably unchanged after 23 years. (Renovations are surely not high on the list of priorities of a landlord renting to short-on-cash college students.)

Growing up, I mapped the aspirations for my own life onto the contours of my mother’s. If her dearest lifelong friends came from her college years, surely I would also go off to school and find an inseparable crew who would all have children at the same time and raise them together, a wolfpack separated by hundreds of miles that came together once a year.

Each winter we spent a few days on vacation, usually at a beach in Florida, with these women and their families. We traveled to their kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs in Maryland and Wisconsin and Connecticut. I learned their stories, their favorite meals at the storied pizza spot in Ann Arbor, the names of their parents. Sick with tonsillitis in the hospital as a child, my younger brother named a new pet snail Mimi after the mother of my mom’s roommate. Nearly 20 years later, he and the roommate’s daughter started dating when they reconnected as adults in Austin.

That these women had remained best friends years and ultimately decades after graduating from college, sustaining those relationships before cell phones and email, did not strike me as unusual. So the fact that my life might not follow the exact path taken by my mother had not crossed my mind. But for me, finding a close-knit crew that travels together and still meets frequently for Zoom catch-ups came later, when I moved to Washington, D.C., as a young adult.

As the next generation from the Michigan crew went off to college, winter breaks became time to visit family or see friends. Our group trips tapered off and then stopped, with no real farewell. The parents began to travel together without the kids, leaving us to start building new traditions with our own friends. I didn’t think much of it; our ages spanned more than a decade, and we sought the independence and separation we hoped adulthood would bring.

But that changed almost four years ago. Stranded indoors with a pandemic raging, some of us were home with our parents for the first time in years. Others, like me, were stuck in small city apartments, watching our 20s pass by and questioning if we would ever again have a carefree night out with friends.

At some point, my mom figured out that she and the daughter of her college roommate were reading the same book. When they got on the phone to talk about it, in one of those languorous COVID conversations that lasted hours because no other plans awaited, they came up with an idea: How about a mother-daughter book club on Zoom?

So began an intergenerational tradition that still continues, the only regular Zoom meeting on my calendar that I don’t dread. At first, we met monthly; now, it’s a broad “every now and then,” but still an engagement everyone tries to make.

I always saw the value and joy that my mom’s friends brought her, but these were adults; I loved them, but I didn’t think of them as my friends. The stories I heard were mostly snapshots of their four years at Michigan, tales of sorority recruitment and ill-fated spring breaks and an occasional political rally for a Jewish cause — memories sealed in amber, a relic of the 1980s that held their friendship together.

When we began meeting regularly on Zoom, I started to learn their own stories. My mom, surrounded by those who have known her longer than most, revealed parts of herself that she otherwise might have kept from me and my twin sister. They spoke about menopause, that black box of women’s health. They swapped stories about caring for aging parents; since 2020, we have mourned the loss of several.

The stories sometimes came freely, in the moments at the start of our calls when we all caught up. Other times, truths were revealed in the context of the books we discussed. When we read “Mercy Street,” a novel about an abortion clinic in Boston and a man who sought to attack it, our mothers shared their worries that their daughters would have less access to reproductive healthcare than they did. Discussing “Jews Don’t Count,” David Baddiel’s masterful look at progressives’ penchant for overlooking antisemitism, we acknowledged a shared fear that being Jewish was no longer safe. Occasionally we giggled together at silly romance novels, thankful for a reprieve from the difficult realities of pandemic life.

My favorite conversation took place recently, in January. This time, we met to talk about Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake,” a warm and sensitive novel about a mother revealing previously concealed parts of her past to her three adult daughters. They were living together on the family cherry farm in Michigan during the COVID summer of 2020, their world shrunk to just immediate family members.

The irony that our group of daughters in their 20s and mothers the exact age of the book’s protagonist mirrored the book’s plot was not lost on any of us. We all immediately felt a kinship with that delightfully nostalgic novel and its imperfect characters, who reckoned with the stories they told themselves, the stories they told each other and the lives they actually lived. My mother noted how open she is with my siblings and me, how many stories of hers we know by heart, but pointed out that she had never shared details of her two serious boyfriends before my father. I acknowledged that despite my close relationship with her there are parts of myself I choose not to reveal — and these decisions, about what is shared and what is not, characterize the relationship between a mother and her daughter.

With the early years of the pandemic behind us, our group still chooses to share our time and our Kindle libraries. I hope we continue to follow the wisdom garnered from the many book discussions we have shared. Our bond over love and literature, mothers and daughters, secrets and stories, will now be part of our own intergenerational story that is still being written.

Gabby Deutch

Gabby Deutch (she/her) is a journalist based in Boston. She is the senior national correspondent at Jewish Insider, and her writing has also been published in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Politico Magazine and Tablet.

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