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Tag : Family

The Lilith Blog

April 20, 2020 by

Dayenu: Dispatches From the Covid Sick Ward

The Week Before

Washington, DC is beginning to shut down and our two adult daughters want to come home—one from Iowa and one from Boston. First Daughter owns a car [Dayenu], and can drive from Iowa City, where she’s in graduate school, but she has obligations in Iowa, along with legitimate concerns that there may be nowhere that she can stay along the way. Second Daughter is already working remotely [Dayenu, she has a job] because Massachusetts is under an emergency decree.

By the end of the week, they are here; First Daughter has driven, and Second Daughter has flown in.

Day 1

Second Daughter wakes up, does not feel well. Has shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. She’s 25 and is otherwise—[Dayenu]—in good health. 

We call our doctor, who says to isolate her immediately, “Lock her up, do the deepest clean possible, and leave food outside her door as needed.”

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The Lilith Blog

March 29, 2020 by

Bubbah’s Bat Mitzvah


IMG_0967We call her by many things: Bubbah, Mom, Meryl. Earlier this year, at 71 years old, she gained a new identity: Bat Mitzvah girl. Recently called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah in front of her husband, her kids, her grandkids, and friends, she took this meaningful step after two years of study, and an entire lifetime of deep religious observance. My mother has, for most of my life, been our family’s religious beacon. Growing up, most Jewish kids I knew held on to their Jewish traditions through their grandparents. For our family, my mother, upon the death of her own beloved grandmother when I was five years old, dove more deeply into her faith and became more religious than anyone else I knew, including her own parents. Her energy and enthusiasm for Jewish life, history, culture, food, art, and music never waned. And she always embraced feminist and progressive values through a Jewish lens. 

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The Lilith Blog

August 20, 2019 by

What the Editors Never Knew About a Lilith Cover!

In 2010, when my then teenage daughter Emma was a camper at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), I went into a local bookstore to find an appropriate book to add to a care package we were sending her. I told the salesperson that I wanted something for a strong, self confident, feminist Jewish young woman. I was expecting a new book but she took me over to the magazine rack instead, explaining that she had the perfect magazine for her. She pulled out Lilith and said why its mission and purpose fit exactly with my objectives, giving it to me to look at.  

The cover story of that issue featured a lesbian rabbi from Philadelphia who had raised this amazingly diverse family of 5 kids as a single mom. Three of her kids were her own biological children from 2 different donors, and the other two were adopted from Guatemala. It was an inspiring story of love, commitment, Jewish life, family solidarity and diversity, and the importance of cultivating strong individuals.   

As I looked at the front cover I recognized the people and the story of Rabbi Julie Greenberg immediately: Julie is my sister-in-law (my wife’s sister), and the children are my nieces and nephews—Emma’s aunt and cousins. 

The salesperson asked, “Do you think this would interest Emma?”

I smiled and said, “Yeah, I think she might be interested!”

Andrew Rehfeld is the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This recollection is from his welcoming remarks at a launch party for Lilith’s summer 2019 issue held at HUC’s Dr. Bernard Heller Museum in Manhattan on August 14, 2019.

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April 2, 2019 by

Fiction: What Forgiveness Might Look Like

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Dana and her husband, Jonathan, stand next to each other on a footbridge, separated by a loaf of stale bread and a gulf of regret. Below them, a few dozen members of their congregation lace the shoreline of Rock Creek. Save for Dana and Jonathan they are either families with children or gray-haired empty nesters.

The first year they were married, Jonathan had pulled her along to the tashlich service, the symbolic casting away of sins at the start of the Jewish new year. The ceremony, in which bits of bread are thrown into a body of water, didn’t move Dana the way it moved Jonathan. As far as she could see, they were both good people without much to apologize for. She wasn’t too stressed about her name being inscribed for another year into the Book of Life, whatever that meant. Jonathan had said it was a nice excuse to take a break from the busyness of life, to experience a sense of renewal. Dana had said it was an elaborate way to feed ducks.

But now she is five years into her marriage and wonders if redemption is possible. What forgiveness might look like. 

Their synagogue dues have been paid for by Jonathan’s parents, Howard and Barbara. If only Dana and Jonathan lived closer, Barbara had lamented, they could come to Temple Beth El for services. But since the annual fee at B’nai Israel included tickets for the High Holidays, the in-laws reasoned, the membership almost paid for itself. Plus it had a nursery school, Howard had said with a gleaming smile.

What Howard and Barbara never considered was that it wouldn’t have occurred to Dana to worry about attending services on the High Holidays. Her parents had separated during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, and while they had shielded her from their feuds over child support and visitation times, they did not spare her the spectacle of their arguments over the guest list or the budget for her party. Her father accused her mother of thinking she was planning a wedding, while her mother retorted that she couldn’t do everything on a shoestring, and solved the problem by slashing most of her father’s guest list. To the extent that the day had felt joyful, it was because the whole ordeal was over. After that her parents let their synagogue membership lapse. That it was no longer needed seemed to be the one thing they could agree on. Dana didn’t attend services again until she met Jonathan.

And now here she is on a bridge, cradling day-old bread. Cantor Joan, a slender woman wearing a flowing lavender dress, white prayer shawl, and beaded kippah made of silver wire, smiles as she leads a niggun. The notes of the wordless chant seem to lift her body. She does not look like someone who has come to the water to unburden her soul, Dana thinks. She looks like someone who loves her job. As the song concludes, Cantor Joan opens her prayer book. In the open space of nature, with no walls or ceiling, and with the sound of cars passing on the parkway above the water, she shouts to make herself heard.

“Micah said, ‘God will take us back in love. God will cast— tashlich—our sins into the depths of the sea,’” she calls. “Micah is telling us that we can separate ourselves from our past sins.” She pauses and surveys the crowd. “Just as the water carries away these crumbs, our mistakes can be carried away too.” She closes her prayer book and throws some bread into the water, then turns out her dress pockets to shake them over the water’s edge.

Dana clutches the crusty oblong loaf, which protrudes from the white paper bag. She feels a tug as Jonathan breaks off a piece. He holds it in both hands. He is crying.

“I don’t know where to start,” he says.

“We probably should have brought more bread,” she says. 


JUST WEEKS BEFORE, THEY HAD BEEN STANDING in their kitchen prepping dinner when Dana said, “I called the clinic today. There’s been a cancellation. They can see us this Friday.” Dana was chopping vegetables and didn’t look up when she said this.

“Have you been calling them every day?” Jonathan asked, peering from behind the open refrigerator door.

“Well it’s not like we have time to waste.” Dana pushed a pile of carrots to one side with the back of the knife blade and set to work on a red pepper. Jonathan came to one side and picked up a couple of carrot spears.

“I’m sorry, Babe, but I have a meeting Friday.”

Dana wondered why he had to chew so loudly. “You didn’t even ask me what time.”

“Okay, what time?” Jonathan took another bite of carrot.

Dana put the knife on the cutting board and turned to look at her husband. “Unbelievable,” she said.

“Well who knew getting pregnant could be so inconvenient? Can’t we just go the old-fashioned route?” Jonathan shimmied his hips from side to side and licked his remaining carrot stick. Dana was unsure whether he was trying to be sexy or if he was making a joke about how people look when they are trying to be sexy. Either way she was not impressed.

“We’ve been going the old-fashioned route for over a year. We could’ve had a baby by now.”

“My parents said it took them two years to conceive me.” Jonathan slid the carrot into his mouth and reached for a bit of pepper. His temples pulsed as he chewed.

“You’ve talked to your parents about this?”

“My mom says that women who are too health conscious sometimes don’t ovulate.”

“She’s just pissed because I actually have some control over what I put in my mouth. And what comes out of it for that matter. She’s probably blabbed to her whole book club that I can’t get pregnant.”

“Why do you care what some old ladies are talking about at their book club?”

“You’re right. I don’t care about that. I care that you talk more to your parents about our problems than to me. You’re not a child. Your parents don’t need to be involved in every aspect of your life.”

“I just think you should relax.”

“Who gave you that advice—your mom or your dad?”

“How about we open up a bottle of red? I bought a nice Cab on the way home.”

Dana wiped her hands on a dishtowel and shouldered past her husband. “I’m going to work out. The appointment’s at 2:30 on Friday. Make it work.”

At the gym, Dana set the treadmill to a faster setting than usual. The whirring of the machine coupled with the pounding of her feet on the belt didn’t quite soothe her, but it brought some satisfaction. Her phone lay in the cupholder, and she saw it light up. A text from Jonathan.

“Remind me and I’ll c if I can move my meeting”

This, Dana thought, was what passed in Jonathan’s mind as an apology. She tossed the phone back in the cupholder, turned up the incline of the treadmill. Her phone flashed again.

“Have you called insurance to make sure fertility covered”

Dana typed, “maybe you should have your parents call the insurance company,” but didn’t hit send. She tossed her phone back into the cup holder, with the screen turned away from herself.

That’s when she noticed Marco from her spin class. When they met she had enjoyed his flirtatious asides—his funny facial expressions evoking the instructor’s overplucked eyebrows, the way he would wink at her and sing along every time a Madonna song came on. He had suggested they exchange numbers so they could coordinate their workouts. Dana had assumed he was gay.

He wasn’t.

She found out when she complimented his new workout clothes, green-trimmed mesh shorts cut high on the side with a tank top that showed off his arms. Dana had reached out to pinch the piping along the hemline. Marco caught her hand and gave it a squeeze. Dana pulled away and hopped onto her bike. When the class ended he asked if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She told him she had to get up early for a work meeting.

Now she decided to ask him for a drink. Marco didn’t seem at all surprised by her invitation. He said he knew a place a block away with a great deal on margaritas.

They found two seats at the end of the bar. They laughed easily over small things, inventing nicknames for the other spin class regulars. When Dana realized they had drained the pitcher Marco had ordered, she hopped off her barstool, said she should be getting home. Marco stepped down from his seat too, leaving only inches between them. “Let me guess—early meeting?” he smiled, his eyes on her mouth. His teeth were perfect.

“Well, not too early,” she said, rolling onto the balls of her feet to kiss him.


NOW, DANA STARES DOWN AT THE WATER. “I never meant for it to happen,” she says.

It’s warm for September. A hint of sewage wafts upward, turning Dana’s stomach. She takes a bit of bread and holds it in her mouth. Focuses on the sensation of it moistening and softening upon her tongue. A bicyclist coasts across the bridge; the wooden boards rattle under Dana’s feet.

Cantor Joan and the congregants begin to drift away. A little girl in red leather shoes and oversized hair bow toddles to the water. She leans forward to grab a stick that is peeking above the surface. The front of her dress dips into the creek. Muddy water drips down her shins, soaking her lace-trimmed ankle socks. Her father, unruffled, rolls up the sleeves of his crisp buttondown shirt and scoops her up from behind. Dana expects him to be annoyed, but he bends his neck to kiss the top of his daughter’s head. He is tall and slender like a heron, or a stork. He holds his child like a prize.

Jonathan watches the father pick his way up the embankment, then sends a morsel of bread sailing over the metal railing.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Why are you sorry?” Dana asks.

“I’m sorry I dragged my feet on fertility treatment. I’m sorry I questioned the cost.”

Dana swallows. “That doesn’t justify what I did.” She holds some bread over the water and lets it drop.

“True. You’ve ripped my guts out, Dana.”

Dana’s eyes fill with tears. She knows that if she blinks they will stream down her cheeks. But it doesn’t seem fair to cry.

“Who is it,” Jonathan asks, “that guy from the gym? Matteo?”


“Marco. Jesus. I feel like such an idiot.” Jonathan takes a deep, jagged breath in, lets it seep out through his lips. “Can you at least tell me it’s over?”

Dana tears off another piece of bread and considers how to answer this question. Marco had been better at flirting than he was at fucking. Once inside his apartment that night, his clumsy fingers fumbled across her skin like furry caterpillars. He pushed his tongue so far into her mouth it felt like he was licking her molars. They shared his bed with a pile of unfolded laundry, which smelled like it had been forgotten in the washer for a day or two before being transferred to the dryer. A bit of trash crinkled under her shoulder blade as Marco moved on top of her. By the time he finished and heaved his body down onto the mattress beside Dana, one leg strewn across her pelvis like a fallen tree limb, she was sober enough to notice the row of half empty glasses lining the windowsill above the bed. The old metal blinds were open; the light from the street gave the room an orange glow. She reached under her back and pulled out the foil wrapper of an energy bar. Within moments, Marco was snoring. Dana pushed his leg aside and collected her clothes into a bundle against her chest. Deciding the shower was probably even filthier than the bed, she dressed in the hallway before slipping out for home.

After that, Dana stopped going to spin class. Changed her gym schedule to avoid running into Marco. He texted once, “where u been?” Jonathan read it over her shoulder, asked who Marco was. “Just a friend from the gym,” she said, and deleted his contact information from her phone.

Then her breasts were sore. Her period was late. She peed on a stick.

“It’s over with him,” she says. “It’s been over for weeks.”


IT HAD BEEN DANA WHO CANCELLED the clinic appointment. After her failed experiment with Marco, she needed time to think. She told Jonathan that he was right, that they should be patient. But then she avoided him. Stayed late at work. Went to bed early. After just a couple of weeks, going to bed early became less about staying away from Jonathan and more about giving her body something it craved. Rather than flailing in the darkness, she slumbered. Would wake feeling like she had been flattened by a steam roller, so would hoist the blankets to her chin and descend back into her dreams.

When she was awake it was difficult to mask the changes in her appetite. Vegetables held no appeal now. She kept pretzels and Wheat Thins at arms’ reach. She discovered that avoiding an empty stomach was the best way to keep from throwing up, so she stashed almonds in her nightstand. Carried a little container of grapes in her purse to pull out one by one on the Metro.

She sensed that Jonathan noticed a change in her. Felt his eyes resting on her as she trailed back to their bedroom at 8 o’clock. But he said nothing. She wanted him to confront her. Scream at her. Instead he looked at her with a searching sadness that told her he was worried about her. He would reach out to touch her elbow, her shoulder. She pulled away.


“YOU’RE PREGNANT.” HIGH ABOVE, a breeze rustles the tulip-poplar leaves. Dana drops another bit of bread into the creek, watches it bob in the water before the current pulls it under the bridge and out of sight.

“I don’t know how to wash this away,”she says.

“Would you want to wash it away? Even if you could?”

“I want a baby, but I don’t know if I want this baby. I want your baby.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure. I love you, Jonathan.”


FINDING OUT SHE WAS PREGNANT WAS nothing like she had imagined it would be. No rush of joy, no Jonathan scooping her into an embrace as they hugged and laughed in their narrow bathroom. Instead she sat on the toilet, pants around her ankles, watching the absorbent material inside the pregnancy test wick her urine upward, immediately turning both lines blue. She didn’t have to look back at the package instructions to know what it meant. She felt her heart—the organ, not the symbol of love—open and empty as the blood blossomed up through her neck and filled her ears, flooding her mind with fear.


“I KEPT TELLING MYSELF YOU’D GET pregnant when the time was right. But in the back of my mind I was afraid the problem was me. Looks like I was right,” Jonathan says. He puts his elbows on the railing, cradles his forehead in his palms. His shoulders rise and fall with quiet sobs. Clipped to his soft curls is the black suede kippah he wore at their wedding. Their names and anniversary date are embossed in silver on the inside. The same date is engraved inside their wedding rings. Dana tucks the bread under her arm and looks down at her ring, twists it with the fingers from her opposite hand. Whether it’s the heat or the pregnancy, it doesn’t want to turn. She slides the rest of the loaf from the bag and flings it over the railing. It lands with a thud in the shallows.

“I’ve ruined everything,” she says, and turns to go.

“That’s it?” Jonathan looks over his shoulder at her, his voice rising. “You’re giving up just like that?”

“Aren’t you?” she says, turning back around.

“You’re my family, Dana. Baby or no baby.” This word—family— makes Dana realize she hasn’t felt like a part of one for a long time.

“I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to forgive me,” she says. “Or how I’ll ever forgive myself. It would take an ocean to wash this mess away.” She crumples the empty bread bag into a ball.

“I don’t know either,” he says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “But I think I want to try. If you do.” He moves toward her and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Do you want to try? To be a family?”

Dana looks at the water. With the exception of the soggy loaf of bread, it is beautiful. She reaches for Jonathan’s hand and allows her own tears to fall. “Yes,” she says. “I do.”


Briana Maley’s fiction has been published in Chaleur Magazine, Literary Mama and The Passed Note. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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April 2, 2019 by

Fiction: A Serious Infatuation

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Art: Ofri Cnaani

FOR THE LAST SIX MONTHS I’VE SAT in Margo G.’s office as she prepares to counsel grieving families. At first it was twice a week. Now, I manage a visit every day. My teaching schedule is lighter in the summer and this back and forth wouldn’t be possible if the law school and the hospital weren’t next to each other. We met last winter. I was interviewing health care professionals in preparation for the course I’ll teach in the fall, Euthanasia and The Law.

Margo is a terminal care nurse passionately committed to the dying—a cheerful, in-your-face kind of girl with smiling blue eyes and fabulous ginger hair. Her generous figure moves with purpose as she searches for a patient’s chart, or preens herself for a meeting. Discretion reminds Margo that the grief-stricken do not want to deal with the pink flesh of her upper arms, so she slips on a white lab coat over those sleeveless cotton dresses. She’s partial to square necklines and full skirts, large printed flowers. Peonies are her favorite—crumpled, mauve blossoms. Watching as she brushes her hair, powders her face and freshens the gloss on her full lips, desire overcomes me. I’ve never experienced anything like it, not even in the beginning with Ellie.

The truth is, I’m infatuated. I love everything about her. When something strikes her as humorous, she nearly comes apart with her rowdy laughing and coughing. There’s probably far too much smoking and drinking going on. I suppose when you’re involved with death every day, you cry more and laugh harder than the rest of us. No one knows about Margo—not my colleagues, not my friends. I feel awful.

Margo and Ellie are total opposites. Ellie Rutenberg, my wife. High strung, for sure, but what panache. Tall, with a lean 1930’s figure and bobbed dark hair, clothes look terrific on her. In fact, she looks better in clothes than—never mind. Margo, on the other hand, is far better out of her peony dresses. Ellie’s mother, Gloria, claims her daughter has always been tied into knots. Probably. Gloria sees eye to eye with me on many things, far more than Ellie. 

It’s Sunday. In a couple hours, we’re hosting a barbecue for my graduate students. I’m sitting here in my study trying to finish up these lecture notes for my class tomorrow. Is it hard to swallow that Theodore Whistler is a professor of jurisprudence? Believe it or not, they wanted me as interim head. I declined, though I’ve been chairing the search committee. The administrative part is deadly. Thank God for the seminars and my writing. This morning I was up early intending to work, but I went for a walk instead. The air was fresh from last night’s rain. Too early for people, I saw a few cats and dogs obediently waiting on front porches, parked tricycles and bikes, doors closed—houses still with sleep. But now the cool air has disappeared and it’s hot and humid. Through my study window I see Ellie standing beside a daisy bush. The muggy heat surrounds her as she leans over to snip off dead blooms and gather fresh ones for her basket. She’s wearing the floppy hat that hides her eyes and a long shift—that raw linen thing with grass and twigs woven into the fabric. A friend of hers brought it back from India. It’s too predictably hippie for my taste, but I guess it’s attractive. Whatever she puts on looks good, but they’re just tasteful clothes, if you know what I mean. They’re never her statement, never an extension of her body and soul.

Ellie can spend hours alone in the garden. At least we have that in common. She teaches in Women and Gender Studies. Whatever.

After all these years, she still won’t drink with me.

“Jews don’t drink,” she says.

Even the kids say it when they catch me pouring a Scotch and offering one to Ellie.

“Daddy, don’t you understand? Jews don’t drink!” First Amy, then little David.

My mother-in-law comes to my defense. I’ve never known Gloria to refuse a Scotch, and when Ellie and the kids frown at her, she laughs it off.

“Well, I guess I’m not a very good Jew, and your daddy isn’t one at all, so there!”

Our daughter, Amy, is struggling with preparations for her bat mitzvah and Ellie’s been after me to attend services and convert. It has become a cause for her in these last few months. It began around the time I met Margo G., but that’s a complete coincidence. Sometimes I look out this window and see her working—the determined digging, the eager weeding. I watch, exhausted by her fervor. Does the possibility of my conversion goad her brain?

I’m toying with the idea. Why not? I wouldn’t be giving up anything. Religion has never been a part of my life. Despite everything, I want to please her, and the paths seem few. Incidentally, the thought intrigues my father. I called him last week.

“What a splendid intellectual exercise!” I could hear my old Dad pulling himself together at his kitchen wall phone in Oregon. He spends the days alone, studying his map collection, trying to keep from going under. He’s never been one for religion either. Mother was the keeper of our Lutheran heritage. It died with her—like the secret treasure, buried with her sea captain grandfather.

“Conversion?” Gloria was appalled when she heard. “You’re wacky. And as for Ellie, I’ve no idea where she gets off being observant’. She certainly wasn’t raised that way!”

“It’s her statement,” I tell Gloria, “she’s defining her territory.”

“Territory indeed! What baloney, what chutzpah! God knows, Joe and I never went in for that stuff. When the boys were of bar mitzvah age, then yes, briefly, but not before, and certainly not after.”

Two Scotches later, Gloria adds that Joe would turn over in his grave if he knew his grandchildren were attending religious school. “For Joe, that would be the opposite of progress.”

There she is, my Ellie, with the daisies in her hand and the hat brim covering her eyes. Is she hiding? Is she crying? My God, does she suspect? I’ve never wanted to hurt her. She glances towards the garden gate.

Gloria enters, smiling cheerfully, cheeks flushed, cake carrier in hand. She lives only blocks away and she walked. Vigorously, I’m certain. Khaki shorts, a pale blue T-shirt and off-white canvas hiking hat. She approaches her daughter. They exchange a pecky kiss, those two tall women. Despite Gloria’s consumption of Scotch and Ellie’s obsession with conversion, they’re very close. I must never forget I’m the outsider, in case my mind is so blurred by alcohol that life seems to be going my way. Ellie pats her mother’s back. Gloria gently touches her daughter’s face. She’s brought her famous strawberry shortcake and she’s come early to help prepare for the party.

I’ve been envious of their physical ease, their mutual affection. My mother never touched my face, and I didn’t pat her back. We didn’t do that in my family. Or maybe it was because of the gender thing, but it didn’t happen with my father either. Perhaps such crippling issues are dealt with in the Gender Studies Program. I sound sloppy and sentimental, but I covet Ellie and Gloria’s closeness, their naturally affectionate manner. Margo is the same. She hugs everyone. Her family didn’t, she once told me, but she’s learned. She’s learned to be demonstrative from those who are nearing death.

Does that mean it won’t happen for me until I’m dying? That’s a stupid thought. I’ve worked hard to achieve what I have—my family, career, home. I’ve been lucky, and I love my life. Am I a fool to throw it all away?

I wonder what Margo’s doing? Is she “lying out” as she refers to it? I don’t believe for a moment she truly exposes all that pink flesh to U.V. rays. She wants me to believe she indulges herself, that she’s still vibrant enough to challenge life with “risky” behavior. Margo knows I worry. What a piece of work. I need her, but we’ve agreed never to contact each other when I’m home.


“YOU’VE ALWAYS DEFENDED HIM, MOM, but I tell you, something’s wrong.” Ellie’s voice is anxious, her eyes soulful as she stares down at the basket, gently running her fingers along a daisy stem.

“Ellie, you’re such a worrywart! Can’t you relax, darling?” Gloria considers her daughter’s face.

This was the most difficult of all her children, by far the loveliest, the most intelligent, but certainly the most insecure. Gloria often wonders how she failed her daughter. What happened to the child, Ellie, to make her so unsure, so apprehensive?

“No, I can’t relax. His grad students will be arriving soon, and she’ll be among them. What if I discover who it is? How should I act?”

“Like a lady, my darling. Always like a lady.”

“Cut the crap, Mom! Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.”

“And how are you going to discover who it is?”

Ellie drops her eyes. “It might be something obvious, something

awful and obvious.”

“What? A clandestine kiss behind the wisteria?”

“You know what I mean!” Ellie removes her hat in exasperation. “Why do you insist on treating this as a joke?”

“I’m sorry darling, but you’re being silly. Theo adores you,” Gloria whispers, leaning towards her daughter until their foreheads touch. “Theodore Whistler positively worships you.”

Ellie pulls back, exasperated. “I wish I could be so certain.”

Gloria throws back her head and laughs.

“Never mind,” Ellie pouts. “Forget it. Come help me in the kitchen.”

As the two women walk around the back of the house and into the kitchen, Ellie turns to her mother. “He was watching us the whole time we stood in the garden. He watches from his study window. He stares at me when I work with the flowers. He’s jealous of us.”

“Honestly, Ellie, sometimes you don’t act like a grown woman with children.”

“Think what you want, but I’m telling you, he’s jealous of us,” Ellie repeats, a tight smile forming on her thin lips. 

Gloria realizes she hasn’t seen Ellie smile for days. Even like that.


THE CHILDREN ARE HOME FROM SWIMMING. I hear them talking in the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers, probably helping themselves to cereal. Gloria will be “doctoring” as she says, the potato salad. She puts in lemon juice instead of vinegar, a spot of yogurt with the mayonnaise. Ellie lets her do what she wants in the kitchen. She doesn’t care. The kitchen is not her domain. The garden and children, her teaching, her recent obsession with the temple, these are Ellie’s preoccupations. In fact, I do most of the cooking. It’s one of my pleasures.

I usually spend Sundays preparing food for the week. I put on music and cook up a storm. On the days that Ellie and I both get home late, I’ll call the children from the office, instructing them on the oven temperature for the casserole waiting in the fridge. Having instilled them with the fear of God regarding danger and accidents, I follow up with cautionary reminders about the hot oven. The truth is, I fret constantly, mostly about freak accidents: the toddler who blows away his mouth and chin by licking the outlet; the child who runs into the street for a ball; the teenager who dives into a murky, shallow lake and ends up a quadriplegic. I worried while Ellie was pregnant—gross deformities. Gloria laughed. I had to tell someone. It was such a relief when the babies were born, healthy and pink and screaming their lungs out.

I adore them, but I don’t tell them. Ellie says the words “I love you.” Gloria does too. I’m a professor of jurisprudence and I can’t articulate love. Gloria teases me. She can’t understand why I make myself so crazy. Neither can I. She says the kids are incredible—they’d never do anything dangerous or careless. I know, and they’re responsible, too. They set the table and make a dinner salad. Gloria’s always available, only blocks away, just in case. She’s been wonderful about taking over when we can’t be there—car-pooling, evenings, trips. Not that Ellie and I go away together. Not in years. She claims it’s too much of a hassle. The truth is, she’s not interested in being alone with me. I guess I’ve lost my charm.

Ellie is probably arranging her daisies in the blue glass vase. Last month I ordered it from the Chicago Art Institute gift shop. She was impressed, saying she wasn’t aware I was interested in museums and their gift shops. She asked what the occasion was.

“No occasion,” I blurted, tongue-tied. I should have said more.

When Ellie is done with her flower arrangement, she’ll step back to look, engrossed with the composition. There’ll be the adjustment of a stem or two, more yew for greenery, more water in the vase. Ready. She’ll carry it over to the mantle in the living room.

If I am to keep Margo G., I will have to leave my family. I’ll see the children once a week and they’ll spend every other weekend with us, probably hating Margo. Isn’t that the way it is—divorce, the division of property, custody issues? Conversion will be out. Gloria might still have a drink with me occasionally, but I mustn’t forget that I am the outsider when it comes to Gloria and Ellie Rutenberg.

“Mom says it’s time to start the barbecue.”

Amy is standing in the doorway. She’s wearing a turned-around baseball cap and her little bikini bathing suit. She looks so fresh and young. I want to tell her to change, to put on something more protective. My children’s skin shouldn’t be exposed to the sun, but I’m trying to be a good father. I say nothing.

“I’m coming.” I reach for my hat on the desk and follow my daughter outside.

It has turned into a perfect, summer afternoon. The clouds are gone, the sun is out and there’s a slight breeze to carry away the heat. I feel better. Walking towards the garage, I wave to Gloria in the kitchen. She’s standing at the patio door, smiling, drying her hands on a dishtowel. I see Ellie coming out of the supply closet carrying paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery. She looks stressed. Only 20 minutes ago she was picking daisies. If flowers can’t help her, how can I?

Amy is tagging behind me. She wants to help.

“It’s dark in here, Daddy.”

“I know. Watch your step, Amy.”

In the dim light of the garage, I find the bag of briquettes. I hear Amy behind me.

“What can I carry, Daddy?”

I look around. The briquettes are too heavy, and I don’t want her carrying matches. I reach for the can of lighter fluid.

“Carefully,” I say, handing her the can and bending for the briquettes.

I pass the clumps of peonies, flopped out across the lawn. They look heavy and exhausted. I think of Margo’s dress with the white field, the bruised blossoms. This year, I will have to dig them up, separate and replant, if we are to have decent blooms next summer. The thought of garden work is pleasing, but then I remember the party and the socializing with my students. I’m not up to it. I empty the bag of briquettes into the barbecue.

“Let me spritz it, Dad!”

“Better not, Amy. I’ll do the fluid. You can light it.” She agrees.

I watch as she carefully strikes the match. I’ll have to make small talk in answer to polite questions. They’ll ask if we built the house, if we designed the garden. Ellie will be aloof, Gloria, friendly. The kids will want to play ball with the students.

I watch as the flame licks up in excitement. Instinctively Amy pulls back her hand and drops the match. I see it fall to the ground near her foot.


LATER, AT THE HOSPITAL, I REALIZE that Amy must have squeezed the can as she carried it from the garage to the barbecue, spilling lighter fluid on her legs. There was no other way the liquid could escape. The can had to be squeezed or shaken. The lid was on, but I didn’t warn her not to squeeze. She’s only a child. What happened? I’m always so hysterically cautious. I was preoccupied, that’s what happened, I was obsessing while my daughter was dribbling lighter fluid down her legs. 

I sink, lower and lower, as we sit and wait, as I try to explain to Ellie, to Gloria, my Rutenberg women. It doesn’t do us any good. Ellie weeps, Gloria comforts her. I am the outsider. Ellie looks at me with hate.

I could buy a hundred blue vases and fill them with all the daisies in the world. I could convert to Judaism three times over. I could give up Margo. I could do all this and more, but the truth is, my wife does not hold me in her heart, and probably never did. It’s that simple.

Alone, I wait to see how bad it will be for our Amy.

 Nina Barragan was born in Córdoba, Argentina. Her three books of fiction are No Peace at Versailles, Losers and Keepers in Argentina and The Egyptian Man. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is at work on a memoir. 

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April 2, 2019 by

Poetry: Brisket Wars

The oven preheats to 325. Mama prepares the brisket.

In the warming kitchen, she follows her recipe for the meat

as her mother and grandmother had, tenderly

placing the slab in a roasting pan, pointed-fat

side up, sprinkled with onions, salt, garlic; bloody-

flat side down, hiding the family’s rough-cut


history. Mama proclaims the piece is prime, first cut.

She buys from Irv the butcher. His koshered brisket

promises a sacred knowledge. He throws a bloody

extra chunk into our package already leaking from juicy meat.

He winks at me, thick arms hovering, fat

cheeks quivering, and hands our purchase over tenderly.


At the Formica table, I smooth Doris Day paper dolls tenderly.

Bad luck to tear thin skin. Along dotted lines I cut

evening gowns for figures that never fatten.

Mama brags to her two sisters that she makes Cleveland’s best brisket.

I prod stringy strands, forklift a bite of gristly meat,

chew hard until I can swallow without gagging on the bloody


legacy. Mama and her sisters escape Poland, its bloody

pogroms in 1938. Batya, the elder, uses bone broth to tenderize,

and horseradish to spice up her beef. On Shabbos she meets

Mama and me for cake and coffee. At 13, Batya cuts

out patterns 8 hours a day for a seamstress. Batya advises brisket

should be choice, not lean; do not trim the saddle of fat.


That layer makes the dish delish. My tongue’s slick with fat.

Mama whispers her papa beats Batya bloody

when she refuses to hand over her wages. They only eat brisket

on Passover. He gambles the money away even when Batya tenders

her living. Doroshke, the younger sister, doesn’t cut

her schooling short. She’s his pretty favorite. But her meat’s


dry, tasteless, tough. Mama and Batya for once agree. Meetings

over. Done. All gone. No leftover recipes for how to cleave a fatted

calf or breed a better beast. I move far, order take-out, and try to cut

the cord clean, but can’t staunch the bleeding.

No recipe to dress wounds that remain so tender.

Mama worries who’ll marry me if I can’t make a decent brisket.


You can’t overcook brisket. Stick it in the oven and the meat cooks itself.

Men like a little fat to grab hold of as long as it’s tender. Learn to make

the bloody recipe. Be generous. Brisket’s a forgiving cut, a very

                 forgiving cut. 


Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Part of what charms me about this poem is that it is a sestina, a complex form: six stanzas of six lines plus a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, and with all six words appearing in the closing three-line envoi. You get special points for end-words that have double meanings. Sestinas are hard to write but easy once you get the hang of them—just like cooking a good brisket. Originally used for refined topics such as romantic love, a sestina can be used even for the nourishing tragicomedy of multigenerational Jewish family life. So the poem uses a recipe, and is itself a recipe—for celebrating survival. The details, of course, are what make it so delicious.

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January 10, 2019 by

After Years of Silence, a Phone Call — and a Visit

I jumped awake when my phone rang, and my heart stopped when I realized that it was my mother calling. I couldn’t see her name or number on my screen, just the word “Blocked,” a remnant of a time that had ended only a couple of days earlier, a time when she and my father had removed themselves from my life.

My grandparents had warned me that she would be calling to make amends, so I was somewhat prepared to see “Blocked” pop up. But I honestly didn’t expect she would actually call. Over the past few years, neither of my parents had been my parents—so I assumed this would be yet another false hope. But she called.

One of the first things that my mother told me was that I “still sounded like a baby.” As a person who hasn’t had the luxury of being someone’s baby for a very long time, it infuriated me. But when she asked if she could come visit me in Colorado, I said yes. I told myself that I was only saying yes because I wanted to convince her to let me see the kids. I didn’t let myself entertain the idea that I wanted to see her, or that she truly was interested in knowing me again.

In the days leading up to her visit, I reflected on all that I had lost, all that she and my father took from me. I recalled the trauma of our separation which was caused by a variety of factors, but in part, my decision to embrace my Jewish heritage in the face of deep disapproval. I remembered all the nights that I woke up sobbing, missing my siblings with a ferocity that felt like dying. And it filled me with rage.

Something soul-destroying happened to me when I became estranged from both my parents. I felt like a person whose history, whose childhood didn’t even exist. I felt like someone who was born from nothing but air, not flesh and blood. I would look for childhood pictures and remember that they were all in a house that I and my grandparents were no longer welcome in. I would tell people that I had brothers and sisters, and it felt like a lie. The faces I saw in my mind were frozen in time, not the faces of the children my siblings had become, but the faces of small children waving as they sent their big sister off to school, not knowing that three years would pass by before they saw her again.

I would look around at the people who had become my family—my partner, my grandparents, my friends—and I wouldn’t see myself in any of them. Every time I saw my partner interact with his parents, it felt like ripping out a page from a storybook in an alternate universe, one where my parents could love me without reservations and with consistency.

I knew that my grandparents would do anything for me, but my grandfather wasn’t my biological grandfather. I didn’t see the genesis of myself when I looked at him, although I did see someone who loved me very much. And though my grandmother had saved my life more than once, with her petite frame, light skin, green eyes, and auburn hair, so unlike my own dark skin and eyes—sometimes she too felt like the opposite of me. I felt like that little baby bird going around asking people “Are you my mother?” But I wasn’t a cute character in a children’s book. I was someone whose parents had walked out—which I felt made me a subject of both fascination and pity.

I didn’t feel real. But then my mother walked through my apartment door. And I saw myself. My mother and I look exactly alike, an eerie phenomenon of duality that exists throughout her family. It always shocks people. It shocked my partner, who commented on how beautiful we both were, but how odd it was that we had the same face, the same hair.

I don’t need people to tell me that I’m my mother’s twin. Even when things were good, she was more of a sister than a mother. She had me at 22, and throughout my childhood I was her best friend and confidant. I always felt like it was my responsibility to protect her, but I didn’t know what I was protecting her from. I just knew that she was deeply sad and deeply upset about everything in her life, including me. It would be easy to say that the cruel way she chose to manifest her disappointment in me proved she didn’t love me. This is the story that makes the most sense when I review the evidence.

But as a writer, I am learning that the obvious story is almost never the story that needs to be told. I am learning that truth is almost never swallowed easily. I am learning that we can be most fulfilled by accepting the things that scare us.

In our time apart, it was surprisingly easy for my mother to become a monster in my mind. I had a lot of material to make her into this monster—hell, one time she even told me she was one. Other people who had also been hurt by her felt the same. I thought I had my mother figured out. And seeing her this way made easier to cope—after all, who could love a monster that couldn’t love them back?

I’ve always known that I looked exactly like my mother. But what always terrified me was the possibility that I might be exactly like my mother. The idea of that I had some evil lurking in my soul that would cause me to lose the people I love ate away at me. Maybe my parents were justified in abandoning me, maybe I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love.

But when I saw my mother this weekend, when I talked with her, I did see myself. I saw someone who was deeply and irrevocably hurt by her own mother. I saw a black woman who struggled to be valued by her family, and by society. I saw someone who was desperately looking for someone to protect her, and going about it in all the wrong ways. I saw myself. And this time, I didn’t flinch. I’m not big on forgiveness, but in this moment, forgiving my mother felt like forgiving myself. Forgiving myself for being impacted by a world that doesn’t value women like me. Forgiving myself for “acting crazy” after I was violated by men and by my mother. I needed to understand her, so that I could understand the places I had been, and the places I hoped never to reach.

It was so easy to make my mother into a monster, and she became a vessel that held all of my pain.

But I saw that the pain she had inflicted on me had come from her own mother. And more than anything else, more than revenge, more than the last word, I just wanted peace. I wanted and needed to know what to do to end the cycle.

My mother seemed like a changed person. She apologized to me. She told me she loved me. She’s done that before, but I think I might choose to believe that this time is different. At the very least, it’s different on my end.

She told me that I could come visit my brothers and sisters. I’m looking forward to hugging them, to seeing the wonderful people they’ve grown into. I’m looking forward to grabbing a few of my baby pictures. I’m looking forward to feeling whole.

Nylah Burton is a writer from Washington D.C. She is currently based in Colorado.


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January 10, 2019 by

“Not On Speaking Terms.” Estrangement Inside Jewish Families

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.34.57 AM

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 4.42.45 PMYOU SEE THEM ALL THE TIME, IT SEEMS— stories featuring warmhearted family reconciliations. The adopted child, now an adult, who has a happy reunion with her birth mother. Siblings separated by war who find one another decades later and can bridge the divide of time.

Then there are the family stories that are the counterpoint to these. They don’t make it into the press, and there are no warmhearted get-togethers photographed for posterity. These are narratives of family fragmentations, splits that are especially challenging to repair. Those who experience them say that they can come with more emotional anguish than the death of a family member, as if a choice had been made to sever a family tie.

Painful cut-offs within a family mean that some are grieving the loss of living family members. Siblings may go in different directions and be unable to find their way to a relationship with one another around obstacles of hurt or perceived injustice. Or an adult child feels so wounded by her parents’ behavior that breaking away seems like her best survival tactic. Or it’s a parent who severs the tie with an adult child. Judy [names have been changed here*], whose daughter turned away from her parents and siblings after marrying a man who, in Judy’s view, is emotionally abusive, still mourns this loss a decade later. “My daughter and I were very close, we spoke three or four times a day. And then we didn’t speak at all,” she says. “For a while I couldn’t even bring myself to see my other grandkids because it reminded me that I couldn’t see her children.”

Family gatherings can be a painful reminder of who’s missing from the High Holiday meal, Shabbat gathering, birthday celebration or Passover table. In Jewish families that tout family closeness as “the greatest value,” contending with these frequent occasions can be daunting.

As a mental health practitioner, I know my colleagues and I always roll up our sleeves for a holiday season, which commonly triggers depression, anxiety, and mental anguish in our clients, as they compare the childhood memories of holidays with the current realities. Many Jews not only are acculturated to the primacy of family ties, but also have more holiday traditions and religious marker events to contend with, Shabbat included, which can create a dizzying round of logistical planning. For those from fragmented Jewish families, this process can create a parallel cycle of conflict, grief, and guilt, as we confront who is absent, and why.

And when people have empty spaces in their family tree because of relatives lost to the Holocaust, for example, volitional absences may be especially piercing. A family member who has cut herself off—or been cut off—also is likely to feel, at best, outside the norm, and at worst experience secrecy or shame around failing on a salient measure of successful family life—keeping connected.

The family that has been shunned or abandoned by an absent relative also feels shame, says Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director at the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services in New York. A rabbi and social worker involved in the Jewish healing movement, he counsels families and says that “Shame is a major factor in family estrangement—an estranged adult child means to people ‘I’ve been a failure as a parent; it must be me’.”

Yet maybe more families experience these fractures than we usually realize. If there were an honest discussion—say, in a synagogue, a pta meeting at a Jewish school, in a Jewish organization or a Lilith salon—you might hear a surprising number of participants admit to estrangements.

A ranking injunction in the Ten Commandments is to honor one’s father and mother. Could the fact that respecting one’s parents is a commandment mean it is not always the norm, and therefore we need to be commanded to do it? Certainly the Bible has no shortage of families rent apart by feuds, and sometimes by unforgivable behavior: Cain and Abel. Joseph and his brothers. Or older children whose birthrights were, by deceit, given to a younger sibling—Esau and Jacob, Menashe and Ephraim.

Estrangement in Jewish families is multifaceted. While some individuals describe the anguish of being ousted from a child’s life with little apparent explanation, another narrative is of the powerful—and potentially healing—decision of a formerly abused adult child to shed the traumatic connection to an abusive parent or family member. There is even recognition of these circumstances in some new prayerbooks, where the Yizkor liturgy offers special lines to recite when one cannot honor a deceased parent with the traditional tender words of a mourner.

I would argue, from my perspective as a clinical psychologist, that for those experiencing family fractures such as estrangement, they’re feeling what is known as “complicated grief.” In the uncomplicated grieving process, we understand the “normal” sadness we feel after losing someone or something meaningful in our lives (through death, divorce or a move, for example).

What makes complicated grief different is that it generally does not diminish with time. Often it is difficult to move on. Complicated grief turns the normal grieving and healing process on its head. “Most of the people I have spoken to suggest that being estranged by a family member is one of the most painful events across the lifespan,” writes psychologist Dr. Kylie Agllias in an article “‘You’re Dead To Me’: Why Estrangement Hurts So Much.” Agllias explains that an estrangement causes pain that is “intensified by: (i.) its unexpectedness, (ii.) its ambiguous nature, (iii.) the powerlessness it creates, and (iv.) social disapproval.”

For family members who have been rejected, the ambiguity and lack of transparency about the estrangement can cause both mental anguish and confusion about the relationship, leaving the person who is rejected “wondering,” as Dr. Agllias puts it, “and ruminating about the truth, with no means of discovering it.”

In a Jewish family where verbal communication has been the norm, unexplained silence from a close relative can feel especially puzzling, despite the fact that family estrangement among Jews is indeed not rare.


Estrangements and family splits can happen after years of buildup or suddenly after a change in circumstance like a death, divorce or marriage. Sometimes they are precipitated by serious money or religion arguments. Sometimes they feel fated, held at bay for decades until a final rupture can’t be stopped.

“My relationship with my brother was strained, and then there was this blowout Passover seder 12 years ago,” says Elizabeth, who is in her late 60s. “My gay son was there, and my brother said something homophobic. That was it for me.” As many women might, Elizabeth partly blamed herself for acceding to her own mother’s desire to have the whole family together for seder—she’d agreed to come, even while knowing there was the potential for a major fight.

For Nylah Burton (see sidebar) a combination of factors— including her growing identification with the Judaism of her paternal family rather than with her mother’s Christianity, plus fallout from surviving a sexual assault as a young woman—led to a split with her mother, and through that, with her father and siblings too. Yet she sees the split as having come from something deeper than the nominal reasons it happened: ‘For Black people, Christianity can be used as a tool of control,” she says. “My mom was consumed by a desire to be accepted, and to use Christianity and misogyny to shame people.” Breaking free from her mother’s preferred paths proved impossible to overcome, for a time.

Along with religion and worldview, money can be a major factor in breakups, from arguments over inheritances and heirlooms to conflicts within family businesses: Judy, who warily brought her son-in-law into the family business, says a painful split with her daughter began when the uneasy business partnership dissolved acrimoniously, leading to drawn-out legal wrangling. Until the business split, Judy says, tension had simmered for a long time. And once it happened, the young couple mostly cut off contact, an act she says devastated her.

That is the parent’s perspective. On the other side of such conflicts, individuals who have themselves been the initiators of an estrangement talk about the choice they made to free themselves from abusive or harmful patterns that they’re sure would have persisted had they not stepped away.

Jessica Berger Gross, author of the memoir Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home, describes growing up in a family that was a nice, respectably Jewish clan from the outside but abusive on the inside, so much so that she eventually chose to cut off contact. “If you had an abusive spouse, would people expect you to stay? No, they would gather around you and tell you to leave this person,” she says. “You can’t stay in a destructive relationship.”

Another memoirist, Harriet Brown, author of Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, says “In our culture we tend to see estrangement as a problem that needs to be solved, but I see it as not a cause but a response to the problem. Sometimes it’s really the best option.”


Sometimes estrangement is about the trauma of the relationship in the here and now. And sometimes it’s more extensive when there have already been instances of a family member’s estrangement which modeled this exit door for future generations. Intergenerational trauma, a term that has only recently become better-known, refers to trauma passed down from previous generations to their children and grandchildren, who then carry its invisible weight—such as the feelings and behaviors in secondand third-generation Holocaust survivors spurred by events they did not experience first-hand. Intergenerational trauma can appear both psychologically (as in the case of my own fear of travel) as well as physically, with second-generation Holocaust survivors displaying higher than normal rates of chronic illness, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and other genetic abnormalities, such as lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps your body manage stress.

Particularly for women, there’s an added layer. What does it mean to be held to the notion (or the ideal) that females are the connectors, the glue, the stewards of the home, while facing the reality that one or more members of the family have un-stuck themselves from relationships that were supposed to last a lifetime?

“The way that Jewishness factors into all of this for me is with the Jewish holidays,” says Melanie, a professional in California whose mother and grandmother are estranged from each other.

“I think because Jewish holidays aren’t dominant and Christian hegemony is, we have to carve out our own family time and defend it. It’s hard when Passover comes and I have to make it to two seders—my mom’s and my grandmother’s. I also notice the disconnection in my Jewish celebration because so much of the message is about being with family.”

The way that American Jewishness emphasizes holidays and boisterous gatherings—in part as an antidote to collective historical trauma—can be a sticking point for those who suffer from silences. “Holidays are very painful for me,” says Elizabeth, who cut off her brother after he insulted her gay son. “We do them with friends, and that takes the place of family, and you adapt the best you can. But there’s definitely a hole, even though my children hated having holidays with my brother and cousins.”

As a woman, the pressure is doubled, she says. “We’re not doing these holidays with my brother, but [in the immediate family] the holidays that are happening are through me—the Jewishness is through me. Who makes sure the son in Chicago gets the menorah for Hannukah? It’s the Jewish mother.”

Rachel, a professional in her 30s, said she feels the double pressure of being a woman and being Jewish. In her case, several of her siblings are estranged from each other, and she is the only one who speaks to everyone. She talks about the value of loyalty as being imbued in her in a particularly Jewish and female way from an early age. “My grandmother was a mean woman. Even at the end she was mean,” she says. “Yet we would have holiday dinner as a family at home and then go to the hospital to visit her, even though she wasn’t nice. I took that lesson, that you hold the relationship even when that person is difficult.”

But her brothers, several of whom don’t speak to each other, didn’t seem to take their mother’s advice as much to heart. “When I was a child, my mother told me, ‘If you want a relationship with your brothers when you’re older, you’re going to have to get along with their wives’, and I’ve tried really hard,” she says. This kind of exhortation, she recalls, goes hand in hand with her brothers’ not having had to clean up after dinner when she did. The physical and the emotional labor were both on her.

The ways feminists talk about gendered expectations sneaking in—be nice, smooth things over, don’t speak up—compound the Jewish communal pressure to be the person who carries the family forward. This pressure, both physical (bearing children is but one example) and social (hosting holidays, making the congratulatory or consoling phone calls), can be very fraught for women in fractured families. “Women are socialized to put our own feelings last,” says Harriet Brown. “You’re expected to get along.”

For Jessica Berger Gross, who stopped speaking to her parents a few years ago, these gendered expectation both made her experience worse and haunted her once she had separated herself. “My mother always said ‘A son is a son until he takes a wife, a daughter is a daughter for life’, and I didn’t do that,” she says.


The consequences of such fractures can be both small and vast, from nagging guilt to extra caretaking work to the effective loss of entire groups of relatives. And it doesn’t matter if the split has been chosen by or is imposed upon on a woman.

Melanie says she felt the collateral damage of her other family members’ estrangements. “A number of years ago, my grandmother wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t get out of bed, and I realized we needed to call 911. I went to my grandmother’s home and did that by myself,” she says. “I discussed this with my mom at one point. My mom was just focused on the rift itself, and I had to tell her, ‘The rift between you and grandma drives a rift between me and you’. It wasn’t obvious to her at all; she was upset and had no idea.”

Harriet Brown acknowledges this in terms of her own choice to cut off contact. It had consequences for her, and for her relatives. “When you’re estranged from one person, it involves an entire family system,” she says. “Because I had difficulty with my mother, I wasn’t allowed to have a relationship with my father. I was not part of the family and I was not invited to things.

“Families often stay together for biological and social reasons, and when you push against those primal elements and make a rupture of some kind, it’s such a complex and layered taboo, everything from Mother’s Day on social media to family holidays to deaths in the family brings it all back,” she says. “My decision made my father’s and sister’s lives harder. It also made the lives of the rest of the extended family harder—aunts, uncles, grandparents—because they had to navigate our estrangement and also deal with the fallout from my mother.”

Nylah Burton faced particularly traumatic fallout when her mother cut her off from her beloved younger siblings. “She knew her power over me was not to let me see my siblings,” she says. Similarly painful consequences awaited Judy, whose daughter and son-in-law cut her off after their business relationship broke up: “What it did to our family was unbelievable—there has been almost no communication between our daughter and her siblings.” Her husband, Judy says, fell into a depression and she cried herself to sleep every night.


Many of the women spoke of a sense of shame when it came to talking publicly about such splits, which can be exacerbated by communities that don’t know how to talk about situations seen as outside the norm, says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub. “The community can’t always adjust the way the family needs, and the family then feels unsupported.”

Despite the consequences, many of the people I interviewed said the freedom they felt after an estrangement was a reward that made the pain worth it. “I went from having it be a secret shame to being public about it, and it’s been super empowering,” says Berger Gross. “People I grew up with have come out and really supported me.”

Telling her mother how she was stretched thin by the mom’s estrangement from her grandma helped Melissa, too. “After that conversation, my mom came for the drive to see my grandmother in the hospital after a fall, and she sat in the waiting room. At first I wondered if she was going to want to see my grandma, but it meant so much that she waited in the waiting room for me. It helped me really feel the estrangement wasn’t about me.”

Nylah Burton found unexpected balm when she left home to live with her grandparents. “Judaism was a way that my grandparents and I got a lot closer. We had a lot of fun making our own traditions. We started doing Shabbat dinners, I was able to explain why Shabbat was super important to me,”

“At the end of the day, I feel that I am a better person because of the estrangement. I’ve formed this connection with my grandmother. I’ve also been able to be a part of the Jewish community, which my mother wouldn’t let me do. I’m able to say what I think and believe, and that’s a big part of my personality.”


Sometimes, estrangements end and lead to halting contact, as with Nylah Burton and for Judy, whose daughter and son-in-law have allowed her to visit several times recently. But sometimes the silence settles in for good.

For almost all of the women we spoke to, therapy and a “chosen family” were the two chief components of moving forward in the wake of estrangement.

In this sense, Jewish culture can be both a pain point and an anodyne. Rav Rachel Isaacs, a lesbian and rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation in Portland, Maine, says that queer people understand this latter point. “I am very aware of family estrangement, and I bring it onto the bima and into our conversations with the congregation,” she says. “When you’re a queer person, you’re more conscious of those family rejections. We know plenty of queer folks estranged from their families; Queers have always had to have a family of choice, and that sensitizes me more about not assuming the ways in which families work.”

Isaacs tries to offer spiritual and scriptural healing, too. “There’s a psalm for the Days of Awe that you say throughout the month of Elul. It says ‘Though my father and mother may abandon me, God will gather me up’. I think the original idea was, if a parent dies, that you can go on. But for family estrangement, that can be very comforting that there’s someone beyond your original parents, that in the face of estrangement, God can be your parent.”

In fact, the synagogue itself, and the community it offers, can be another substitute. “We have a small synagogue, and it feels much more like a family than an institution; it’s 60 families, and there’s a very familial sense that the other kids in the congregation are siblings to your kids and the older adults are your Bubbes and Zaydes. At its best, a synagogue can serve as a family even if your family of origin can’t be there for you in the way you want or need,” says Isaacs. “Even if people aren’t estranged [from their families of origin], Jews are much more spread out, so synagogue has to take the place of family. Around the High Holy Days, there is a real emphasis on reconciliation, but I always say, that doesn’t include abusive relationships; I don’t expect people to reconcile with their abusive family members. One lesson that can be learned is gratitude for alternative chosen family, for Jewish community, that it can serve the place of family.”

Elizabeth, since her parents have died and she doesn’t speak to her brother, describes Jewish rituals with friends that help “fill the void.” “I have women friends on the Upper West Side and a bunch of us do Hanukkah together, for example. That has created a community for me,” she says. But her advice goes deeper: “My advice is also to find a good therapist and bang it out. Don’t pack it in and suffer and bleed. I always tell people, ‘Go have therapy, nobody can treat themselves, it’s just not possible, you can’t administer your own medicine’.”

Healing takes time and strength and lots of work and faith in the future. “I’m strong enough to know I don’t have to settle, and I also don’t have to be angry forever,” says Nylah Burton.

Weintraub says we’re living in a moment of alienation between generations. “It’s a time of rugged individualism. Some people don’t know how to balance dependent and independent lives with children and adults,” he says. “Many parents step back from offering advice and others overdo it. It’s a tricky thing for families. Young adults might know that their parents want them to get a Bachelor’s degree—or preferably a Master’s degree—but when it comes to interpersonal or even ethical choices, the parents may have not shared their convictions, and if there wasn’t some implied system, then you don’t know what you’re arguing with or what you’ve been given as your family’s Torah. It really leaves people not just empty, but at a loss.

To connect with families suffering, Weintraub uses his own struggles with a son who had a “rocky journey” with Asperger’s and now lives happily in Ireland. “I think he needed this distance,” Weintraub says. “At a family wedding, where the cousins and children are doing the perfect schools, jobs, and incomes, people ask about my son and I say ‘My standards have shifted from the script we had in front of us’.” Weintraub advises, “Find your peers. We were a part of the ‘Miserable Families Club’. Hopefully you can find them in the Jewish community, but even if you can’t find them, share your stories with the community. Start getting the stories out there, so you don’t add to the burden of isolation.”

Ilana Kramer is a clinical psychologist and writer living in Berkeley, California.

*Those referred to by first name only are individuals who have requested anonymity.


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January 10, 2019 by

Late Revelations: When Our Matriarchs Lose Their Filters

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.53.57 AMAt the age of 90, my mother started speaking very differently about her mother. Her jaw tightened when she mentioned her. “All she cared about is money!” she would say. “She was competing with Rockefeller! She wanted to see how big the number in her bank account could get!” On the dinette table stood a matchbook- size photo of my grandmother’s pallid face in a babushka, her dark eyes huge and worried. She seemed, frankly, locked away, pleading to be released. The snapshot had been there, imploring, since my grandmother died 30 years ago. Now it vanished.

Can there be such a thing as selective dementia? My mother’s mind remained clear in all other matters. This was baffling.

Her mother, my grandmother, had been a widow who’d supported three young children by working as a seamstress in the Bronx. My mother was only two when her father died of tuberculosis. The family was poor. In my girlhood when I visited my elderly grandmother, half-finished dresses still lay piled on the table. Sometimes my grandmother was on her knees, a visitor on a chair before her, as my grandmother positioned a hem. Later, when she could no longer sew, she made 25 cents an hour stuffing records into record-jackets, alone in her apartment.

“She was a slave!” my mother often said bitterly of her mother, while I was growing up. “She worked from before dawn until midnight.”

“Well, what about Saturday?”

“Saturday she went to shul and then, in the afternoon, to Crotona Park.”

“Did she read, when she was in the park?”

“Are you kidding? She was exhausted. She didn’t read. She sat.”

This always surprised me, because I recalled my grandmother’s glass-front bookcase crammed with volumes, all in Yiddish or Hebrew. To be too tired to read! I couldn’t understand a life that didn’t have ample reading.

Mameleh my mother used to call her mother. We lived about eight blocks away. They would sit in our kitchen and drink tea. My mother once forbade me from accepting a quarter from her mother, who needed it. When I saw them, I saw their tenderness. They didn’t hug, but they often kissed on the cheek.

And so, in the beginning, and for a long time after, I dismissed my mother’s late-in-life negative view of her mother. I once asked a psychiatrist about it. “It sounds so warped to me, this brand new version of her mother. Do you think there’s anything to it?”

The psychiatrist frowned. “Well, most people don’t wait until they’re 90 to start resenting their parents,” she said, which I took to mean that if there was actually something to resent, my mother would have found it decades earlier.

So I dismissed this version as nonsensical. But as the years passed—eight, so far—my mother continued to speak of her mother in the same negative way, and I began to concede that there might be something to her version, especially as details emerged. “She didn’t care about me,” my mother told me. “I had my tonsils out when I was eleven years old, and she didn’t come.

There was another girl near me who’d also had her tonsils out. I heard her say to her parents, ‘Give my leftover ice cream to the orphan girl’. That’s how I seemed. An orphan! So they gave me the ice cream after she licked it.”

She also said, “When I was six I had bronchitis, and the hospital sent me to a Catholic hospital in Brighton Beach. I was there months. My mother came to visit only once, at Passover, and brought me a box of matzah. That was the last thing I needed! The other kids were already sticking pins in me for being a Jew! What did I need with matzahs then?”

She’d never told me these stories as a child or young adult. Only in middle-age did I get to hear them. And for many reasons I felt I was lucky to have a mother who’d lived so long.

Because my new understanding is that in advanced age, defenses thin. In old age my mother was giving me a portrait of her internal world as a very young girl. How else to understand a mother who is too busy to give attention to her toddler? She must be money-hungry! Insatiable. How else to understand a woman who doesn’t visit, but remains obsessed with her sewing machine? I am getting the version of her mother that my mother experienced when she was a child.

“I never could never find my love for her,” my mother told me one night, when I had ordered a glass of wine for her over supper. We were staying at the Marriott on my husband’s business points; my parents’ apartment had bedbugs, so we shared a bedroom for the first time in our lives. My mother didn’t drink alcohol, even at Passover. “It feels like floating!” my mother reported back, laying in the next bed over. “It’s a very nice feeling!” Then she confessed to me how she felt about her mother.

Hearing this, my own childhood finally made sense. For my mother had never enjoyed reading to me or, it seemed, paying me much attention. One of the few times she did read to me, The Cat in the Hat borrowed from the Francis Martin Library, she leapt up after six or seven pages, exclaiming, “You have no idea how it dries the throat! How much it hurts!” before she hurried out of the room to the sink.

Why did it pain her so much to read to me? I believe now I know. It sometimes hurts to give what you haven’t been given. She was as bored with me in my early childhood as her mother must have appeared to be with her. Happiness seemed a zero-sum game to us both, and if I was happy, I must be taking from her.

I felt quite mediocre, as a child. My accomplishments, when they began in my senior year of high school, came as a surprise to me, and always seemed a fluke. My intelligence, discovered so late due to a lack of early mirroring, seemed extraneous, a fun hat tied to a dull head. But now in my mother’s advanced old age, I feel that I have been given a precious lens.

Nor is it only with my own mother that I see this phenomenon of age exposing a person’s emotional core. My husband’s mother, who in fact does have dementia, often rocks in place, moaning yearningly, “Mama, Mama, Mama!” During her life of cogency she was a loquacious but emotionally aloof woman. Conversation, always filled with laughter and chatter, seemed a method to keep others at a distance. She appeared irritated by others’ needs. She was a woman with a voracious appetite, a secret eater, and her favorite thing was to be left alone to read, as my husband jokingly called them, “sagas of Hebrew passion.”

But in her mid 80s, when her mind gave way, she started saying “Mama.” Now it is almost all she says. I may be making too much of this, but I don’t think so. I think she is finally voicing the painful longing that hid behind her obdurate affect. She once told me that her mother advised her, “Nobody wants to hear about you.” Her tone at the time was impassive, her story told with a shrug. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to hear that from one’s own mother. But now she is showing me.

How grateful I am for these late revelations. They give me pain, yes, but knowledge can be healing. If my mother had passed away before she started resenting her mother, what a loss for us both! Now, what has emerged is ambivalence, for I do believe she experienced for her mother both love and hatred. My mother suffered early deprivations that made her think that a poor woman supporting her family was in truth avaricious and cold, hoarding her assets. Consigned to the hospital ward, how lonely she must have felt, wanting the woman who apparently didn’t want her. Back home she was ignored, even neglected, while her mother bent over the sewing machine. A shard of my mother’s emotional truth flies down through the years and illuminates my own childhood. I understand now the strange absences that shaped me.

In my earliest years I recall being in a playpen, a crib, or strapped into a high chair, always at a distance from the besieged woman I craved. As an adult I was surprised to discover that “What did you learn at school today?” was considered a standard inquiry. A sense of inferiority—my own mother was uninterested in me—has haunted me, and effloresced in various kinds of mundane masochism that only midlife let me conquer.

But now, discovering my own mother’s longing has freed me to feel empathy. Here is the girl my mother was, waiting alone in her hospital bed for the woman who didn’t appear. That lonely little girl didn’t go away. She’s still there. My mother’s old age introduced me to her. I take my mother’s hand as she sits in the wheelchair. “I love when you visit,” she says. “Me too,” I answer, truthfully.

When I leave her, I am emptier and fulfilled, enlarged by the echoes of the women in my family, by my mother in the present and the past.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of the bestselling Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life and, most recently, Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays, which was longlisted for the PEN award in the Art of the Essay.


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October 3, 2018 by

Love at Second Sight

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.27.23 AMWhen I was a child, my mother gave me orange slices to suck when I threw up, to take away the bad taste. She sat on the floor, pincushion in hand, to shorten the hemline of my junior-high graduation dress. Other times, she turned my world upside down by screaming, “Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is Mud!” She hit me with a wooden hanger sometimes because, “It hurts me when I hit with my hand.” She also tried, with varying degrees of success, to act as a buffer between my strict father and me. In this, I felt we were allies.

Our relationship was complicated.

One afternoon when I was 15, I was shopping on Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway with my mother’s cousin Mildred. All at once, she clutched my arm and said, “Doesn’t that man look exactly like your mother’s first husband?” 

Mildred had always been a little off. “My mother was never married before,” I said. 

“You didn’t know?” 

An hour later, my mother confirmed Mildred’s story with a simple, “Yes, I was.” My initial shock turned to joy at the implication. Only days before, I’d asked why she tolerated all my father’s raging and irrational rules. “I’m surviving,” she’d said, “I’m coping.” She spoke as if she had met her goal. She didn’t realize I was asking why she tolerated it for the whole family, not just herself.

“Who’s my real father?” I asked, “Daddy or your first husband?”

“Daddy. I didn’t have children in my first marriage.”

That ended my interest.

We didn’t discuss it again for 45 years.

When I was 30 and my mother was in her late 50s she retired from a career as an educator. Listening to the PTA president’s speech at her party, I gained a new respect for her. “When Mrs. Conan came to this school, our children could not read. Now our children read!” she said.

My mother soon started a new career, as an interviewer with the Social Security Administration. She also embarked on what would become a decades-long quest for personhood, reading self-help books and filling index cards with sayings like, “We expect from each other only what we are able to give of ourselves.” Over the years, I had felt alternately angry and cordial toward my mother, though never really close. Now I sensed she longed for a deeper relationship. While I understood what she was doing, I wasn’t ready for more intimacy. She didn’t push it.

Little changed until my mother’s early 80s, when she visited me for a sleepover in my summer bungalow. It was three years after my father’s death. As I was drying the dishes, she said, “On Yom Kippur, before you ask God for forgiveness, you’re supposed to ask the person you wronged. So I’m asking, do you forgive me for all the bad things I did when you were growing up?”

This took me by surprise. Our conversations usually consisted of news exchanges, telling each other about places we had been or errands we had run. I didn’t want a give-and-take beyond that.

“Yeah, I forgive you,” I said, dabbing a stray drop on a cup.

“That doesn’t sound like forgiveness.”

Her voice was one I’d never heard before. It was vulnerable. Looking up, I saw an earnest face that scared me. I wanted to bolt. 

“I forgive you,” I repeated, meeting her eyes. 

“That still doesn’t sound like forgiveness.” 

Suddenly, I realized what a risk my mother was taking, and that she was in pain. I had the power to take it away or make it worse. I put down the towel, hugged her, and said, “I forgive you.”

She hugged me back, saying, “Now I know you mean it.”

I wasn’t sure how much I did mean it, though I was glad she thought I did, because I felt I ought to mean it. But in the months that followed, I felt lighter than I had in a long time. My mother had given me a gift. She had acknowledged that the things she’d said and done had really happened, and she knew that they were hurtful.

Until then, I had never wondered what made her the way she was. I’d been too busy surviving myself. Now I began to be curious about what had shaped her, and asked whether she would share her recollections. She was very willing to answer questions. In fact, she seemed to welcome them. Our exchanges, a few minutes here, a few there, added emotional depth to what I already knew.

My mother was the sixth of nine children born to the doting Greek-Jewish grandparents I called Nona and Papoo. I’d never imagined they might not have been that way as parents, being so preoccupied with paying the mortgage they couldn’t give much attention to any one child. My mother didn’t start school until she was seven, because Nona kept her home to care for her brother, four years younger. When she graduated from elementary school, Nona and Papoo came to the ceremony. Afterward, the three of them walked home together, the first time my mother was alone with both parents. She told me how proud she felt making her way down the block between them, for all the world to see.

Nona’s greatest wish for each of her daughters was a husband. My mother craved Nona’s approval, so, at 21, she married her college boyfriend. But Nona wasn’t pleased, because he didn’t have a job. The marriage lasted three years.

Two years later, my mother met my father. She was captivated because he spoke several languages, played chess, and listened to classical music, and because his attentions were a balm after her divorce. Nona was satisfied with my mother’s second match: he was a postal clerk. They were married in four months.

Things deteriorated quickly. When my mother bought an inexpensive dress without first asking my father, he took her name off the bank account. A sewing-machine operator in a factory, she had to turn over her salary to him, and he gave her an allowance for household expenses.

Then came World War II. My father left for Europe when I was two and my brother just days old. Within weeks, my mother got a job as a substitute teacher and opened her own bank account. When my father returned a year later, he resumed his role as the boss at home, but my mother kept her bank account and her career.

I asked why she had never divorced him. “I didn’t want to be unmarried,” she said.

In her late 80s, my mother requested my help managing her paperwork. Once a week, I drove from Manhattan to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. We sat at a bridge table in my brother’s old room and reviewed bills and bank statements, then went out to eat. She always insisted on paying, and on giving me a little extra for myself, because “It shouldn’t cost you anything to visit your mother.”

I looked forward to these visits. My mother felt our togetherness, too. “It’s love at second sight,” she said.

One day, in the course of a meandering conversation, she mentioned her first husband. I asked how the marriage had ended. “He left me for my best friend,” she said.

I visualized my mother as a young woman feeling the pain of abandonment and lost love. “How long did it take you to get over it?” I asked. 

“I never got over it,” she said.

I was stunned. The marriage had ended over 60 years ago. I asked what her husband’s name was. 
“Sam Langbert,” she said.

After dinner, as I began my drive back to Manhattan, I saw my mother in my rear-view mirror, waving from the top of the stoop. When I got to my apartment, there was her usual message on my answering machine. “Vivian, this is your mother. You just left. I hope you have a safe trip home. I had a wonderful time with you. And Vivian, I love you. Iloveyou, Iloveyou, Iloveyou. Bye-bye, Vivian.” 

That night, I did an Internet search for Sam Langbert. After I determined he was still living—he wasn’t in the Social Security Death Index—I looked through directories and found a listing in Florida. I called my mother and told her I had an address for a man who might be the Sam Langbert she married. “Do you want it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but don’t throw it out.”

A week later, she called. “Viv, if you still have that address, I’ll take it.” She wrote a letter that began, “If you are the Sam Langbert whose mother lived on 18th Avenue in Brooklyn and whose father had a shoe-repair shop on 34th Street in Manhattan, near Macy’s, then I was your wife.”

Sam’s reply arrived in eight days. He wrote that he had thought of her often, she was a fine person, and he felt bad about what he had done. Her friend left him after a few years, and he had been married several times since. “So you see, I don’t have a very good track record as a husband.”

My mother answered, telling him she had been married 52 years, her daughter was a librarian, her son a psychologist, and she had three grandsons. She wrote that she had been a school principal.

“I wanted him to know I was successful,” she told me.

I asked how she felt having gotten in touch with him after all these years.

“I finally have closure,” she said, looking more peaceful than I had ever seen her.

Two years later, just before her 90th birthday, my mother was reminiscing about her childhood. “I have a picture of my mother in my bedroom,” she said. “And I look at her, and I thank her. I thank her for being my mother. I enjoy her more now, I think, than I did when she was alive.”

I was enjoying my own mother now, and glad she was alive to know it. 

Vivian Conan has written for the New York Times and New York magazine. She has just completed her memoir, Losing the Atmosphere.



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