Tag : relationships

The Lilith Blog

September 9, 2020 by

My Hair as a Metaphor

I lived trying to fit in. It was much more than “curly hair wasn’t in style back then.” It was: “You can’t exist.” It was: “Do not exist.” It was expressed as: “What’s wrong with your hair?” with the questioner trying not to laugh when asking.  

My hair was a problem to be solved. From inside and outside the walls of my house, my hair was a symbol of something larger that had nothing and everything to do with me.


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July 27, 2020 by

Reproductive Justice Instead of “Jewish Continuity.”

MICHAL RAUCHER is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. Her first book, Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority Among Haredi Women, will be published by Indiana University Press in November 2020.

Jewish continuity—it’s a term that, to my chagrin, refers to Jewish demographics. Some might say it’s fitting to think about “Jewish continuity” when we are in the midst of a pandemic killing thousands of people every day. Jewish continuity usually refers to Jewish birthrates, and increasing the birthrate often involves sex, intimacy, and physical closeness: all things that, unless you are already living with a partner, are verboten right now.

In the last few decades, discourse about Jewish demographics includes not just a call for more children but a call for Jewish children, which many institutions insist refers only to those who have been raised by two Jewish parents. Yet Jews are not limited to social connections with other Jews, and dating apps aimed at Jews seem quaint in light of the global connection we are seeing today.

I hope we can pivot this conversation after the pandemic recedes. Pregnancy and birth are already risky activities, both physically and financially. Can we apply our current risk-averse approach to pregnancy during the pandemic to pregnancy post-pandemic? In other words, when we talk about Jewish continuity in terms of demographics, can we appreciate the fact that women have been expected to absorb all the economic and embodied risk? Despite the communal pressure on women to reproduce, there is no parallel communal support for women’s physical or economic security.

Second, what would it mean to think about a Jewish future that does not revolve around Jewish women having Jewish babies? Perhaps, as we settle into this physically distant moment, we can take some advice from virtual programs that are expanding educational opportunities, reaching different audiences, and creating connections among people who might never have been able to come together in the same room. This is a Jewish future cultivated in the last few months without physical closeness.

Last, how can we think about reproductive justice instead of just reproducing Jews? When we as members of Jewish communities are focused on Jewish continuity, we are ignoring the larger structural problems like economic inequality, racism, and insufficient medical care, which are resulting in death for so many. I hope that our discourse of continuity will, in the future, include the acknowledgment that while we may all be connected, we are not all equally vulnerable. 

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July 27, 2020 by

Relative Privilege in a World of Suffering

YAEL SCHONBRUN is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Brown University and a co-host of the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast.

Brandishing the Captain America shield we crafted out of duct tape and a Tupperware lid, my three-year-old proudly said, “Mommy, you will never be alone. I will always be protecting you.” I told him (very seriously) that I appreciated it.

Later, though, I half-joked to my husband that our son had just confirmed my deepest fear: I’ll never again have a moment alone.

In a larger world of suffering over health, economic crisis, and horrifying social injustices, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that pandemic working parenthood has been hard. Like many female co-parents with the more flexible job, I’ve taken on the bulk of parenting for our three boys. I yearn for a better choice than snippets of work time with three hyper bodies bouncing off the walls or getting work done after an exhausting day of parenting is done. I pine for rest and I fantasize about alone time.

At times I feel ashamed. I have no right to complain.

I am with my small superhero and his two big brothers, enshrined in my privilege of having a job, health, a stable residence, and White skin. But as I often tell patients who see me for therapy (virtually, now), pain doesn’t acknowledge hierarchy. If you stub your toe, it hurts. It hurts even if your neighbor has broken her leg. It hurts even if your neighbor has shattered his spine. To be sure, your neighbor isn’t likely to rush over to console your toe pain. But you don’t do yourself any favors by pretending your toe doesn’t hurt.

Pain—physical and emotional—is meant to be felt. Without pain, we can’t know when something has gone awry, we can’t determine what problems need to be addressed, and we are without a compass toward healing.

We need to open up to our pains, even as we contextualize them in the larger world. For parents during this time it means the weariness of never having a moment alone, the exhaustion of needing to work late into the night to make up for the day you spent parenting is real. The injustice of women taking on more childcare burden and suffering greater loss of work is real—as is the peril facing the long-neglected childcare industry which so many depend on, and the fear that gains in gender equality both at home and work will be undone if these trends continue.

All this is accompanied by the broader horror of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to Covid-19. And the horror of fellow humans being brutalized—yet again—by those meant to keep them safe.

All of this pain needs our thoughtful attention. If we are willing to let it in, that pain will teach us what matters to each of us, and to our society. And that clarity in “what matters” can become a superpower guiding us towards a better future.

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The Lilith Blog

June 11, 2020 by

To Save the Planet and Ourselves, Root Down to Love

There are five things at the forefront of my mind these days; the national struggle against racist violence, the climate crisis, the coronavirus, death, family, but underlying it all… love. 

A phrase that’s always bothered me is, “You have to love yourself before someone else can love you.” At its core, it’s a true statement. Self-love is the foundation from which all healthy and fulfilling love grows.

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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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The Lilith Blog

August 23, 2018 by

Googling Won’t Solve My Abandonment Issues—But I Can’t Stop


When it comes to healthy relationships, sometimes I think my parents screwed me out of any chance I may have had at one.

My parents and I stopped speaking when I was 20. It had been a slow-build up, a growing rift, and then suddenly one day… I just didn’t have parents anymore. This isn’t an exaggeration: my mom called the police on me when I showed up to my childhood home. Today, she still forbids me and my grandparents –with whom I remain close—from seeing my siblings. As for my father, he once told me I deserved to be abused by her.

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July 15, 2014 by

Hear, O Israel: How My Church-Going Boyfriend Made Me a Jew

I started attending synagogue out of revenge. In the mid-1980s, while living in Texas, I abandoned a Ph.D. program. My research involved hours alone in the lab with a speech synthesizer, building and rebuilding single syllables. I hated it, but I resolved to finish my Masters project because I didn’t know what else to do. During this period of waking every day with gritted teeth, I met Chris, a computer science undergraduate who hated his work, too. We fell in love, and I moved into the apartment above his.

Chris came from a long, documented line of devout Episcopalians. I’m Jewish. Fascinated by each other’s religion, we enjoyed discussing our concepts of God. Chris’s explanation of the Trinity went over my head, and he seemed to regard my “one God” upbringing as primitive, but we each liked being close to someone who, like ourselves, felt connection with a force we could sense but not see. 

The chief conflict in our relationship was over time, not religion. I spent every spare minute on my research, and Chris’s heavy course load wore him out. We had only Saturday nights together—or at least we did until Chris announced he planned to get up early for church in the morning and every Sunday thereafter. In fact, he said, he was thinking of teaching Sunday School.

We were lying on my bed, the Jewish futon of earthly pleasures. I’d lit the bedside oil lamp. I lifted my head off Chris’s chest and asked, “Can’t we talk about this?” 

“About what?” His voice sounded to me like a viola played on the lowest string.

“You’re making a unilateral decision,” I said.

“You know there’s only one thing more important to me than you, and that’s serving God.”

The idea of “serving” still didn’t make sense to me: I’d been taught that people are partners with God. But I knew it made sense to Chris, so I said only, “Why now?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “I just feel the need.”

“Couldn’t we figure out a way for you to have both me and God?” I asked. “We do have a conflict here.” I sat up.

“We do?” he yawned.

“Saturday nights and Sunday mornings are our only times to make love.”

“Maybe we stay in on Saturday mornings?” He yawned again, deeply. “You never go to synagogue on Saturdays. Look, I’m sorry, but I want to get out early tomorrow. Can we call it a night?”

“If you like.”
He kissed me on the nose, blew out the oil lamp, and turned over. I lay awake a long time. It surprised me that, although I had

never attended Saturday morning services regularly, I resented Chris’s assumption that I would give up the option. I felt anger, not for our dying sex life but for my lack of religious life. As Chris lay breathing beside me, I came to a decision: I’d start attending Shabbat services. If I countered his unilateral decision with one of my own, we’d have to compromise. Maybe we’d become more spiritually intimate, relieving the growing silence between us. Maybe I’d learn whether he wanted to be included in my future, and whether I wanted him there.

That week, I located a promising synagogue. I got up early Saturday morning, showered, and put on upgraded clothes. When I kissed Chris’s cheek before leaving, he smiled in his sleep. I reflected that it didn’t take much to make him happy. I thought myself unreasonable by comparison.

The single-story synagogue stood on a flat lot on a quiet street across from a creek. The flame-like sculpture of Hebrew letters over the front door spelled out the word Sh’ma (“Hear!”—the first word of Jews’ foundational prayer: “Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One”). I thought this a good omen for a speech scientist. Waxy-leaved shrubs, past flowering, nodded against the brick walls. The building seemed humble compared to the synagogue of my childhood, which had a granite façade and floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows. I’d been bullied there because I enjoyed my studies. This synagogue, in contrast, appeared a peaceful place for a bookish girl to learn Hebrew without being spit-balled. 

The service was to begin in 10 minutes, but no other cars occupied the parking lot. Perhaps I’d heard the receptionist wrong when I called: perhaps there was no service. Or worse: perhaps the congregants didn’t drive on Shabbat and were taking their time walking. Perhaps they would ostracize me for having driven. I tried both doors and sat down on the front steps. I wished I’d stayed home with Chris, or even gone to the lab. 

Then I saw a man pushing a stroller down the sidewalk with a vigorous gait. When he saw me, he nodded and headed my way. A small boy walked beside him and a smaller boy rode in the stroller. All three wore kippot. The man wore a neatly pressed suit and shoes as scuffed as a grade-school teacher’s. He didn’t look older than 30. 

“Hi, I’m Marc Blumberg, the rabbi here,” he said, extending his hand. “Who are you?” I heard no Texas accent—nor Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, or any of the other accents I’d come to know.

I gave him my name and wished him gut shabbos.

He introduced the boys, Jed and Aaron. Yes, there was a service today, he said, but people commonly arrived late; and yes, most people drove. He unlocked a side door and hoisted the stroller up the stairs. I followed him in.

Daylight from tall windows illuminated the sanctuary enough for me to make out the bimah and a portable lectern standing to one side. The rabbi lifted the younger boy out of the stroller and set him feet-first on the thick carpet, which absorbed all sound except for our voices. It reminded me of the soundproof booth in my lab, except the booth felt as confining as a coffin. The older boy climbed onto a high-backed chair against the back of the bimah and opened a picture book. The rabbi sat down on the bimah steps and I sat down, too.

“Where are you from?” he asked. “You talk like I do!”

I laughed and told him I’d grown up outside Boston.
He and his wife had come from Connecticut.

He asked whether I was single, and I told him no. He glanced at my unadorned ring finger and asked how serious the relationship was. I told him, “Very,” but the question rang in my ears. Then he inquired after my Jewish history. I told him about the perfunctory quality of my family’s observance, how we never talked about our spirituality even though we felt it. He said, “Your grandparents were the first generation born here, right?”

“As far as anyone knows. How did you —?”

“It’s a common pattern of assimilation. Your family sounds like mine.” Startled by this comparison, I expected him to tell me that joining his synagogue would be the best decision I could ever make. But he didn’t. Before I could wonder why not, he stood up to prepare the sanctuary.

The rabbi flicked on light switches: the work of kindling fires on Shabbat is forbidden, but it is better to break a rule yourself than to force another to do so. The light brought paintings alive on the sanctuary walls. A dozen watercolors depicted elderly men at what looked like an Orthodox synagogue. In one paint- ing, a gaunt man arranged silver goblets in a case while other men in magnificent tallitot prayed in a circle behind him. The painting focused on the gaunt man, who looked reverent, proprietary, and a bit tattered compared to the others. I thought, My mother’s family name is Levinson: “son of the Levite. The Levites were temple caretakers, like this man. He could be my great-great-grandfather. I had never seen photos of my ancestors, nor known their names, nor which Eastern European villages they had fled. For a few moments, I regarded my history. 

Congregants began to enter. I moved to an aisle seat halfway back. Elderly members labored down the aisle, and the rabbi stepped down from the bimah to assist them. Younger people came next, though none were by themselves like me. Some cou- ples came with adult or teenage children who broke away from their parents and sat with one another. Then came couples with young children, the toddlers stepping proudly. All the babies reached for the rabbi. It seemed as though everyone belonged here, individual and matching, like notes on a musical scale.

Once everyone had been seated, the rabbi climbed the bimah steps, and conversation stilled. He produced a velvet bag from behind the lectern, and every adult—even the women, to my surprise—took out a bag, too. The rabbi drew out a bundle that unfolded into a tallit as long and wide as he was tall. Everyone else did the same, gold threads glinting against ivory backgrounds, fringes hanging from the corners. They kissed the top edge, then wrapped them around their bodies with a swift, swirling motion, covering their heads. I felt as though white cranes had suddenly alighted in sacred space. The rabbi began singing softly in a clear tenor with perfect diction, and everyone followed.

I didn’t know the melodies, so I listened. The man next to me sang like my father’s father, Marks Blicher, with a deep baritone, a slight Yiddish accent, and a wet quality that made it seem as though his throat needed clearing. The woman in front of me squawked with the nasal Brooklyn accent of the only great-aunt I’d ever met. The asthmatic wheeze of the baby in her arms resembled my brother’s. Here in Texas, on a random Shabbat morning thousands of miles from home, I stood among a chorus of unclaimed kin.

That afternoon, I would tell Chris I needed to attend synagogue every week. He would support me, so the conversation I’d hoped for would not happen. Eight months later, we’d end what little remained of our romance. A month after that, my Masters thesis would be officially accepted, so I would pack up my apartment. I would cry all five hours of the flight back to Boston, missing Chris and fearing the unknown.

Now, in the sanctuary, surrounded by lost relatives, I heard whispers of this future. I lifted my voice in grief and praise. 

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