My husband is basically a good father and husband, but he often feels a need to take a break from the pressures of work and religious life by calling his irreligious brother to have a fun conversation while lying in bed. They can sometimes speak for an hour, laughing and having a great time. I am concerned about how this may appear to our children who know their father is not this happy when he must deal with his normal life. Will they think that happiness comes from being involved with secular people and that being religious is not a pleasant way of life? I also wonder if these calls are a sign that my husband has not completely left his secular past, and he often complains about the difficulties of religious life. Can you help guide us toward a solution?
Rabbi Ilan Feldman: Your question reveals an appreciation for the challenges unique to raising a frum family with non-frum relatives. You are correct to be watchful for unwanted messages or other encroachments on your children’s environment.
At the same time, in a generation simultaneously reaping the results of effective outreach efforts and suffering unprecedented assimilation, your situation is not rare. Remember that a majority of Jews in the world are not shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, Rachmana litzlan, and almost all Jews have relationships of significance with non-frum relatives, coworkers, or service providers. Though it is obviously simpler to raise a family and live in a context where all acquaintances and relatives are frum, your situation represents a very common challenge. And it also presents some opportunities for personal growth.
Let us examine this relationship from your husband’s point of view, or what we can surmise about it, first.
Your husband has a brother. Before your husband was frum, he developed a profound, meaningful affinity for his brother. Nowhere in his commitment to Torah and mitzvos did he perceive that Hashem asked him to stop enjoying that relationship, or to turn the relationship purely into a mission to “make him frum.”
He was raised with a brother, gets along with him, and probably loves him. That’s actually a gift and a blessing. How many of us know people who have difficult and painful relationships with family members, even when all involved are frum? How emotionally damaging is it when families remain fixed in these impasses, and what price does the family pay when these divisions are maintained and tolerated for years or decades?
When brothers have entirely different lives and are still able to find ways to relate and enjoy each other, not only is it a credit to both of them, it’s an emotionally fulfilling and healthy dynamic. While your concern for how your children interpret this relationship is appropriate, keep in mind the positive impression your husband’s brotherly love can make on your children as well. Alienation, no matter what the reason, is far from ideal as an example to children.
Now let’s look at things from your perspective. You say he “feels a need to take a break from the pressures of work and religious life by calling his irreligious brother to have a fun conversation.” I caution you not to jump to conclusions by characterizing these fun conversations as breaks from religious life. Perhaps they’re just a need to relate to his brother?
Forgive me if I read too much into your words — I have little information to go on — but I detect a level of mistrust in your husband’s devotion to frumkeit, which may not be based on fact. If it is truly based on fact, your issue is not with these conversations, but with your husband’s reliability. Barring hard evidence to support your apprehensions, you are in danger of alienating your husband by withholding your trust merely because he is enjoying himself with his non-frum brother.
The pleasure and fun he has with his brother could actually indicate a security your husband has in his identity as a frum person. It is always easier to sever a meaningful relationship with a non-frum relative, retaining a courteous connection that is superficial and polite, but not real. Far more nuanced is one who remains frum, does not compromise his standards, and yet relates to the non-frum relative on his terms. If your husband is ever to inspire his brother, it could only be after his brother senses an authentic appreciation for who he actually is.
This is where opportunity rests. Often enough, non-frum family members find that their newly frum relative gives them little to relate to, and this sometimes becomes a barrier to their own exploration of Yiddishkeit.
“I don’t have any problems with his religious life,” they say, “but why does he not relate to me anymore? I still love him.” Neighbors who shared lives for decades find that baalei teshuvah not only vacate their old neighborhoods to be in close proximity to shul, they vacate their lives as well. This may be necessary in many cases, and, to a large degree, even unavoidable. Granted as well, many secular friends or relatives just don’t “get it” — why won’t the baal teshuvah compromise, drive “just this once” on Shabbos to attend a bat mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue, or share an evening at a place of popular entertainment? Such transformations in the patterns of relationship are difficult enough to swallow. Yet that is all the more reason for the frum party in the relationship to look for ways to relate whenever possible.
I ask you to consider the following question: What would it be like for you and for your husband if you two had fun and animated conversations once in a while as well? If you knew you could have such conversations with him, I dare say no amount of conversations with his non-frum brother would be of concern to you. So I encourage you to explore how you can restore a level of fun and playfulness to your relationship with your husband.
It is the mark of a well-developed personality to employ humor, fun, and play in relationships, where and when appropriate, and in no way is a contradiction to kedushah and seriousness about life. Your children would gain from seeing this as well, and any negatives resulting from their perceptions of their father’s connection to his brother would be minimized by the relationship their parents have with each other. This, I believe, is where the greatest opportunity awaits the two of you.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the son of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a sage of the American rabbinate and a well-published author, son in-law and talmid of Rav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, ztz”l, and rav of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, Georgia. The families who are part of his vibrant, dynamic community regularly turn to Rav Feldman to receive his wise counsel on both halachic and interpersonal issues.
Rabbi Yisroel Fabian: Unfortunately, many important details are missing from this question, which makes it difficult to respond with specific advice. “My husband is basically a good father and husband.” What do you mean by basically? “He often feels a need to take a break … by calling his irreligious brother.” How often is often? What do they discuss? Are they reminiscing about family vacations or the flings they had in college? What sort of issues does he have about religious life?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with maintaining good relations with secular relatives. In fact, it’s generally healthy and positive for a baal teshuvah to maintain previous relationships, though the nature of these relationships should clearly be somewhat different. This is especially true of immediate family; family is an integral part of every individual, and to cut them off is to deny part of who the person is. Certainly, if these secular relatives are impacting negatively, dragging the baal teshuvah down or affecting his children’s chinuch, then the relationship needs to be reexamined.
In my experience, very often unhappiness in other areas of life manifests itself as discontent with religious observance. Your husband may be struggling in his job. There may be shalom bayis issues. He may be overwhelmed in his role as a father. It’s critical to discover the source of the problem. Is it religion, or is it life in general and religion is a convenient scapegoat?
Why does your husband feel the need to “take a break” via phone calls to his brother? If he’s just feeling the occasional stress that most people experience, and speaking to his bother and reminiscing about good times helps him relieve it, that wouldn’t be a problem per se. However, if he feels general discontent, and is bitter about his decision to be religious, that’s a different story.
The main issue is not your husband’s enjoyment of his relationship with his brother, nor the hopefully pareve secular distraction that the conversations afford him, but his reported lack of enjoyment and satisfaction with his religious life.
If a person is unhappy with his lifestyle, it will be picked up by, and impact, his children. As Rav Moshe said, the sigh of “It’s hard to be a Yid,” drove a generation away from Yiddishkeit, despite their parents’ sacrifices. It is brought down that the Arizal achieved all he did in avodas Hashem because of the simchah he felt with each mitzvah. Joy and happiness are essential in Yiddishkeit and infuse mitzvos with meaning, as we’re told: “Serve G-d with joy.”
You ask for guidance for “us.” Does your husband want guidance? Is he a party to this question and discussion? Does he perceive a problem? Have you tried discussing the issues with him?
Given the many details that are missing and the uncertainty of what the actual issues are, I would suggest that you speak with your husband about the two of you going to consult with a qualified rav, who can help you sort out the issues and properly direct you. If indeed there are religious problems, then it is important to deal with and work through them. A rav with experience working with baalei teshuvah will likely have a better understanding of where your husband is coming from and the ability to help him deal with the concerns that he may be struggling with.
B’ezras Hashem, with sincere effort and work you will be zocheh to a home infused with simchah, and that will positively effect your entire family.
Rabbi Yisroel Fabian, MS, CPC, CGE, is a counselor and a personal and executive coach. He cofounded and served as one of the roshei yeshivah of Orchos Chaim in Jerusalem for seventeen years.
Mrs. Joanne Dove: One doesn’t have to indiscriminately leave their secular past behind in order to become a true ben Torah. Becoming a real baal teshvuah means integrating your personal life into a life with Torah and mitzvos, and thereby becoming a kiddush Hashem to the secular world. You don’t walk away from your past life; you grow from it. In this ideal situation, the frum person raises up the non-frum people they continue to interact with rather than the frum person descending to their level.
It’s fine for your husband to have a good time with his brother — as long as when he’s learning and doing mitzvos he’s also having a good time. It’s okay for the children to see him enjoy a good relationship with someone who is irreligious, but only if they also see him enjoy the spiritual aspects of his life.
You seem to be threatened by his laughing with his brother because you see it as frivolous and disconnected from a Torah life. We all need to take an occasional break from the pressures of life, but we can’t take a break from Torah — that is our life. We go on vacations, but we don’t stop dressing properly or eating kosher. Breaks must be within a framework of Torah.
If you feel that your husband’s relationship with his brother is outside the framework of a Torah life, then there is indeed a problem. He has not yet fully internalized his Torah learning, because if he had, he’d be able to find joy in Torah living (as Rebbetzin Braunstein, a”h, often said, simchah gedolah l’hiyos b’mitvah). Realize that such internalization can take years. The Bostoner Rebbe used to say that it takes ten years for a baal teshuvah to become a baal teshuvah — he can learn all the halachos and know all the customs, but it takes a decade for it to become his essence.
You are correct in your concern. In chinuch, we take out what we put in. Our children see what we cherish, and this impacts them greatly. If we want them to enjoy the right things, we must enjoy them ourselves. Your husband probably shares your vision for your home; he just needs help implementing it.
If you have a strong marriage, you may be able to just sit down and talk about what you want for the future of your children, and the concerns you have. Let him know that you’d like him to get help with his unhappiness so you can create positivity within your home. If your marriage is not on such a good footing, it’s better to have someone from the outside address the issue. Speak to someone he looks up to — it could be the shul rav, his chavrusa, or an older mentor. Let him know what’s going on and ask that he help your husband work through his unhappiness.
In addition, do all you can to make your home a happy place. Chanukah is approaching. Make it joyous. If his brother lives nearby, invite him over for candlelighting and latkes, let him see the beauty of your world.
It’s possible that your husband isn’t actually feeling the unhappiness you sense. In that case, you need to gently point out to him that this is what he’s broadcasting even if internally he feels different. Children don’t want to do anything that’s difficult or unpleasant. They need to see happy parents and grow up in a happy home.
This issue is important, do not neglect it. If you’re having trouble finding a rav who can help, you can contact me through Mishpacha and I’d be happy to provide some ideas.
Mrs. Joanne Dove works for SEED, a London-based adult kiruv organization. In addition, she has done extensive premarital and marital counseling. She also oversees and advises the volunteers of Made in Heaven, an organization that helps make shidduchim and advises singles.