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Courage and Conviction

In a world of confusion and darkness, an ancient cry echoes: “Mi LaHashem eilai”

In a world of confusion and darkness, an ancient cry echoes: “Mi LaHashem eilai.”
In every era and in every corner of the world, Jews have heeded that call,  even when the stakes were high and the challenge loomed large.
Six stories of courage and conviction


The Right Note

Golda Keilson

MY high school principal (who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for putting up with my antics for four years) often lamented, “For chasunahs, our girls get dressed up like princesses, but when the dancing starts, they turn into animals.” I had never understood her until I saw my friends doing it... and until I did it myself.

I felt a lot of joy at my friends’ weddings. When I heard the announcement, “Introducing, for the very first time, Mr. and Mrs…!” and the kallah finally ran in to the hall amid crashing drums and blaring music, it was very easy for me to express that with a loud shriek, a sound I hadn’t even known I was capable of producing.

But one night it hit me: While the mechitzah may have separated the men’s and women’s sides, it most certainly didn’t block the sounds. And there were a lot of men on the other side who heard me and my friends whooping, hollering, and shrieking throughout the dancing.

I was surprised at myself for overlooking that. And I knew absolutely that I didn’t want any of that at my chasunah.

Two problems: One, how could I possibly prevent my friends from doing it? And two, how could I how could I ask them not to without making them feel like I looked down on them?

I shelved the issue for a while, focusing instead on not letting loose when I was a wedding guest. But when I got engaged just over a year ago, I had to give it some serious thought.

I didn’t know what to do. I knew with certainty that I didn’t want that behavior at my chasunah. But making such a strong statement so publicly would be horribly embarrassing! I vacillated between several ideas for a few weeks before I decided to take the plunge and place a framed note on every table addressing my concern. It was very important to me that the note was respectfully worded, not accusatory, and didn’t make anyone feel like I thought I was better than they were (because I’m not).

I spent a long time staring at a blank paper with no idea how to start, but with my mother’s help, I finally settled on this wording:

Dear Friends & Family,

I’m so excited that you’re here and can’t wait to dance with you all!

I know this request may be hard — gilah, rinah, ditzah, v’chedvah — sometimes we get carried away with the excitement and joy! But I’d like to request from everyone that we refrain from cheering, whooping, and screaming during the dancing.

Thank you!

I deliberately handwrote the note. To me, typing it felt much more impersonal, and I wanted my guests to know that I was with them in this struggle. I was nervous about how people would take it — the last thing I wanted was for my friends and family to feel judged.

On the day of my chasunah, we put all the frames into a large box and schlepped it to the hall. The women’s side of the ballroom was already bedecked with 22 beautifully set tables. Looking at them, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put the notes out. I stuck the box in a corner of the kallah suite and tried to ignore the ugly feeling of disappointment in myself.

I was sitting at the kabbalas panim, greeting guests, when I glanced to the side, to where the set tables were kept hidden until after the badeken. I pictured them without the note I’d written and framed with such trepidation. The image bothered me, as did the thought of what the dancing might look and sound like without it.

I could hardly focus — this was my kabbalas panim! — but I shoved all other thoughts aside, took a deep breath, and leaned over to whisper in my mother’s ear, “Ma... we should put out the notes.”

She didn’t hesitate for a second, but immediately abandoned the line of guests waiting to wish her a mazel tov and went to get the box of framed notes.

Thankfully — because I wouldn’t have known how to react — no one mentioned anything about it to me during the chasunah itself. But the dancing, without any cheering, whooping, or screaming, was incredibly leibedig, and according to many of my friends, it was “the funnest chasunah I’ve ever been to!” My mother also told me that every single one of my many teachers who attended came to her to tell her how surprised and proud they were. (Apparently everyone had very low expectations of me in high school.) Many of them even took the frames home to show their classes.

I don’t know if there are other kallahs out there who are looking for a way to end this trend. But if there are, know that there is a solution. And I’ll be here (silently) cheering you on.

Hidden Fight

Dassa Harari

I’M the mother of a medically unstable child with chronic illness. You won’t hear my response to “Mi LaHashem eilai.” It’s muffled by grief and blurred by perfectly applied makeup. We spend months inpatient, then continue hospital-grade care at home. I’m forced to administer torturous treatments again and again and wither with my child’s cries until there’s nothing left of me. And yet I’ve learned to laugh and smile, to embrace this neshamah. Mah Hu, af atah. rachum, chanun, rav chesed.

My visions of motherhood never included acquiring fluency in advanced lifesaving techniques, fighting to keep my child home in a bedroom equipped like an ICU, or explaining to someone how to best respond during a Code Blue.

I don’t always have strength to call upon, or courage to muster. Sometimes I don’t even know who I am anymore. Trauma and constant stress have consequences, and they’re mine to deal with when things stabilize. To the world, I’m sooo special, wow! To me, I’m in a permanent state of crisis, in constant and searing pain.

And so this is in recognition of those whose fight remains largely hidden. Not only to mothers of sick children. Not only to mothers, but to all who have been called upon to trudge a dark and murky path. These struggles may or may not be visible, but have a depth and scope impossible to fathom from the outside. We’re the ones with no strength to wave our flags high. We limp slowly, conserving energy, while tears fall on the soaked banner we clutch for dear life. “Mi LaHashem eilai.” It’s His Will — and we’re here to serve Him.


The High Road

Chaviva Fisch

After years of holding all the pieces together, all by myself, the strain began to show. I’d invested myself fully in my marriage. My marriage to a man with untreated mental illness. Not that I didn’t encourage him to go for help and take medication. But to paraphrase, “You can lead a man to therapy, but you can’t force him to change.” So, with a heart as heavy as a 50-pound weight, and with the support of rabbanim and mental health professionals, I separated from him.

After the sandstorm, the dust started to settle. And our current reality emerged, one in which my children were mandated to spend chunks of time with their childish, obsessive, and anxious father. They detested spending time with him. His relationship with food was all-consuming, making things like an ordinary outing to a pizza store an extremely unpleasant experience.

As they navigated this challenging tekufah of their lives, my children relied on me more and more to support them. One year, as Chanukah approached, my children’s father let them know he was most eager to spend time with them and have a Chanukah party. And my children, now young adults, insisted it would be the opposite of a celebration for them and that they really didn’t want to go.

“Ma,” they vented, “you know what Tatty is like. You get it. Most people don’t chap how someone who seems like such a nebach can be so difficult to spend time with. He asks us a million questions about which food we want and how much it costs and if we’re sure we’re gonna eat everything all up, and what we would do if there are leftovers. And on and on and on and on. It’s impossible to have a regular conversation with him. And it’s so embarrassing to go out in public with him. He talks too loudly, and he looks unkempt. If we meet anyone we know while we’re out with him, it’s mortifying.”

“How about ordering in food and eating it in his apartment?” I tried.

“No, that’s even worse. His house has a bad smell and is so messy and unappealing. Even the napkins look used.”

I empathized with my children about how challenging it was to be with their father. Then I told them that I had full faith that they’d work things out in the least noxious way possible. I acknowledged that they wouldn’t enjoy themselves, but that Tatty was their father, and he wanted to see them, and although he was extremely unpleasant to spend time with, he wasn’t abusive or dangerous to be with in any way.

“Mommy, I wish Tatty could be a fly on the wall during this conversation,” said one of my kids. “He always makes it sound like you don’t let us spend time with him. Like it’s all your fault that we get to see him so infrequently. The reality is that you’re his biggest advocate. Not because you don’t get it, just because you think it’s the right thing for us to do.”

“I do think it’s the right thing to do. Both for Tatty and for yourselves,” I concurred.

My children were mollified and agreed to spend short amounts of time with their father.

I was left with my kaleidoscope of thoughts. About the strength I needed on a daily basis to have this kind of dialogue with my children. How though I went through Gehinnom on earth to receive my get, I continued to tread the high road. I marveled that, even though I bit my tongue so frequently, there was still something attached to my frenulum.

I’m a sounding board for my children (in addition to the therapy sessions most of them attend weekly), yet I don’t allow myself or them to get pulled into a Tatty-bashing fest. I permit them to unload after a chaotic visit, though it triggers painful 15-year-old memories in me.

And that strength, the ability to take the High Way, is its own Chanukah miracle.


Fits the Bill

As told to Miriam Klein Adelman

Due to my husband’s illness years ago, my family went through severe financial difficulties. He was unable to work, and we were unable to pay for even our most basic needs, never mind tuition bills. There was one yeshivah we never made any payments to at all. Throughout the years my children attended the school, we were regularly sent tuition statements. We didn’t pay them. We couldn’t. We didn’t have money to feed our children.

Thankfully, we eventually received support from generous family members, government programs, and community organizations, but that didn’t cover our school tuitions. Our relatives agreed to help only if a school threatened to kick our children out.

The years passed, and — slowly — my husband regained his health. He was able to return to the workforce, and our financial situation began to right itself. We no longer needed donations to survive, and our dignity was restored. We began to put our past behind us. Our children grew up, graduated, and, baruch Hashem, one by one started getting married. Very occasionally, we’d receive a tuition bill from XYZ Yeshivah. The final tally was $150,000 still in big red letters next to “Payment Due.” However, after I wrote a letter explaining the financial strain we were under and the reason we were under such strain, the bills stopped coming.

I never sat down with the yeshivah administration at the outset to request a reduced tuition fee. That most likely would’ve been the right approach. Perhaps they would have generously reduced our tuition rate. Perhaps not. All I can say in my defense is that those years were crushing both in spirit and finances. To face another demeaning tuition committee was beyond my capability. If the institution wasn’t actively demanding payment, I simply let it slide.

But as our financial situation improved, I began to feel uncomfortable. We were back on our feet, baruch Hashem. I wondered if the time had come to start paying back our debt. But $150,000 is a daunting amount, especially considering we were still addressing other old debts. And the yeshivah hadn’t sent tuition bills in a few years; perhaps they had forgiven our debt? These thoughts left me in turmoil. We paid back $1,200 over the next few years, but then my conscience took a back seat and day-to-day demands took the forefront.

Then came the October 7th Hamas terror attack. When, if not in a situation like this, are we bidden to look inside and see what in ourselves we can rectify? I had to find out if the yeshivah was still holding us responsible for our past debts. Embarrassed to speak to the yeshivah’s administrator directly, I asked a friend to help. She explained our situation to the administrator and proposed a payment plan for a reduced amount. Unfortunately, the administrator’s response wasn’t what I’d hoped. Although he was sympathetic to our plight, instead of releasing us from the debt, he agreed to settle for half, if we paid it all up front. Half was still $75,000 — and up front?

My friend said I’d opened a can of worms. No one was pursuing us, not the police, not even a beis din. The yeshivah probably didn’t remember that we owed them money before we reminded them and certainly never expected to get it back.

But I felt I was doing the right thing. When I consulted my rabbi, he agreed, saying, “You owe the money. You have to pay the tuition.” He paskened that it was fine to pay the reduced amount and not the full amount. But even with our improved financial situation, $75,000 in a lump sum is way beyond our means. We’re still in the middle of negotiations over a payment plan instead of a lump sum. Technically, we could walk away, and they would be no worse off than before; I know they won’t pursue us.

However, walking away isn’t an option for me, despite not knowing how we’ll manage to settle the bill in a way that satisfies both parties. Beyond everything else, I’ve come to understand the gravity the Torah places on repaying monetary debts. I’ve learned that while most debts are settled in the Next World after 120 years, financial obligations require both parties to return to this physical world in another lifetime to settle what’s owed. (That’s why I’ve decided to forgive all those who owe me money but haven’t paid. I have no desire to come back just for that!)

Meanwhile, I’ve begun sending them checks every time we can afford to, while still hoping and praying they won’t insist on the full $150,000. This task is supremely difficult, but one that I feel compelled to undertake.


Self Taught

Zeldy Frankel

When I went to school to study occupational therapy almost 20 years ago, there were no frum programs where I could learn the profession and gain the skills I’d need among compatriots. I was a nice frum girl. I’d gone to a top Bais Yaakov and prestigious seminary, and graduate school was quite the culture shock. I tried to keep my sights set on my goal: Do well, graduate my program with honors, and make sure I didn’t get sucked into anything that didn’t directly involve my field of study. Baruch Hashem, I succeeded. There was a group of us frum girls, and we stuck together, commuting with one another, sitting near each other in class, partnering for labs, and studying for tests.

I’d always been a student — I enjoy learning, enjoyed studying, and wanted to maintain the high GPA I’d consistently earned through high school and undergrad school. And for the most part, I managed to do that. There was only one class I struggled in, and it wasn’t because of the course material. The professor, Victor Lopez*, knew his subject cold, but the language and examples he used to teach it were nothing that I was used to hearing. I couldn’t tolerate the vulgarity, and I’d break out in a cold sweat before each class, not knowing what I should do. Skip class? Stay and listen? Neither option worked. Not the former, because I wanted to learn well and perform well; I wanted to become the best OT I could. And not the latter, because I truly couldn’t handle how the professor talked.

I discussed it with my friends on our commute one morning, and they agreed it was horrible, but that there wasn’t much to do. “That’s just how they talk,” my friend said. “He wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about.”

One day, though, I’d had enough. I sat through yet another class, gritting my teeth, as my friend advised. And fighting with myself throughout.

Say something!

Are you crazy? In the best case, he’ll be clueless. In the worst, he’ll throw you out of his class for insubordination. Was that even a thing? Who knew?

I thought back to what my friends had said. For him, this was normal. And it probably was normal; no one else in the classes batted an eyelash. But to me it was far from normal. I couldn’t focus.

I stayed in the room after everyone left and went over to Mr. Lopez. “Can I talk to you?” I asked.

He probably expected to be asked about accommodation for the test he was giving next week. Maybe for an explanation on something he’d said in class.

“I’m really enjoying your class,” I began. I told him how much he had to offer, how I felt like the things he taught were important and practical and would take me far in my chosen field. “But…” I took a deep breath, “I have to admit… I’m uncomfortable in your class. I grew up in a very insular environment, and we’re very careful about how we speak.” I carefully explained the concept of nivul peh, and I told Mr. Lopez that my ears hurt when I sat in his class and was subject to the language and expressions he used.

Then I stopped and awaited my verdict.

“Wow. That’s amazing,” Mr. Lopez said. He couldn’t believe the refinement I described, but more, he was awed by my courage in speaking up.

“I’m so sorry that you’ve been uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to watch my mouth. Thank you so much for coming over to me.”

The change in Mr. Lopez was clear. From the next class on, he never let a vulgar word pass his lips while I was in class.


Crowning Achievement

Aliza Hirsch

ON my fifth date with my second husband, he shared that he’d really like his wife to cover her hair with scarves instead of wigs. I listened respectfully as he went into detail on why he thought it was the proper way for married women to cover their hair. I paid attention as he told me that many rabbanim are very against wigs. I also looked him straight in the eye and told him not to hold his breath.

It wasn’t that I was against scarves per se, rather that I’d become very comfortable wearing a wig. I loved the way it made me feel pretty and the way I could style it in different ways when I wanted a change. I’d finally reached that almost elusive state where I was happy with the style, quality, and quantity of wigs I had. Also, I’d just added baby hairs to a few of my wigs, and they looked so good!

We didn’t discuss the topic again for a bit, but it did come up here and there. I realized that this was really important to him, and I should at the very least give it some serious thought. I knew this wasn’t something I could do for him; it had to resonate and feel right to me. I began to do research to better understand this mitzvah. I read books, listened to tapes, and did a lot of soul-searching.

I began to feel that although my wigs were halachically okay, maybe they didn’t quite fit with the purpose of covering the hair. I thought about the message that was being relayed when a woman puts on a beautiful wig to leave the house and then wears a snood in the home. Did I really want to look more beautiful for strangers than for my own husband? It wasn’t sitting so well with me anymore.

When I initially broached the idea with my family and close friends, they were unsure. They didn’t tell me I was crazy, but they also didn’t offer strong encouragement. If I was going to do this, I would need to be very resolute in my decision. Even once I told my chassan that I was leaning toward scarves, I felt unsure. It was such a big decision, and it was scary to take the plunge. Would wearing only scarves make people think differently of me? Would they have a hard time relating to me? Would I miss my wigs? These were just some of the many thoughts swirling through my mind as my wedding day edged closer.

By the time I got married I was ready. I remember putting my wig on for the last time as I got ready for my wedding. While I wouldn’t call it bittersweet, it was a poignant moment for me. It felt like the beginning of a new chapter, which was fitting, as I was starting a new chapter in my life.

Then came the first family simchah after my wedding. I hadn’t shared with anyone that I now only wore scarves. This would be the first time my extended family would see me wearing a scarf instead of a wig. As I walked into the simchah hall, I willed myself to be calm. My husband provided all the emotional support he could, but at the end of the day, it was I who would be putting myself out there. I held my head high and tried to ignore all the looks. And there were many. Although everyone was surprised, I only got positive feedback. It was official, I was a scarf wearer!

It’s now over a year since my big change. Baruch Hashem the adjustment has been a relatively easy one. I still feel different when I go to a simchah and I’m the only one not wearing a wig, but because I really believe in what I’m doing, I’m able to do it proudly.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 871)

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