Could I forgive my brother for taking my inheritance?
As told to Rivka Streicher
I was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, but by the time I was ten years old I’d lived in five places. We moved often, following the capricious road of my father’s radio broadcasting job.
My parents were nominally religious and would attend synagogue on the High Holidays. When we lived in a small town in rural Virginia, we went to a temple that dated back to the Confederate era. It had an organ and a choir and was absolutely Reform. During our sojourn in Tennessee, we attended the synagogue closest to our home, which happened to be an Orthodox shul.
My grandparents on both sides were traditional — they kept a kosher Pesach for example — but they seemed to take for granted that religion was an old-world relic, and they didn’t try to pass it on.
In any event, religion was just a vague backdrop to my childhood. My father’s rage and violence overlaid everything else.
We were two kids; my brother, Marc, four years my senior, and I. When I think of Dad, of Marc, I see a brown violin, broken and violated. I hear the screeching of the wood, the sound of my own screams.
I was seven years old, learning to play the violin in school. I had a shiny little wooden number, a beautiful instrument I was inordinately proud of. One day after school Marc asked me to teach him something. I taught him “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and he was so good, he picked it up in a matter of minutes. He was so happy with himself that he’d managed the song, he whooped in the air, and sat down hard on the bed — right onto the violin.
I desperately didn’t want to cry and attract Dad’s attention, but I was seven, my violin was broken, and I couldn’t stop the tears. Marc begged me to stop, but as he pleaded, I felt myself losing control over the heaving in my chest, the little gasping breaths, the tears leaking from my eyes. Within moments, my father came in and took in the scene: my brother cowering, me crying.
Without waiting for any explanation, he grabbed Marc and beat him to a pulp. Then he took the violin and destroyed it over my brother’s head, slamming and breaking and bruising, while I watched it all from the corner, sobbing hysterically for my father to stop.
Although I wasn’t the actual victim in that case — in general, Marc was Dad’s literal punching bag, bearing the brunt of his anger — the trauma never left me (though I did go to therapy to contain it).
Marc and I didn’t even try to have a relationship. With a dad like ours, it was just too dangerous. We lived in our own little boats in rivers that ran parallel to each other, doing our own thing, holding on tight by ourselves.
Mom didn’t do much to protect us from Dad’s abuse; she was codependent and would even turn my dad on us kids to get into his good graces. But she and Dad finally divorced when I was 11, and Mom moved us to Baltimore, Maryland, where both of my parents’ families lived.
There was a large frum community in the Park Heights area, where we settled, but I didn’t actually know anyone frum. I went to public school and then continued to the Baltimore School for the Arts for high school, where I immersed myself in the visual arts. Marc was doing his own thing, and we hadn’t, as yet, really made any efforts to cross the divide over the great rift Dad’s behavior had wrought on our family.
And then it was time for me to go college. I got into the School of the Art Institute, a prestigious college affiliated with the Art Institute of Cleveland.
I was working toward greater proficiency in art, but was also beset by late-teenage angst, prompted in part by Dad.
He had a two-minute Sunday call ritual. “How are you?” he’d ask — but he wouldn’t wait for a response. He’d launch into a diatribe of how awful my mother is and why he was justified leaving; a classic narcissist, it was imperative to him to maintain a sense of control and superiority. These toxic conversations took place Sunday after Sunday.
And then one week, he actually changed the script. “I’ve started to attend AA meetings,” he said. “I haven’t been right. I need to heal, to change.”
At that point, I myself was obsessed with the search for meaning. I was becoming aware of myself, coming of age, and I knew that I needed to heal from my difficult childhood before I could move forward.
When Dad called another time and said, “There’s a group for adult children of alcoholics in an area close to you — go,” I was in.
Not only was he was admitting to his addiction, he was acknowledging that it had had a terrible impact on me. I knew that even if he hadn’t drunk his way through my childhood, he was deeply addicted to one thing or another, what they call a dry drunk. Sometimes it was alcohol, other times it was violence or manipulation. And after all these years, he was getting help.
I should, too.
In Cleveland, I started going to the support group. It was held in a church, as these groups often are — a Unitarian nondenominational church, which was a consolation on my Jewish conscience. I sat in a small chair, cradling myself, all 20 years of me, and listened to the calm voices around me.
I heard about a Higher Power. Thirty-five years ago, they still used the word “G-d.” Sitting there in that dim church basement, I felt the first stirrings of my soul, my G-d-consciousness awakening at last. I learned about His acceptance, His embrace, about letting go of control and giving it to Him.
I’d stumble upstairs after the meetings, and we’d often get invited to the main church to listen to the sermon, which was Twelve Steps based (the minister was a recovered alcoholic). I remember that at the end of the sermons we’d each receive a flower and a hug.
And so, ironically enough, in a Twelve Step program in a Unity church, I started learning, started to become open to religion, to G-d. Though I had a way to go, of course, in finding Him.
I had a job teaching fine art in the offing, but before I could start, it fell through because they lost their funding, so I went back to Maryland, to my mom, figuring I’d get a different teaching position at home.
I’d gotten a taste for spirituality in Cleveland, and I craved more. So I found a Unity in Baltimore, hoping for connection like I’d had back in Cleveland. But while the Cleveland Unity had been nondenominational, what I found here was Christianity on steroids, and I felt my soul cringing. Although I was hankering for spiritual connection, I couldn’t bring myself to attend further.
I knew so little about being Jewish. We were still in Park Heights, and sometimes on a Saturday I’d drive through town and see people walking along, dressed in hats, suits, festive clothing. On days when it was storming or frigid outside, or a scorcher of a day, I’d think of rolling down my window and offering them a ride. That was how little I knew of Shabbos, of them.
One day a flier came through the door about a course in basic Judaism being offered at the Jewish Learning Center in Baltimore.
“You should go,” Mom told me. “You should look for spirituality in your own backyard.”
I knew she was pushing it because she was concerned about my deliberate church attendance.
“Well, I’m not going myself,” I countered. “I’ll go if you do.”
“Oh, all right,” she agreed.
We went together, and I — impressionable, vulnerable, thirsting — lapped it up. We learned and absorbed a lot in the classes, but to me the shocker was that people were actually living this. Living what I was learning. That the truth we were being shown wasn’t just a fascinating intellectual pursuit. There were the actions on the ground, and the people that kept them. They were people of the truth. I wanted in.
My mom was wading in at her own pace, but I was younger, I needed Torah like the life-giving water it is, and I took to it right away. That first Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Zev Oppenheimer of the Jewish Learning Center invited me to stay within walking distance of the shul. A retired couple put me up, and I ate the meals at different homes. I remember a family with a bunch of girls, a family of three generations, and a young couple, not much older than I was, with two small kids.
All of these families were living it. They were different socially, economically, in so many other ways, but they were Torah-true Jews, all of them. To me, looking it from the edge, it was like walking into the Cosby show, that American sitcom family everyone just wanted to be part of.
After the Yamim Tovim, Rabbi Oppenheimer turned to me and said, “You should go to Israel.”
I was caught off guard. “I’m here, I have an art certificate, I want to get a job.”
“Nothing’s running away,” he said, “You need Israel.”
Off I went on Israelite, a six-week program for absolute beginners in the Old City (it is no longer operational). Sun, air, stone, classes, truth. My soul was coming alive. At the end of the program, I didn’t want to leave.
“I’m not coming back to the States,” I told Mom on the phone.
“When you got on the plane, I knew you wouldn’t,” she said, both wistful and thrilled for me. And I didn’t, not for six years.
I went up north and joined Sharei Bina in Tzfas, at the time a haven of learning and Jewish living for baalei teshuvah.
For me, Israel offered the opportunity to breathe fresh air after choking for too long in a smoky room. I was making healthy connections with people. I was in touch with the reality of my soul. I had guidance, clarity, direction, love.
I made an about-face, took on laws and rites, tzniyus and everything else. And as I developed spiritually, I also developed within myself. I was beginning to learn how to recognize unhealthy relationships and patterns. I had positive relationships modeled to me, day in, day out.
It wasn’t lost on me that my dysfunctional early upbringing was a crucial piece in my openness to change. Growing up, I’d been gaslighted so often, my dad’s behavior turned on me, that eventually I started believing I was fundamentally flawed. Now, exposed to so much goodness in Israel, in Judaism, I eagerly embraced it.
Different people need to travel different paths to find healing and emotional equilibrium, but ultimately, a life aligned with Torah and mitzvos is designed to bring us maximum happiness and functionality.
I know it did for me.
Fast forward 25 years. It’s 2014, I have a home in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a wonderful husband, six beautiful children. We’d built a healthy, loving, normal, religious family. I’d come a long, long way.
I was in close contact with my mom, who had since become shomer Torah u’mitzvos, and I’d constructed a semblance of a relationship with my brother. Despite the odds stacked against him, Marc had made something of himself as well. He’d married Jewish, they had two children, and he was living a stable, constructive albeit secular life. Sometimes I thought about him and was plain awed that he was making it work despite his unspeakable past. But other times, I was deeply upset by his cool veneer, by the lack of caring I sensed, as though he couldn’t care about my life, about his family of origin altogether. I didn’t really trust him.
Then, in October of 2014, Mom became ill with dementia. An examination indicated that the disease was progressing rapidly, and the doctor estimated that within the next six months she’d lose her faculties, to the point of it being dangerous for her to live by herself.
Marc was living near Mom, in Maryland. I told myself she was in good hands, while inside something niggled. Sometime after the diagnosis I was speaking to Marc.
“You know what we should do,” he said. “We should leave Mom in the house, and she’ll kill herself naturally, and then we’ll split her assets.”
What?! What was he saying?
But he was on a roll.
“Or hey, how about this? We put itn the state. Let’s bankrupt her now; if she has no money, she’ll be eligible to get into a state-run institution and they’ll handle her medical care.”
“Oh no,” I said. “You don’t mean any that. Please tell me you don’t. What we need to do is secure Mom’s assets and use them to get her the best personal care. Then, if there’s anything left, in time we’ll get it.”
“You want to do it, you do it,” he said finally. “You know what, if I can have her car… and…”
And so he went off with Mom’s car and some sundry items of hers, and I got busy starting the process of aliyah for her. She’d wanted to come to Eretz Yisrael for years, but it hadn’t worked out for one reason or another. Now, I wanted her to have this last chance.
I opened Mom a Nefesh B’Nefesh file and tried to guide her through the procedure from afar. When we spoke on Erev Pesach and I mentioned the file, she told me she hadn’t sent it out yet.
“Mom, I know where your documents are. Let me tell you, and you’ll put them in an envelope and send it off.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Go upstairs to your room, to the walk-in closet. You see the gray box? What’s in there? Can you see a paper? Mom, tell me what that paper is.”
“Um. I don’t know.”
“You have a paper in your hand and you don’t know what it is?”
“Sara, I’m scared.”
I suddenly realized what was happening. It was the onset of one of the things the doctors had warned us was coming — an inability for Mom to assess information in front of her.
I looked up tickets, but it was impossible to go right then, before Yom Tov. I called Rabbi Oppenheimer — my mom had been with them for 20 years — and he arranged a cadre of people to supervise her until I could get there.
On Isru Chag I flew to Baltimore and got to work on expediting Mom’s aliyah. It was difficult — downtown Baltimore, where the lawyer’s office was, was burning from the race riots in response to the death of Freddie Gray, and it was Yom Ha’atzmaut season in Israel, so all of the Jewish Agency was on vacation — but I managed to complete the process in a record three weeks.
Amid the chaos, I prepared my mom for her final journey.
Mom settled nicely in our home in Ramat Beit Shemesh, where she lived another six years. My family rose to the challenge, with my children helping out in so many ways, especially one of my daughters who helped with her basic needs when Mom became really incapable.
This period wasn’t without its difficulties, especially as Mom’s faculties decreased and she fought us with more frequency as we came to help her, but there were many parts that were healing. Mom had been through some hard times in life, but dementia — for all the ways that it’s ravaging and scary — was also having a wonderful effect on her. She could live entirely in the present, and her innate happy personality came back, without any of the bitterness I knew. I was giving and giving and giving to her, and that cemented a love that was always there under the surface.
Marc was in contact a lot, too, and it was a time of mending fences with him as well. We rallied for Mom together. He came to Israel several times and spent Shabbos with my family and Mom. I got to know him better and saw what a long way he’d come. I was proud of him and told him so.
At the end of 2020, Mom passed away, and while we mourned, we were grateful for the good times we’d had with her. She’d passed away in peace. It was time to move on.
But Marc wasn’t in a good place. He’d been laid off during Covid, and the financial instability was causing him emotional suffering as well. Now, he was hoping that his share of the inheritance (from Mom’s house, pension, and three years of back taxes) would allow him to purchase something called a “book,” a business with a large contact list, already in operation, that he could just take over.
Marc was desperate, and although Mom’s will stipulated that her assets be split evenly between us, he wanted to take his full share from the sale of the house upfront and pay me my share later as the smaller assets came in.
I agreed right away. We really needed the money, but we were stable, things hadn’t changed drastically for us as they had for Marc, and I wanted to help him get back on his feet.
Marc, as executor of Mom’s will, had to file the necessary documentation to release her pension funds to me. We also agreed that he’d send me the tax refunds as they came into his account, and a certain amount from the house sale, thereby bringing us each to a full 50 percent share of the assets.
I was happy to give him this loan — I knew he needed it badly.
I waited a while for the pension to come through and eventually contacted my mother’s broker to find out what happened.
“Nothing’s been filed,” she said.
I was bewildered, and I called my brother.
“Marc, what happened with the pension?” I asked.
He wouldn’t give me the time of day. And I couldn’t do anything myself, because he was the executor of the will. Never mind the fact that he’d taken his full share plus, never mind my graciousness and willingness to help him. He wouldn’t bother himself to help me at all; he’d become insufferable.
I did all the legwork myself, the forms, getting them notarized and so on — the process took five months — and was finally able to make Marc an appointment to go to the court to sign over the money from Mom’s IRA to me.
Naively, I called him to find how it had gone.
“Oh, it was today?” was his blithe response.
I was seething. I clamped my mouth closed while Marc started going on about what a nuisance I was, belittling me, even berating me.
I swallowed hard. “I’ll make you another court appointment,” I responded simply.
He missed that one as well.
I tried to stretch myself to understand. He was up to his ears in his new venture — which I had helped fund with the money from the will that was coming to me. But the facts remained: Marc was busy, overworked, and just wouldn’t put in the time to help me get my share. There was nothing in it for him, I realized bitterly.
After stonewalling, avoidance, and outbursts, Marc finally made the appointment. But his behavior was just a teaser of what was to come.
There was also the story with the tax returns. There were supposed to be four separate payments, all intended for me, totaling a sum of $21,500. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of money, but I had several children approaching shidduch age, and the money would make a significant dent in wedding expenses.
At some point, Mom’s accountant discovered that the first portion had been paid into Marc’s account a few months prior. He’d seen it, apparently not realizing it was Mom’s and intended for me, and spent it on a cross-country trip for his family. When we found out that it had been in his account all along there was no apology.
“I’ll check my account,” he said. “If what the accountant is saying is true, I’ll wire you the money.”
Six weeks, and a bunch of broken-promise-dates later, after emails and messages that went from evasive to accusatory to threatening, it dawned on me that not only would I not be getting that first tax refund amount, but it was improbable that I would receive any of the remaining tax money.
Was there any hope? I thought maybe I should try to talk to Marc about a longer-term payment plan, without any immediate pressure.
I sent him an email, as by this time we simply couldn’t talk directly because it would break down into a shouting match (one-sided), with him saying things like “The Torah is fake” and “Mitzvah observers are backward non-thinking fanatics who prefer to live in the Dark Ages,” and even worse.
Please tell me your plan. Can you get a loan?
Instead of responding directly he wrote back:
I’m just like Dad. My wife says I beat her into the ground.
I exited the email and sighed out loud. He was becoming Dad, I knew. He was lying consistently, he was gaslighting me.
This was the worst thing that could happen. For me, for him — and I didn’t know where to go from there. I’d been saying Tehillim for him, davening for him for months now. But I was in so much pain about the situation, how our relationship had deteriorated, about the things he’d said to me, the things he’s said about Yiddishkeit. He’d ripped me and everything I stood for to shreds. I’m a sensitive soul, and dealing with him was absolutely crushing.
That night I couldn’t sleep. My insides were churning. I sat and cried on the sofa, whispering words of Tehillim, and then I summoned faith. I believe Hashem runs the world. I know He does. There’s a reason for everything.
And then, in the quiet and the dark, I had a thought: Could it be that Marc doesn’t owe me the $21,500 in tax return money?
I needed a moment to process the thought. In order for that to be true, I’d have to owe my mom $21,500. In fact, no I’d have to owe her double, $43,000, to reflect Marc’s half as well.
I closed my eyes as a memory dawned: Eleven years ago, when we bought our house, my mom loaned us 150,000 NIS for the down payment.
I went over to the computer and put in the NIS-USD exchange rate of 11 years ago. According to Google, the equivalent sum in dollars at the time was approximately $43,000. Half of that is… $21,500.
When we’d first borrowed the money, we’d agreed to pay Mom back when we sold our first home on the West Coast, where we did kiruv for ten years. But by the time that house was sold, Mom had been living with us for three years and was no longer capable of having a conversation. We couldn’t ask her if she was mochel, and it didn’t dawn on us to pay her back.
I went to sleep emotionally drained; my mind reeling.
The next morning, I called a posek and told him the whole story.
“You do indeed owe your mother the $43,000,” he paskened. This effectively meant that my brother didn’t actually owe me $21,500.
I put down the phone and started to twirl around the room. I was dancing, crying and laughing from relief and joy. Marc didn’t owe me a penny. Hashem in His kindness was protecting me from receiving money that wasn’t mine. Additionally, Hashem had lovingly paid back my debt to my mother in the least painful way — as it had never actually come out of my pocket. Right then, I felt like I was given a gift.
I felt Hashem’s love and care, His precision and the way He was directing my life, but still my brother’s behavior hurt.
Again, I turned inward. I asked myself, “On some level, have I done the same thing? Was there a debt I owed but found excuses not to pay?”
Twenty- nine years ago, when I became a baalas teshuvah, I made a verbal commitment to pay back the seminaries that had taught and housed me.
But I’d never followed up on it. Whenever I thought about that subsequently, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t do it now. With our growing family there was always an excuse.
I sat down with pen and paper again, and worked out months and costs. The amount I owed the seminaries was in the region of $21,500.
The next morning, I was in Yerushalayim sitting in front of Rebbetzin Deena Weinberg a”h of EYAHT, telling her my bittersweet story and asking about paying for my time there.
“We never demanded payment from students,” she said. “If they could pay at the time, they paid; if not, then not.”
She was mochel, she said. She was doing what she did in the service of Hashem. Seeing me a Torah-true Jew with a Jewish family, she told me, was her payment.
Next, I called Rebbetzin Tova Weingot of Sharei Bina. She expressed similar sentiments, adding that from her point of view payment is to pay kiruv forward to other people, to teach Torah, to create a kiddush Hashem.
After speaking to my former teachers, I felt cleansed, lighter, happier. I’d discovered how the story with Marc really related to me, and gotten the chance to work through old stuff. It felt good.
I spoke to my rav about letting go of the money that Marc ‘owed’ me, and we decided that I’d tell Marc I was giving it up because of the toll the conflict was having on me. (He’d likely be incensed if he knew I had taken a loan from Mom.)
But my brother had his pride and a tough ego.
“It was only a loan,” he said. “I want to repay it, it’s not my money.”
Suddenly he was singing a different tune, and when the next two tax returns came, he messaged me for my bank details.
I didn’t know if he was serious or not, but it did seem so, and now halachically I couldn’t accept the money, because I’d already long established that the money wasn’t coming to me — it was my repayment to Mom via Hashem.
I explained to him that I’d forgiven him on the loan and therefore if he wanted to pay now it would be considered interest, which I couldn’t take due to the law of ribbis.
“But if you want to be kind you can say it’s a gift, and then I can accept it,” I said.
“But it’s not a gift, it’s not a gift at all.” he was staggered. “It’s a loan repayment!” And then the taunting started again, “Useless religious dogma, what a farce….”
Wild horses couldn’t drag Marc into saying it’s a gift, so my fealty to halachah means I’m not going to see the money. But I received the gift already — from Hashem.
And even if there’s a lot of pain and hurt in my story, it’s really about a flash of light in the dark, G-d showing me He’s here in the exactness of the numbers, the exactness of His Plan.
I got to know Him when I was 20 and I continue getting to know Him better, both through the revealed goodness — two of our children got married while this inheritance saga was going on — and through the harder times. I see His Fingerprints, and I lean into the hug. He’s here with me.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 979)
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