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To See the Good

Could I hold it together as my marriage fell apart?

The kallah, radiant in her white gown and veil, is being led to the chuppah. She walks down the aisle and proceeds to walk seven times around her chassan, while two sets of proud parents look on. Off to the side stands a woman alone, crying.

That woman is me, the mother of the kallah.

I grew up in a family where we never spoke badly of people. If someone said or did something nasty, we assumed the person was having a bad day, or going through some difficulty in life, and continued to view the person as good.

I knew bad people existed, but I didn’t realize that good people could also be bad.

I got married over 30 years ago, before the concept of personality disorders was widely recognized. Accustomed as I was to seeing the good in people, for a long time I made excuses for the problematic behaviors my husband, Menashe, exhibited. When he borrowed large sums of money that we couldn’t afford to repay, I told myself that he would find a way to make the loan payments. When he squandered that money in high-risk investments, I told myself that he was simply trying to earn parnassah. When I learned that he was frequenting casinos and betting on sports matches, I told myself that he was under stress.

I had no idea, back then, that I was married to someone with the emotional intelligence of a 15-year-old, with all the risk appetite of an impetuous teenager and none of the maturity to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Menashe was helpful in the house and with our six kids, and was an upstanding member of the community — at least in the eyes of those to whom he didn’t owe money — so I tried to focus on the good and look away from his problematic behaviors, even as I struggled to cope with the fallout of his disastrous financial habits and emotional absenteeism.

Once, Menashe and I were at a park with the kids, when a long-haired, tattooed fellow with bulging biceps drove up beside us on a motorcycle. “We know where you are,” he snarled. Pointing to one of the kids, he told Menashe, “If you don’t pay up, we’ll get that one.”

Menashe’s response was to disappear. Our car was parked some 40 feet away, and the next thing I knew, he had driven off, leaving me to fend off the thug and take a taxi home with the kids. For months after that I did not allow the kids to walk outside alone, and I installed extra locks on our doors and windows, terrified as I was of a mafia-style hit on someone in the family.

That incident, which occurred some 15 years into our marriage, prompted me to insist that Menashe go for professional help. We saw a marriage counselor several times, after which Menashe was supposed to see him individually. For three months, Menashe reported to me enthusiastically the work he was doing, but I saw no change in him whatsoever. Eventually, concerned about the lack of progress, I called the marriage counselor myself.

He was baffled. “I’ve never seen your husband alone,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Menashe had been lying straight through his teeth.

I booked myself an appointment with the marriage counselor, and what he told me shocked me to the core.

“I’m the last person who would tell someone to get divorced,” he said, “but have you ever considered leaving the marriage?”

 

Actually, the thought had never even crossed my mind. “What do you mean?” I protested. “Menashe helps me! He’s good with the kids! He means well!”

“Sometimes when a person is sending mixed signals, the good that he does is a form of manipulation,” he said quietly. “It’s a way of distracting you from the serious problems that exist.”

It took two years from the time of that conversation for me to muster the courage to ask for a get. But by the time I did, I knew with certainty that I had to leave. Menashe’s behaviors were dangerous, even criminal, and I could not be party to his craziness. The certainty that I was doing the right thing helped carry me through the tumultuous four years that followed, while I was waiting for my get: I never once doubted my decision, even as Menashe complained loudly and frequently to the children that I was breaking up the family for no reason and the kids repeatedly expressed their anger toward me for seeking a divorce.

Much of what transpired during those four years defied comprehension. My in-laws, with whom I had enjoyed a close, warm relationship until that point, turned against me viciously. They backed Menashe in his unreasonable demands and bankrolled his legal fees and living costs so that he could drag me through a protracted custody battle while refusing to pay any child support or even split our assets, including our house.

Financially, I was prepared to give up everything, but I was not prepared to compromise on what I thought was best for my children. For instance, I could not agree to Menashe’s demands that he be the sole arbiter of which schools the kids would attend, and that he would have to give signed consent any time the kids went to visit a friend or relative. “Just give in to him,” some of my close friends urged me. “Otherwise you’ll never see your get.”

“I can’t do that to my kids,” I said. “I’m prepared to be mevater on my own financial security, but not on the well-being of my children. Besides, Menashe’s not in charge. When Hashem wants me to have my get, it will happen, and not a moment before or after.”

Our case started in beis din, but due to Menashe’s intractability it soon landed in secular court. Although judges in divorce court are generally sympathetic to women, especially mothers of young children, the judge in our case issued rulings that were inexplicably harsh to me. When I requested that I be allowed to take the children for psychological counseling — something that judges typically insist on — my request was refused.

At the time, my nine-year-old daughter, Etty, was exhibiting worrying signs of anxiety, having reverted to thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and other non-age-appropriate behaviors. I desperately wanted to take her for help, but my hands were tied because the judge supported Menashe in his refusal to allow the kids to go for therapy, even though I presented documentation from the school affirming that Etty was in need of professional help.

Also mind-boggling was the fact that the top-notch lawyer I hired failed to present my case compellingly. While Menashe’s lawyer was ripping me to shreds in every court appearance, fabricating baseless accusations against me, my lawyer remained silent. “Why didn’t you present the arguments we discussed?” I asked him. “And why don’t you point out the obvious fallacies in the other lawyer’s claims?”

“I’m waiting for trial,” he said.

This made no sense, as the judge was steadily being swayed against me, and I knew that by the time the trial arrived I would have lost all credibility.

Yet even as the court case unfolded nightmarishly, I kept on telling myself that so many people were davening for me, and it was impossible that all those tefillos would go to waste. No matter how unjust the judge’s decisions were, therefore, I willed myself to stay calm and not become overwrought. I don’t understand why this is happening, I thought to myself, but I know that Hashem is doing it ultimately for my good and the good of my children.

“Please, Hashem,” I davened, “give me the strength to get through this and to see the good in every situation.”

Another bizarre development in our case was that the judge ordered Menashe and me to alternate living with the kids, half a week at a time. While Menashe stayed with his parents when he wasn’t with the kids, my family lived far away, so I had to pack up my stuff each time I left our house and shlep it to the basement apartment of a friend of mine who was kind enough to allow me to live there rent-free.

One Friday afternoon, I packed up my stuff and headed across town to my friend’s house. Outside, a snowstorm was raging, and drifts of snow made it difficult for me to find a place to park. It was minutes to Shabbos by the time I found a parking spot, and when I stepped out of the car I tripped over a snowbank and fell headlong into a muddy puddle of slush. Then, when I retrieved my suitcase from the trunk, the zipper popped open, and all my worldly belongings landed in the same muddy puddle.

I can’t do this anymore, I thought despairingly.

As my eyes threatened to spill over with tears, I took a deep breath and whispered, “Hashem, You are always with me, so this, too, must be for the best.” Standing there in the blizzard, I turned that moment of desperation and hopelessness into an opportunity for tefillah. I bent down to pick up my belongings, and, with each step I took, I prayed for each of my children: “Hashem, let this hardship that I’m experiencing take away from any future hardships that my children are meant to suffer.” Instantly, I felt that my pain was filled with a new purpose.

At that moment, I received a tremendous gift: the gift of knowing that I could shape my own reality. No matter how crazy and out of control my life was, I alone could determine the perspective I would adopt, and that perspective would become the reality I lived in.

Instead of wringing my hands over my inability to take Etty for therapy, I turned to Hashem and cried, “I have done everything in my power to get help for this child, but it’s not happening. You’re her Father, and you’re the biggest Av Harachaman. I feel that this kid needs therapy, but if it is Your will that she not get it, I hand over the responsibility to You.”

I felt as though a huge rock had been lifted from my shoulders.

The very next day, Etty’s teacher called. “I can’t explain this,” she said, “but the Etty sitting in my class today is not the same child as yesterday. There’s a certain calm about her that I haven’t seen all year.”

From that time on, Etty’s anxiety steadily dissipated and her worrisome behaviors disappeared.

A similarly priceless gift I received during this painful time came from a surprising source: an askan who at first tried to help me but eventually tired of my case and stopped taking my calls. The last time I spoke to him, he told me, “When a person is floundering in the ocean, with nothing to hold onto and no one to turn to for help, he can turn to Hashem from that place of total helplessness, and Hashem will be there for him.” With those words, he basically dropped me into the ocean, but in doing so he equipped me with the life raft of knowing that precisely when I felt that no one in the world could help me, Hashem was with me in the most palpable way.

And indeed, it was from that place of utter reliance on Hashem that the yeshuah came. The judge presiding over our case was suddenly promoted, and the judge who took over wasted no time in insisting that Menashe not only give a get, but also pay child support, a requirement I had long given up on. For some reason, Menashe, who had never before been afraid of anyone — he had slept soundly at night even knowing that the mafia was after our family — became intimidated by this new judge, and hurriedly gave the get while agreeing to pay child support and waiving his earlier unreasonable demands.

Just a few short months later, Menashe remarried and moved from our small, out-of-town community to New York. No longer did we have to share custody 50-50; now that we were several hundred miles apart, the children would visit him a few times a year, which was more than enough for all involved. When I finally stopped shuttling back and forth between my friend’s basement apartment and the house, I realized that while for me, the previous 50-50 arrangement had been harrowing, for the kids it had truly been the best thing, as they had been spared the upheaval of having to move back and forth between Menashe and me while acclimating to the new reality of having divorced parents.

Once the get was finalized, Menashe sold the house, and the kids and I moved into a small, dilapidated apartment, where I did my best to create a cozy, happy atmosphere for the children.

One day, a friend of mine visited and exclaimed, “How can you live like this?”

“Like what?” I asked, not understanding what she meant.

She pointed to the peeling paint, the bare light bulbs, the kitchen cabinets falling off their hinges, the rickety chairs.

So grateful was I to be able to create a secure, healthy environment for the kids that until she pointed these things out, I had never focused on them. But after my friend’s visit, I wondered to myself if my children were really suffering because of our shabby living conditions, which were a far cry from the spacious, comfortable home we had left.

I had bigger problems to worry about, though. At the time of Menashe’s remarriage, my oldest daughter, Naomi, was in seminary in Eretz Yisrael, and shortly before she was due to come home, a friend of mine innocently commented to me that someone had called her about Naomi for a shidduch.

“That’s strange,” I replied. “Naomi’s not even in shidduchim yet!”

A few days later, Naomi herself called me and, much to my chagrin, excitedly informed me that she had a date scheduled for the following evening. “I’m so glad you and Abba were able to work this out,” she gushed.

Rather than telling her that I knew nothing about this, I bit my lip and played along, pretending that I was fully on board with the shidduch and giving her motherly advice for her first date.

After hanging up with her, I spent the next 24 hours on the phone, frantically making inquiries about the bochur who was to be meeting my daughter. When I told my parents that Menashe had arranged a shidduch for Naomi behind my back, they were furious. “Call the shadchan and tell her that the shidduch was made under false pretenses, and you absolutely do not allow your daughter to go out,” my father instructed me.

“I made some calls about the bochur,” I said, “and he actually sounds like a really nice boy. And Naomi is excited to meet him. So why should I stand on ceremony and insist that the shidduch be dropped just because I was kept in the dark?”

Sure enough, Naomi liked the boy, and the two flew home to celebrate their engagement a few weeks later. By this time, Menashe and his wife had already met the mechutanim and shared a l’chayim, which I knew nothing about until I accompanied Naomi to meet her new in-laws and the mechutan announced, “Now we’ll make a second l’chayim.”

Menashe’s take-charge attitude toward the shidduch extended to the wedding preparations as well. He decided that the wedding would be held in New York, not in my city. Naomi did not mind getting married in New York, as most of her friends would be able to attend, but for me it meant that I would have very few friends and relatives in attendance. He booked a hall without consulting me, and he and his wife made all the arrangements that the kallah’s mother would normally be involved in.

Rather than fight him on the wedding date and location, or on the technicalities of the menu, caterer, and photographer, I focused my efforts on ensuring that Naomi, the kallah, would be able to enjoy her wedding and begin her married life in peace, without feeling strained by the conflict between her parents. As a child of divorce, Naomi was extremely concerned that her wedding day go smoothly and that her family behave as “normal” as possible throughout the simchah. If I had to be sidelined in order for that to happen, I reasoned, then so be it.

“Menashe is leaving you out of the simchah completely!” people in my family protested. “Why are you letting him step all over you?”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m putting aside my pride so that my daughter’s wedding can be a true simchah. There are so many people out there waiting desperately for shidduchim for their kids, while I was zocheh that my daughter found her shidduch easily, and is marrying a wonderful boy. If I make a fuss about things that don’t really matter, I’ll ruin the simchah for everyone, Naomi most of all. So let Menashe run the occasion and do things his way — the main thing is that my daughter should be happy.”

Not being married, I could not walk Naomi to the chuppah, so I watched as she was escorted by Menashe and his wife, who walked her seven times around the chassan while I stood off to the side. During the meal, Menashe and his wife proudly flanked the new couple at the head table, while I was seated at a distant table with other relatives. In the pictures, I was an afterthought, earning barely two or three poses with the kallah and chassan.

I am not given to public displays of emotion, but at the chuppah, when I could not even stand beside my daughter, I could not hold back my tears. Once I was crying, however, I made a decision: Instead of crying tears of self-pity, I would channel my tears to davening that Naomi should enjoy the beautiful marriage I never had. The wedding is not about me and my nachas, I told myself. It’s about my daughter and her chassan, and the home they’re going to build. The wedding is one night, but the memory of this night is going to last a lifetime, and the last thing I want to do is spoil it for Naomi.

“I’m giving up my rightful place at this simchah, on so many levels, so that my daughter should have peace,” I whispered to Hashem. “Please, let her, and all of my children, truly have peace and harmony in their lives.”

All the years, Menashe blamed the divorce on me, and made no effort to hide from the kids the fact that he considered the divorce all my fault. From my end, I saw no reason to explain to the kids the reasons I had deemed the marriage untenable, so I never told them why I had asked for a get. “There are important reasons why I couldn’t live with Abba anymore,” is all I told them. Menashe was their father, after all, and they had to respect him.

While I made a point of never speaking negatively about Menashe, as the kids grew older they themselves came to understand certain things about their father and recognize that his emotional maturity was that of a child, and that his word could not be trusted. Once, Menashe offered to pay for two of our sons to fly out to visit him, but when the time came to pay for the tickets, he told them to lay out their own money for the tickets, assuring them that he would pay them back.

My sons, who were 19 and 21 at the time, knew that they would never see the money back, but they booked the tickets anyway.

My brother happened to be around at the time, and he said to my boys, “Why don’t you tell your father that you’re not paying for the tickets?”

My 21-year-old son retorted, “You think I don’t have plenty of things to say to my father? I do, believe me, but after 120 I don’t want to have regrets for saying the wrong thing.”

Then, my 19-year-old son added, “If we argue with him, we’ll be stooping to his level.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. These were sentiments I had thought to myself many times, and had voiced on numerous occasions to close friends and family members who urged me to put up a fight against Menashe, but never had I uttered these words within earshot of the children. Yet even without my verbalizing these messages, my children had internalized them, and had learned to maintain a relationship with their father while recognizing his limitations. Although I had never explained to them my reasons for insisting on a get, with time each of them came to understand, on their own, why it was necessary, and their anger toward me was replaced with respect.

Looking back over the years since my divorce, I feel that I have been zocheh to consistently see Hashem’s hand in my life, and I believe that’s because I always trusted that whatever happened was for the good. No matter how bad things looked, I knew that Hashem had my best interests in mind, and, remarkably, over the years I have been able to see with my own eyes how practically everything turned out for the best.

Not long ago, my Etty got married and moved to Eretz Yisrael. She was choosing between two apartments, one that was nicer and more expensive, and another that was small and rundown, but much cheaper. She opted for the cheaper apartment, and when I asked her why, she said that she and her husband preferred to use the money for other things. “We’ll be fine, Ima,” she assured me. “It can be cozy, like that apartment we lived in for a few years after we left the big house.”

I realized then that my efforts had hit home: My children didn’t remember the peeling paint and broken furniture, but they did remember the happy atmosphere I had worked so hard to create.

With all the volatility I’ve been through with Menashe, my children have all grown up to be fine, upstanding, responsible people who know how to cope with life’s curveballs and deal with difficult people wisely and patiently. Not only do I have wonderful relationships with all of them, I am proud to say that they all have respectful relationships with their father. Without my ever saying a negative word to them about him, they know very well who he is, but they have also figured out ways to get along with him without being dragged into his craziness.

But by far the biggest gift I have been granted in my life is the knowledge that no one can rob me of my dignity and equanimity. When you know that Hashem alone is in charge, and you live in His embrace, then no matter how difficult or impossible a situation seems, you can still find and maintain inner peace.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 830)

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