| Turning Tides |

Brief History

 mishpacha image

Photo: Shutterstock

As told to Leah Gebber

M y husband’s family is into brief histories. Mention someone’s name and my mother-in-law will thread her fingers together give a solemn nod say “If you want a brief history…” and then launch into an account that includes yichus achievements children and notable relations. “Let me tell you about your Uncle Shmiel ” she’ll say. Or Great-Aunt Esther. Or even the latest about your cousin Dov Ber. She knows I guess. In her 70s living in Bnei Brak all her life having married into a “name” family when she was just 18 she’s made it her lifelong mission to know all the people whose grandchildren’s upsherens appear in the press. Well their wives of course.

So in the spirit of my mother-in-law who plays such a big role in this story I’ll offer you a brief history of my family. I married yichus — and expectations. The world is a shtender and a gemara and what more could you need or possibly want? I’m talking generations of talmidei chachamim and ovdei Hashem who shteiged quietly without taking positions or wanting kavod simply sustaining the world with their learning.

Family gatherings fill me with awe: to peep through the mechitzah and see faces alight with dignity and wisdom is a privilege indeed. When I married my husband he expected to continue on the path of his brothers father uncles grandfather — and so on through the generations.

We had boys first and maybe that triggered all the changes in our lives. Our two eldest weren’t doing well in cheder and my husband had to get to the bottom of it. He sat in on classes talked to experts and devised a learning plan that would play to each one’s strengths. Despite our last name and lots of fluffy talk the plans were not implemented. Again my husband investigated and found that there were failures in the system: communication between administration and staff was patchy rebbeim were suspicious of changes a whole gamut of reasons and excuses.

When my husband throws himself into something he does it all the way. To cut a long story short Shimon decided that he had to further study what he called the systemic failures in the cheder system. And to do so we moved to America so that he could first get a degree in Education then a Masters in Educational Management and then a PhD in Educational Leadership. Go explain how a boy who learned in Bnei Brak all his life can get a PhD in a language not his own. Whatever. He did it.

I won’t say it was easy for me: the upheaval of a new country supporting my children as they acclimated to a very different culture encouraging my husband — from helping him with basic math courses through spell-checking his dissertation. I do have lots of family in the States though so at least I had a support system. The hardest part of it for all of us was facing my in-laws’ disappointment. Shimon was passionate about what he was doing said that he felt it was his tafkid; what could bring more nachas to HaKadosh Baruch Hu than devoting himself to the best ways of educating His children. His parents said no our family has a tradition of devoting ourselves single-mindedly to our learning and allowing other people to save the world. The argument went on unabated for a decade.

And then we moved back to Israel. My two sons may have looked different from their cousins, but the minute they opened their mouths, and launched into a diyuk in the Gemara in accented Hebrew, they were accepted as one of the tribe. Besides, they both went off to learn in Brisk, sealing their approval rating.

But my daughter — 18-year-old Dassy — was given short shrift by her grandmother. No, she didn’t wear her hair tied back like her cousins. No, she didn’t wear the dark beige tights they all wore. Yes, she wore eyeliner — and not just black, but a glittery blue to match her beautiful eyes. Almost the minute they set eyes on her, they told her that she’d better leave America behind, change her clothing, lengthen her skirts, and get rid of her phone, along with its WhatsApp account.

Dassy came home crying. Shimon ran straight back to his parents and banged on their old wooden kitchen table. “It doesn’t matter what you think about the path I’ve taken in life. But you do not make my daughter feel degraded and unloved. She’s your granddaughter, just as much as Leah’le and Hindy and Sari. And I demand that you treat her that way.”

They looked at him with coldness in their eyes and told him that he had picked up more from America than they had feared: this outburst, this was a mehalech? This manner of speaking, this was kibbud av? Had he forgotten where he came from? Did he need to be reminded of who he was, who his family was?

We didn’t live nearby. But still. There were family gatherings and simchahs and visits and, “Oy, Shimon, you forgot already who your parents are? You forgot to come visit? A little respect…”

I vacillated between fury and attempting to understand them: This was their life, their roots, their blood. Maybe they thought that their recriminations would be effective. They were old school, no, they were prehistoric. What could we expect?

And then another obnoxious comment would come and I’d fume — where were their priorities? Even if they couldn’t stretch themselves to imagine how we felt after each rejection, what about the many lavim they were being oiver?

As for Dassy, she decided that she didn’t want anything to do with them. And if there were times she couldn’t avoid them, she’d revert to obnoxious 14-year-old behavior and do her best to provoke them. She’d paint her fingernails orange, chew large wads of gum (even blowing bubbles), exaggerate her American accent, and generally do her best to horrify them.

It wasn’t a good situation.

Still, it was a situation that I put out of my mind most of the time: We were busy, after all. My husband with his new job, trying to implement the dreams he’d been spinning for the past decade. Me with the kids, finding work, adjusting to life back in Eretz Yisrael. But one afternoon, I heard Dassy schmoozing with a friend. “Oh, my grandparents hate me,” she said casually. “They think I’m…”

I didn’t wait around to hear how she described their attitude toward her. It was the word hate that shocked me. Such an ugly word. Disapproval, yes. Hatred? To me, it was a sign that everything had deteriorated too far.

Shimon, for all his good qualities, is not a diplomat. Despite all the theories he was implementing about teamwork and diplomacy and mediation and listening, he wasn’t the right person to heal the wounds. Their rejection of Dassy was a rejection of him, but worse. He could handle the slights, he was an adult, married, an established person. Seeing his daughter picked on made him boil in rage.

So it was up to me.

The first thing I did was invite my mother-in-law for breakfast at a restaurant. She never went to restaurants, and I wanted her out of her comfort zone, to open her eyes just a fraction to what it felt like to be in a place where you weren’t entirely comfortable. She sat across from me in her stiff sheitel and her stiff posture and the stiff handbag with a little gold clasp that she had used for 30 years. And all around her was fluidity: waitresses gliding, women waving arms in the air as they laughed with friends, the foamy cappuccino that slid down her throat.

“It’s so wonderful to be back here, and be a part of your lives again,” I said, lifting a forkful of Greek salad. She had ordered a toasted sandwich and it was sitting on the purple glass plate, looking at her. She looked back at it, unsure of whether to cut it with her knife and fork, or perhaps to lift it with a napkin. Occupied, she didn’t respond.

“Shimon and I were so excited for the children to have role models like you and the Zeidy,” I continued.

She nodded, and her head seemed to be on a spring, for it kept moving, a tiny motion up and down, up and down.

“It’s not even that you need to say anything: Your kavod haTorah is just there, in everything you do.”

She opted for the knife and fork, and began cutting the tiniest piece.

“And isn’t that the most effective chinuch, just being an example, not saying anything?”

She looked up at me sharply. She’s no fool, my mother-in-law.

My next move came at a Chanukah party we hosted for the while family. Instead of the usual program: men launching into the ins and outs of a halachic sh’eilah on one side of the room and women schmoozing about teachers and winter coats on the other, I ran a program.

It was just a silly game: a bingo with character traits, and squares with all the family names. You had to cover the middos square with a name square — adding an example of how that person used that good middah. We all read out our boards at the end. On top of the word Strength, I had used my Dassy card, adding the comment: For a girl of 18 to leave her friends and the life she’s known and settle in Eretz Yisrael takes tremendous inner strength.

My husband had put Dassy’s card on top of the Caring box. He added a specific example: When Dassy’s friend was sitting shivah, she organized a rotation so girls would be with her the entire time. And after the shivah, she was there a few times a week, helping her friend through her grief.

My sister-in-law spontaneously put Dassy’s card on the Emes square. She wrote that Dassy had heard her cousin say in despair that she would just copy a friend’s homework answers, and had sat down with her and helped her complete the assignment. Then she offered to help her again, whenever she needed.

There were lots of comments that evening about every member of the family. About Leah’le and Hindy and Sari, about hasmadah and yiras Shamayim and being misgaber. I didn’t know if my in-laws had registered Dassy’s wonderful character traits or if she’d been lost in the crowd. But I did feel that, for at least one night, I had created an atmosphere where we focused on the good.

There had to be a crescendo, of course. My mother-in-law contracted pneumonia that winter. She was hospitalized, and for a while it was touch and go. Baruch Hashem, she pulled through, but was so weak that she could barely stand. All of a sudden, she needed someone with her all the time. My nieces were mainly busy with their courses, but Dassy was studying for an American degree online, so she was much more flexible in her hours. Dassy ended up taking on most of the Bubby-shifts.

The first time she left, with her laptop case in one hand and a tote bag in the other, I was terrified. I knew it took a lot of strength for Dassy to bus into Bnei Brak, more to enter their apartment, and still more to care for a grandmother whom, she felt, totally devalued her. But she did it. I guess she’s my husband’s daughter.

At first, there was no problem. Dassy spooned chicken soup into her grandmother’s mouth, fluffed up her pillows, and swept the kitchen floor. As my mother-in-law gained strength, she regained her mouth. “Why do you walk around plugged into music all hours of the day?” she grumbled.

To her credit, Dassy didn’t get silent or belligerent. “Great idea, Bubby,” she said. “Why didn’t I think of it?” She plugged her MP3 into speakers and took Bubby through her repertoire of favorite songs, explaining why she loved each one. “Not bad,” Bubby said eventually. For my mother-in-law, not bad was akin to one of Dassy’s awesomes.

Each time my mother-in-law got crotchety, Dassy coaxed her into playing a game (which she hastily borrowed from curious neighbors), played her some music, or distracted her by showing her the caricatures she draws so skillfully. All things that my mother-in-law would have turned up her nose at just a few months before.

Dassy stayed in Bnei Brak for two weeks. She learned that my mother-in-law’s bark is worse than her bite. And she also learned to step out of her own world and understand that my mother-in-law is an old woman, vulnerable, who has lived all her life with preconceptions innocently conceived. Basically, she’s not so bad. And my mother-in-law responded with all the dignity and grace that are her real, core character traits, hidden when she feels threatened and irrelevant and fearful of just what her grandchildren have turned into.

The situation’s not perfect. But for the moment, we’re enjoying the warm truce with the hope that one day, we too might feature in one of her Brief Histories: “Let me tell you about my granddaughter Dassy…”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 518)


Oops! We could not locate your form.

Tagged: Turning Tides