Special Note: It appears that my articles on the pain of a family torn apart touched sensitive nerves. Sadly, too many of our families have become fragmented; too many are suffering from a lack of shalom bayis. The e-mails and letters that I received are all painful testimony to this breakdown of traditional family life. The following is just one of these letters.
Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis,
Thank you! Thank you for last week’s article and thank you to the young woman who brought the subject to the fore. When I read her letter, I couldn’t believe it, because, for all that, it could have been my family that she was describing – it sounded all too familiar. My mother is also widowed; she is also suffering terribly from family infighting, the only difference being that, in my family, it’s my two sisters-in-law rather than my sisters who are creating the tensions.
We do have one bright side – Baruch Hashem, all the siblings are married so no one has to worry about how this ugly circus will affect his or her shidduch, although I realize that if it isn’t resolved soon, it may spell terrible consequences for the next generation. My oldest niece is 16 – the years go by very quickly, and before you know it, she will be in the shidduch parshah.
Our family situation has deteriorated to the point where my brothers (the husbands of my sisters- in-law) who had been very close are now barely communicating and limit their exchanges to business transactions.
Why are my sisters-in-law at each other’s throats? To be honest, I cannot tell you. Should you ask them, they give you some ridiculous reasons like, “She said this,” “She said that,” and when you hear them speak you wonder: Can these be mature women?
I have come to the conclusion that when jealousy enters a person’s heart, his or her entire demeanor and attitude changes. They pick fights over non-issues and are capable of the most despicable behavior. I guess the converse is also true. People, who are committed to chesed, will be patient and compassionate, and there is no amount of provocation that can reduce them to hatred and family infighting. They always bear in mind those beautiful and powerful words that you emphasized in your article: “She is your sister! How can you not talk to your sister? She is your mother! How can you hurt your mother?”
For the past three years, I tried to mediate between my sisters-in-law. I cajoled, I urged, I actually begged them to make shalom, but it was all to no avail.
Six years ago, our father, of blessed memory, passed away. During this period, my mother never considered remarriage, although there have been some very good prospects. My mother is an attractive, engaging, warm, loving woman, who is still vital and active. Her whole life however, focuses on the family – her children and grandchildren.
When shidduch suggestions were made, she immediately dismissed them telling us that she didn’t want to be put in a position where if she wanted to baby-sit for one of her grandchildren or visit them for Shabbos, she would have to ask a husband for permission. She didn’t want to have a husband who would object or be resentful of the time she spent with her family, which, she felt, was a real possibility in a second marriage. As much as we tried to convince her to build a life for herself, she wouldn’t hear of it. “I have a life, and it is with my children,” she would say with finality.
So you can see, family cohesiveness has always been intrinsic to our mishpachah. Our get-togethers have not been limited to special occasions, like a bar- mitzvah, wedding, or G-d forbid, funeral. We would make a concerted effort to see each other on a regular basis. I share all this with you so that you may better understand how devastated our family has been by this unexpected, shocking situation.
The dynamics of our family life changed radically. Our family gatherings were no longer happening, and if they did take place, they were certainly not the same. If one sister-in-law attended, the other refused to come and this placed a shadow over everything.
Our mother didn’t stop crying, but she was by no means passive. “This is not the nachas that I anticipated in my old age,” she told us. She tried to reason with each of my sisters-in-law separately, but on every occasion she came up against a brick wall. When she pressed hard, she was told that as “a mother-in-law,” she should stay out of it.
But that really made my mother furious. While she is normally a calm, controlled person, she was outraged, “I should stay out of it! Who should be involved if not me! A stranger? Who is affected more, if not me! I’m only the mother and the grandmother! The therapist, neighbors, and friends…they can all be involved, but I must stay out of it? Do any of these people stay up at night worrying, agonizing? Does this painful situation disturb their daily lives, their sleep? Who feels this pain, if not me? And I should stay out of it!”
My mother actually committed these words to writing and sent each of us a copy. “I’m putting you on notice,” she wrote. “I will never stay out of it! I am your mother, your grandmother, and you are my children. As long as I live, I will fight to keep my family united!” My mother meant it, and she has not budged from that position.
Despite my mother’s determination, the family situation deteriorated. Often, my sisters-in-law didn’t even call to wish her a good Shabbos, but that didn’t inhibit my mom. She called them and was relentless. You can imagine that when the story of the two sisters appeared in your column, it hit hard. My mother cut it out, made photocopies and sent it to my sisters-in-law as well as to all my other siblings…. My sisters-in-law did not react, so my mother asked them if they got the article.
“Yes,” they said, but instead of showing shame and contrition, they nonchalantly remarked that such is the reality of family life nowadays, and it would be best for my mother to get used to it. Needless to say, my mother was outraged by their chutzpah and was more determined than ever to do everything possible to unite the family.
So the following week, when your reply appeared in The Jewish Press and you wrote about the terrible horrific ramifications that can result when hatred goes unchecked in a family, my mom once again cut out your article and highlighted the powerful list enumerating the “Dayenu” that you wrote demonstrating how each contemptuous hostile act was, in and of itself, a horrible blight on the neshamah, a terrible sin.
After she sent your column out to the family, she let two days pass, and then she called my sisters-in-law with the daring suggestion that we all go to see you as a family. Initially, they refused, but my mom wouldn’t give up until finally, she wore them down and they agreed to give it a try.
By this time, Rebbetzin, I’m sure you recognize who I am. We visited your office just last night. I felt that I must write to you in the name of our entire family to thank you for your patience, even when we taxed it mightily. Baruch Hashem, the miracle did occur. We came to your office fragmented, and we left as a mishpachah.
I’m not saying that everything is perfect. It is by no means as simple as that, but the walls of hatred have been breached, and we are interacting – communicating – and that’s huge.
So, if we are on the way to mending, your readers may wonder, why am I writing? For two simple reasons: 1) People always write about bad news – seldom do they share good news and say thank you. 2) Additionally, I believe that we can all borrow a page from my mom. She never gave up. She refused to resign herself to the situation. She fought and fought until we all saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
Even as I write these words, she is planning a family Chanukah party and has given notice to everyone in the family that they all better show up. My maternal grandfather was a Kohen and it occurred to me that my mother must have inherited her determination to make peace from Aaron, the High Priest…about whom it is written, “He loved peace and he pursued peace.”
Please feel free to publish my letter but may I ask you to omit our names. Wishing you a Simchas Chanukah on behalf of our entire family. We thank you!
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis