Over Pesach, I was fortunate to meet various individuals at seders and Yom Tov meals whose paths I might not have crossed otherwise. Most had a story or an opinion that they wanted to share with me, especially when they found out that I write a column in The Jewish Press.
Over the years, I have been asked how I get ideas for my articles – often from conversations with random strangers! That’s actually how I was “discovered” way back in 1985!
It was hashkafa pratis.
Mrs. Irene Klass, wife of publisher Rabbi Sholom Klass (both of blessed memory), overheard me speaking to a new acquaintance as she swam close by. She circled around us in hearing distance. When I was done, she asked me to put my story on paper and send it to her.
I would venture to say, decades later, that my long term connection to The Jewish Press was a match made in heaven, via the pool of the Homowack Hotel.
So I was receptive when one Pesach guest, a divorcee, wanted to share how her intrusive in-laws had destroyed her marriage. Another, a widow, had been financially ripped off by a greedy sibling who had taken advantage of her empathetic and generous nature.
I told them that what they had experienced was sadly quite common, and had been addressed many times by various advice and rabbinic columnists. Though the details might be different, the “drama and trauma” and damaging outcomes were more or less the same.
Sadly, there is one dominant common denominator in these tragic stories – family betrayal.
Being connected by DNA or by marriage can be a blessing and a life enhancing experience – or can be an “imglick” – a misfortune that can cause irreparable, long term damage.
Interestingly, the discussion began with one of the guests commenting on how she couldn’t understand the hatred and violence that was taking place in Ukraine, and how the perpetrators of the chaos and devastation could be so uncaring that they were destroying innocent lives.
I pointed out that it’s not surprising that strangers behave so cruelly when husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters can be abusive and dishonest with each other and create agmas nefesh (anguish of the soul) and horrible emotional, financial and physical harm.
The divorced woman, “Chaya” was upset with the advice recently offered to a letter writer that she felt was quite off the mark. A young lady had written a columnist regarding her twin sister, a newlywed. She was distraught over what she perceived was the deterioration of her sister’s simchat hachayim – joy of life. Typically, young brides seemingly float in the air, and a few months into the marriage her twin “was visibly miserable.”
It seems that her husband‘s mother “wanting the best for both of them” has totally taken over the couple’s apartment decor, critiquing the chairs and couches as being bad for her son’s back; replacing bedroom linens for what she insisted were better quality ones; and even buying undergarments for her son so that he “wouldn’t get a rash from the rough materials her sister had bought him.” Her sister has bottled her anger and frustration and seemingly the husband is oblivious of the emotional trauma his bride is experiencing.
The columnist’s advice was for the young wife to sit down with her mother-in-law and have a chitchat about how her “loving involvement to make the young couple’s life easier was actually doing the opposite.” The columnist suggested that this mother “just doesn’t know how to stop being a hands-on mother.”
“Chaya” insisted that a mother who buys her married son underwear is not someone who will have her eyes opened over a cup of coffee and cake. She should have suggested the young wife prevent a pregnancy, because if the situation wouldn’t improve – which it likely wouldn’t without intense family therapy, the hapless bride would be able to extricate herself from a very dysfunctional and emotionally toxic situation.
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that is exactly what was happening here.
“Chaya” had “been there and done that.” She had ended her marriage by divorcing her husband’s mother. Ironically, Mommy was the “other woman.” She hadn’t signed up to marry a little boy who saw nothing wrong with his mother walking in whenever she felt like it and deferring to what she insisted was “best” for them, often without her being part of the discussion. If she was, any opinion Chaya presented – like the color she wanted for her bedroom carpet, was considered an argument. She was so traumatized by her marriage that she confided, “If I ever remarry, it will only be to an orphan.”
The other guest, “Deborah” was struggling financially, having years earlier helped a younger sibling buy a house with the money her late husband had left her. The promise to pay her back in a timely manner was an empty gesture.
She was thinking of taking him to a beit din – or secular court, but didn’t want to fashame (embarrass) the family.
One of the Ten Commandments is al tignov – do not steal. Both this know-it-all intrusive mother-in-law and the sibling refusing to pay back the substantial loan – are thieves. The mother-in-law has stolen a young couple’s joy and shalom bayis, and the borrower, his sister’s peace of mind and finances.
No doubt they still consider themselves erliche Yidden.