Writings and Reflections

When Someone Who’s Other

by Lloyd B. Abrams

We have two adult children. We brought them up in a kosher home in an integrated, middle-class suburban community. They attended public school and went to state universities. Free thinkers ourselves, we raised our kids to think for themselves.

Maybe that’s the root of our troubles.

Our son Jonathan dated an Irish-Italian Catholic girl whom he knew from high school. They started seeing each other seriously when they commuted by train into the city together to attend college – our son to John Jay, and his girlfriend to Fashion Institute. When they were still just dating, my wife’s much younger half-sister was forced to not invite Maryellen to her wedding by her father, who was apoplectic that his step-grandson was going out with a non-Jewish girl. After all, my wife’s step-father was paying the bill and his only biological daughter could and would never go against his wishes.

When Jonathan decided to marry, they arranged to have it in a Catholic church, presided over by a priest and a rabbi, and on a Saturday – since, why not, the more conservadox closed-minded family members were refusing to attend the wedding even if it were on a Sunday. It caused us plenty of stress, and our own logjam was cleared only when I pointed out – in the words of my therapist – that it was only one hour of ceremony followed by the rest of their lives.

Our daughter Miriam was never very devout although both of our children went to Hebrew school and were Bar/Bas Mitzvahed. She attended The University of Maryland at College Park and in her freshman year, joined a sorority. She became disenchanted by the service-oriented sorority and fraternity life style even though they were committed to making sure that all of the members kept their grades up. She also became disgusted when she saw, in the student cafeteria, the same knives being used to cut ham as to cut her tuna fish sandwich in half. She soon went on the kosher meal plan at Hillel.

Towards the end of every week, the local Chabad would telephone students to come for Friday night dinner. Miriam kept on resisting, but one time, she claimed she couldn’t think of an excuse quickly enough. So she ended up going, and soon became close to both the Chabad rabbi and his wife, an ex-ballet dancer, who had to give up dancing to marry her husband. Miriam steadily became more religious, using Shabbos as a respite from the stress of her academics. She studied in Israel one summer, and became more observant as a ba'al teshuvah, a returnee to the faith. And, like the rabbi’s wife, she gave up singing – our Miriam with the molten-gold alto voice, who was in the Maryland choir, who had sung both the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America solo her high school graduation.

She met and married her husband, a ba'al teshuvah like herself, in an orthodox ceremony at the Huntington Town House – mechitza (the wall on the dance floor between the sexes) and all. They now live in an orthodox community in Queens, and will invite us for Shabbos only if we stay the requisite 25 hours. They are not ultra-orthodox “black-hatters,” though they do obey all the laws of kashruth and then some. And now, they’re sending their older child to a Chabad nursery school.

The disconnect continues to reverberate. Even on Friday, Miriam and I had another go around about Shabbos, and why we don’t come for only 25 hours, and about their finding a house in an orthodox neighborhood, and their decision about having a third child, despite that she had wanted to start teaching so they could afford the kindergarten tuition for their older boy after their hopeful move to New Jersey in September.

I don’t know how this will play out. I hope we will stay close, though I often feel that it’s a conflict between their absolute beliefs and my open-mindedness, even towards them. Indeed, I’m sometimes turned off by my son’s two boys being plugged, along with their electronics, into the almost gentile Jewish-lite middle class suburban lifestyle, and my wife is repulsed by the treyf on the table, but I have a very hard time with the fundamentalist, isolationist, restrictive lifestyle of my daughter’s orthodoxy. And how their reverence is keeping us apart.

– Based on a prompt from the Writer’s Beit Midrash, Skirball Center May 16, 2011
Rev 2 / May 23, 2011

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May 2011…Copyright © 2011, Lloyd B. Abrams
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