Friday, June 02, 2023

On Saturdays, my mother religiously attended the beauty parlor.

Until the day my father, who had begun to study with the rabbi of the local Conservative synagogue, asked my mother to refrain from having her hair done on the Day of Rest. My mother was absolutely shocked that my father would ask her, a woman who took great pride in her beauty, to give up something so sacrosanct! She went to Sara, the rabbi’s wife, and complained, “David wants me to stop going to the beauty parlor on Saturdays!” Sara paused, then thoughtfully replied, “He’s seen the Emes (truth), and you’re going to have to go along with it.”

Fast forward several years to 1972. Eema met Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, and together they forged a partnership, paving a path where few had gone before, igniting Jewish souls to return to their heritage. Thus, my mother, a woman who had initially balked at forgoing her weekly Saturday excursions to the salon, became one of the pioneers in the Teshuva movement in the early 1970’s, and with great devotion, commitment and grit, worked to connect the unaffiliated to their Jewish heritage.

We took great pride in Eema’s important work and loved to host people for Shabbos. My parents’ Shabbos table was full of great food, zemirot, and lively conversation. There was a fly in the ointment, however, and that was the shame that my mother felt in having a non-religious extended family. Eema, an educated woman who accomplished anything she set out to (practice violin four hours a day to become a classical concert violinist—check; teach herself advanced photography skills—check; start an organization in a basement until it becomes a world-wide phenomenon—check; meet presidents and prime ministers—check) was embarrassed by her status as Ba’alas Teshuva with non-religious, and even some non-Jewish, family.

The unspoken rule in my family of origin was not to talk about the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even friends from BF (Before Frumkeit), as if our family sprouted forth, inorganically, in 1972, the year our parents became frum. We grew up in a home rich with Jewish tradition yet devoid of family traditions and origin stories. My mother could not accept her own self and her own narrative.

Dear Reader, please do not judge my mother, although I regretfully did so for too many years. Eema was in many ways a product of her time in that she desired for herself and her family to appear the way she envisioned a frum family of that time– with yichus, or at the very least, frum from birth, with everyone in the family deeply practicing their faith. As well, Eema was a strong-willed woman, brilliant, highly intelligent, accomplished, fearless, driven, mission-oriented, tenacious, possessed of business savvy and a take-no-prisoners attitude, and ahead of her time in many respects, most especially being a woman working outside the home and running a multinational organization. At the same time, it is also true that she was possessed of certain flaws (aren’t we all?), the nature of which contributed to her feelings of shame and otherness.

Thus, I was raised with a particular dialectic, a tension of opposites, if you will: I learned acceptance of strangers regardless of background, yet shame of family members who dared to be different.

As a young woman, I, too, struggled with acceptance of family members who did not fit the mold. Somehow—I’d like to think it was my wisdom, but truthfully, I was young and dumb, and had absolutely no clue what I was doing—I gradually grew in my understanding of human nature, and especially of myself. Possibly it had something to do with marrying a principled man of integrity who defied (and continues to defy) any mold. Raising children who broke the molds definitely contributed. But mostly, it was through the grace of Hashem that I began to relate to myself and my family members with love, compassion, integrity, non-judgment, and acceptance. Somehow, instead of worrying about how my family appeared, I started to concern myself with valuing our relationships. Frum, no-longer-frum, never-been-frum, Jewish, non-Jewish. Because they are created in the image of Hashem. Because they are doing the best they can, every moment of every day. Because they are human beings. Because they exist. And because I love them.

My journey away from shame and toward acceptance has taken me many years. I have stumbled many times, occasionally defaulting to the implied shame learned in childhood and forgetting the acceptance and love so crucial to healthy relationships. In addition, I initially struggled in understanding what exactly acceptance entails, and equated acceptance with agreement. Through my personal life and as someone who works with individuals with mental illness and addictions, I’ve come to understand that acceptance does not mean I agree with a person’s behavior or a given situation.

Someone wise once told me, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is voluntary.” There are many unpleasant situations one endures with difficulty, or even pain, and one must accept the situation or one faces the prospect of continued suffering. For example, my sister died last year after a very brief illness. The months of her illness, subsequent death, and my bereavement have been excruciating—losing my only sister has been one of the most painful experiences of my life. I do not like this situation. At all. At all. At all. Did I also mention I do not like it—at all? And yet, if I do not wish to continue to suffer, I must accept that she is gone in order to give myself the space to grieve my loss and to ultimately connect with my new reality. I must accept that, while I still love my sister, she is not here with me in the manner of my choosing. That is acceptance.

When my child no longer practices the Torat Imecha of her youth, she is no longer living life in the manner of my choosing. She is living life in the manner of her choosing. And while I may neither like, approve of, nor agree with her choices, I can (and do) still love her as she is, and not as I desire her to be. When my son moves to a town with no Jewish community, I still love him. When my daughter’s friends are primarily non-Jewish or non-religious, I still love her. When my children drive or work on Shabbat, I still love them. When my son/daughter {fill in the blank}, I still love them. Because while seeing them driving or working on Shabbat may be painful for me, my love for them is not contingent upon any of their behaviors or whether or not they conform with my values. My love for them exists because they exist.

And while as a child I was taught to feel shame over family members who were different, as an adult I value acceptance, love, and relationships above all.

Danielle Zimmerman, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker maintaining a private practice in Clifton, New Jersey, where she assists individuals and couples who struggle with depression, anxiety and addictions. Danielle has a strong focus on repairing relationships between family members who may have difficulty overcoming the hurdle of differing values. To schedule your free 15-minute consultation, please email Danielle at [email protected] or text/call on WhatsApp at +1 (862)-686-6793.

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