Monday, June 2, 2008

What happened to your family?

I've been thinking more on yesterday's conversation, and how my friends' parents reacted to their conversions. And how parents in general react to conversions of their children, whether into another religion, or into atheism. I've also watched several episodes of Big Love recently, some of which have been dealing with people who are rejected or disowned by their parent's because of their beliefs.

My dad's first cousin married a woman who isn't Jewish. He has 3 other first cousins, and my childhood was filled with visits to those 3 other families, and I was close with many of my second cousins. (all my first cousins on my dad's side of the family lived in Israel when he was growing up, so he made a point of hanging out with his cousins and their kids, who mostly lived in the area). I didn't meet my cousin who married someone not jewish until his sister's son(my second cousin)'s bar mitzvah, when I was 14 or 15. I have not seen them since. But it turned out they had a son the exact same age as me!

When I was growing up, my mother's best friend and business parter was a women who was a baal tshuvah. Her "orthodox" husband cheated on her, and when they divorced, she had a bad experience with rabbies she talked to, and between that and the cheating, she decided she was not going to follow the orthodox religion anymore. She had a son a few weeks younger than me, who was pretty much my only friend from age 1 to age 11 or 12. We carpooled together as kids, and since our mothers were business partners, we were at each other's houses several times a week at least. When his mom decided not to be religious (and took her son with her) my mom told me I couldn't be friends with him anymore. I didn't see him again until I was 19, and randomly ran into him at a party. My mother convinced her friend to leave their business partnership, and she basically stopped talking to her, in the middle of her friend going through a really bad divorce.

She had another very close friend, who stopped being religious when SHE went through a divorce. After 15 years of living next door to each other, and being best friends, when her friend moved away and took her kids out of religious school (to put them in public school) my mom stopped talking to her.

Here are some things that have happened to me because I did not want to be orthodox jewish:

*At age 17 when I first told my parents I didn't want to be religious anymore, I was forced to go to family therapy, at a therapist who was a friend of my dad (who is also a therapist), who tried to convince me to listen to my parents, and then convinced me to 'confess' to them about specifics aspects of the faith that I wasn't following.

*My brothers both got a car when they turned 17, which they kept at older ages. I had a car for a year when I was 17 (and my parents didn't want to pay for the bus to high school) and a few months after telling me parents I was not religious, they gave the car to my brother, who had it for several years before he sold it. My (younger) brother could use it whenever he wanted without talking to my parents first, but I had ask my friend's for a ride, or talk to my parents and tell them exactly where I was going, who was going to be there, and when I would be home in order to borrow a car, which they frequently refused to lend me if they didn't like the friends I was going to hang out with, even if no one else needed any of the cars. I was still living at home (in the suburbs, with no public transit) at the time (this was when I was age 18-20).

*I was told that after I graduated college I could live at my parents house for one summer, but that after that, I had to find my own place- my (nearly 25 year old) brother still lives at home. Fortunately I started grad school soon after, and have a stipend to pay for rent.

*When I was in college, my parents would only pay for my dorm on the condition that I came home every shabbat, as they "knew I wouldn't keep shabbas at the dorm and they wouldn't pay for me to live that lifestyle." So every friday for 2 years I made the 2-3 hour treck back to my parent's house (via 4 different trains). Also they wouldn't let me dorm at all for my first 2 years, becuase of all the 'bad influences', so for my first 2 years of college I commuted for 4-5 hours each day.

*Parents refuse to meet my boyfriend/fiance who I live with/who I have dated for a year and a half, despite repeated requests.

*Parents have thus far visited me 2 times in the 4 years I have lived a 2 hour drive away from them, and one of those times was because their friend happened to be getting married in my city; they stopped by for half an hour. My dad visited on his own for a third time recently to talk about cancer (mom didn't come). They have visited my brother (who is Israel for 9 months) twice already.

*Parents have not helped me with any money (apart from the cost of visiting them, and that summer they let me live rent free at home) since I graduated college. In college they paid for my dorm and tuition, gave me $20 a week, and everything else (including food, as there was no food plan) was paid for by the 3 part-time jobs I had during all of college (which I attended full time), which was barely enough to cover my minimal bills (cell phone and food and a metrocard- I didn't even have internet, and I never went out). For a year of college I ate a taco bell bean burrito ($1.06) every day for lunch, cause I couldn't afford anything else, and at least that had fiber and protein and filled me up. I became an expert at finding places with free food, and ended up in quite an insane amount of clubs and organizations on campus. I also am somewhat ashamed to admit that I frequently stole food from the school cafeteria, as I couldn't afford to pay for it. My brother (a year younger than me) didn't have a job until almost a year after he graduated college, and still lives at my parent's house, rent free.

*My mom told me around 4 years ago that I shouldn't talk to my youngest brother if I could help it, as I would be a bad influence on him.

*I can't mention the name of the man I am in love with, without my mother talking over me or outright ignoring me and changing the subject without ever acknowledging a thing I have said about him.

I was talking to B about this earlier, and we were wondering if our parent's were especially bad, or if we were especially unable to forgive our parents for their past mistakes, the way other kids are able to? Most people I know of around my age don't seem to have as severe problems with their parents as we do. But many of them have at least some problems with their parents at some point. He thinks it's probably a combination of both...both of us with exceptionally insane parents, and exceptionally stubborn personalities. And also exceptionally stubborn parents (although his parents eventually relented when they both came down with life threatening diseases and hadn't talked to him for a few years). Just something that we have in common I guess.

So my question to you, dear readers, is: how are people in your family treated if they want to change their religion from the religion of their parents? Are my experiences normal? I sometimes lose sight of what is normal, and I need a reality check here. Also I like dramatic stories that I can relate to, so tell me some of those.


  1. Your parents sound a lot worse than mine, although I can't say for sure how my parents would have reacted if I dated a non-Jew.

  2. No dramatic story here, but you have my deepest sympathies.

  3. My relationship with my parents has been dissolving for quite some time. I also feel something of a double standard, seeing as they visit all their other children more frequently. On the other hand, I have no grandchildren to offer them, which is all they really care about these days anyways.

    I think your experience is somewhat typical. I was the last one in the family to get a car, but then I didn't need it b/c I didn't have kids. My sister finally got sick of it and I chopped it. Living at home I have no experience with (but isn't your at-home brother also not OJ anymore?).

    The girlfriend/boyfriend thing, well that is pretty much my situation too. It's sad, it's ignorant on our parents' part (if not straight-up racist), but I guess we could have expected it. So that doesn't quite count against them.

    The therapy thing sounds terrible. Never had to do that. I was out of the house by the time I chucked it all.

    I think OJ 'rents just have a difficult time with the whole shebang. My folks felt personally responsible when I rejected Orthodox Judaism. Doesn't matter that it came from within. Doesn't matter that I have good reasons to back it up. Doesn't matter that I've learned far more Torah than they have. They took it as their failing.

    They also took it as a rejection of some kind. Weird... it had nothing to do with them! If anything, they were cool (except that my father kind of pushed us to learn a lot when we were younger). It's the rabbis, and the Biblical criticism, and OJ's stubborn opposition to any kind of progressive idea that finally did me in :)

    Funny thing is, they never communicated with me about these feelings at all. Apparently they were just hoping I would meet the right OJ girl and all the problems would go away! So silly.

  4. By us, Ultra Orthodox, we get lobotomized. You are getting kinder treatment. Our parents disown us. It is called conditional love.

  5. No issues related to religion here (plenty of other meshugas, but not related to religion).

    Not when I took a detour through neo-Paganism (you missed that step on the ''questing Jew'' checklist, I think), not when I ended up comfortably as a Deist, and not for being intermarried.

  6. ((I should note that my family hasn't been Orthodox for at least 3 generations))

  7. I'm curious how you would feel if your (future) kids would somehow become charedi (i realize its a long shot :-)
    Just like your parents are convinced that they are following the "true" path in life and are suffering from deep disappointment in your "straying", i'm curious how you would feel if your kids would "stray" from the path you feel is correct to one that is very far from your own.

  8. candy man- yeah my little brother is not OJ, but he hides it from my parents, while I was a lot more forthcoming about my beliefs.

    My parents also take it as a personal rejection, especially my mom, and my dad keeps telling me how this is a 'teenage rebellion' that i'll get over (I'm 26).

    the chief- I haven't been disowned. Yet. But if my fiance isn't allowed to be talked about, and isn't allowed to family functions, it's going to amount to the same thing- cause I no longer feel good about going to these things without him.

    Also I have definitely been written out of my grandmother's will.

    anonymous- if my kids want some religion of some kind, I will not reject them. I would talk to them about why it is they are converting to that religion, and try to make sure it's good reasons (and not reasons like "this rabbi said I would go to hell if I didn't pay him $1000 and convert"). But if I am reassured that they are converting for 'good' reasons, then I have no problem with it. I have plenty of friends who are religious in different religions...I have no problem with religious people per se, I just don't want to be religious myself, and I have a problem with people who try to proselytize me.

    Some examples of good reasons would be their beliefs match those of the faith, or the stated beliefs of that religion resonate with them, they find that those beliefs give their life more meaning, they are in love with someone of that faith and are converting for them, they like and feel more accepted in the community of people in that faith, etc. Basically I would want to make sure they are converting for positive reasons and not out of fear or obvious brainwashing.

  9. oh and dave- I defitely made a stop by neo-paganism, when I was maybe 15 or 16. In college I went through a Buddhist phase as well, and I still think some of their more philosophical tenets are useful for me (like realizing that everything is temporary, trying to seek the true way the world is instead of being stuck in your own preconceptions, etc)

  10. I have a close relative who is not religious, and although she was not officially ostracized from the family, she was always on the fringes of the family events, and we never really had much to do with her. But to be perfectly honest, that might well have been a result of her own preferences, and not a consequence of a reaction from the religious members.

    However, when I was in my late teens, she got divorced, and remarried a non-Jew. At that point my family officially cut off all ties with her. She was not invited to events, and not even spoken to on the phone (although not all family members adhered to this policy strictly, but some did). Only when that relationship ended did they allow any contact again.

    As for myself, I haven't gotten any official "cut-off's" from anyone in my family, but for the most part I don't really have much to do with them, and don't care to. When I go to family events, I play the role they want me to, and keep my mouth shut for the most part. One of these days we'll all probably have to face the reality of the situation, but until then, everyone prefers to just avoid dealing with it and pretending there's nothing to discuss. I can't begin to imagine what the reaction would be if I ended up wanting to marry a non-Jew.

    As to your awful situation, you have my deepest sympathies. It's a story I've heard from far too many people. It's just a horrible situation to be in and I hope you find the strength and emotional fulfillment you need from the other relationships in your life.

  11. Although I honestly don't know how I'd react if I would be your parents, and what's considered a "normal" reaction, you have my sympathies. It sounds like you've had to put up with a lot of junk in your life.

  12. Here is where my advice gets fairly cold-blooded.

    Assume that they aren't going to change. It's a fair enough assumption, and you cannot make them change.

    What relationship with them would add more to your life than it takes away? Is it one which they would accept?

    There may not be one, in which case, the logical thing to do, painful though it may be, is to walk away.

    If there is one, then that tells you how you can interact. But if there isn't, life is too short to be spent on relationships which hurt more than they help.

  13. Well when kids are away they do even in the best of families have experiences of parents telling them they will pay only up to a certain age or only certain things. And parents react to different things that they find intolerable by punishing and also by limiting influence and saying when you can dorm. Every parent sees some things as the line not to follow. If they make mistakes that's human. If they didn’t care a parent would let a child do whatever they want. Maybe you can figure out why your nonfrum brother is getting along with your parents.There has to be dialog.

  14. maybe my nonfrum brother is getting along with my parents becuase he never talks to them about not being frum, and hasn't introduced or even mentioned his non-jewish girlfriend of the past 6 months (as in, my parents don't know she exists)

  15. Look, I feel for you with your parental relationships, but compaining how you only got tuition and board paid for!? How the car given to you was taken away?

    Keep us updated with you life, its interesting, but bean burritos aside, you had it a hell of a lot better than most people. I cant even fathom how easy I'd have it if I had my tuition and dorm paid for me.

  16. frumpunk-

    my tuition and board came out to about $6-$8,000 a year. I went to CUNY.

    Also, most of that was paid for by a scholarship.

    Does that make me overprivileged? I wanted to apply to NYU, but my parents said the only more expensive place they would pay for would be stern college.

    I'm not trying to say I'm entitled to more, just that I was given less than my brothers.

  17. Hello,

    I have been reading your blog for a while and have found your situation very interesting. This particular post reminds me of my mother. She was raised catholic, but joined the Mormon faith when she was in her teens. She went through very similar things, like not getting her share of love, money and to this day ( she is in her 60's) some of her extended family have absolutely no contact with her. So when I left the Mormon church she was hurt, but I never suffered as much as she did.

    I believe you are brave for stepping up and letting your voice be heard unlike your brother who remains in the shadows for the freebies. Imagine how your parents will feel when he comes out?

  18. She has a brother who came out. Her father gets along with him.

  19. rabban gamliel- my brother didn't "come out" per se. My parents know he doesn't always keep kosher or shabbat strictly, but they have no idea that he has a non-jewish girlfriend. Also, he didn't tell my parents this until about a year ago, while my parents have known I'm not religious for almost 10 years. Maybe they decided to do it 'better' the second time around?

  20. Maybe they both did things better. In any event I hope things become better for you all. Sometimes the order of birth in a family also causes reactions to things in different ways. Older born may be more used to adults and so less afraid of confrontaion with authority for good and for bad as in anything in behavior.

  21. oy, that's a lot to deal with

    I feel for you sister

  22. Folks, this is some heavy shit. I have totally gotten the "amputation" threat. And gamliel, it's not to be taken lightly.

    This isn't fun and games here. It's a person's relationship with his/her parents. And if there are rabbis out there who could help, who could stand up in their pulpits and tell their parishioners:

    "Do not love your children for Judaism's sake. We are rabbis, and well all know Judaism is flawed and imperfect and may be complete nonsense. Do not hang your love for your child on such a hair's thread. Love your children with an unconditional love. Love them because they are different from you. Love them the way you love your religion: with all its imperfections."

    If there are rabbis out there who could say such a thing, but hold back out of fear, then they are violating the Torah's commandment:

    "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is being spilled."

    As for Dave's advice,
    life is too short to be spent on relationships which hurt more than they help.

    It's good advice, but I think it should be used only as a last resort. There's still a lot of time and thought ahead of you. As humans, we are hard wired to crave our parents' love, as well as our childrens'. This is no ordinary relationship. It affects you every day, and it affects many others. Its rescue, its successful resolution, would be powerful medicine.

  23. "The Candy Man said...
    Folks, this is some heavy shit. I have totally gotten the "amputation" threat. And gamliel, it's not to be taken lightly."

    What is the amputation threat? Also while love is uncoditional pain can still make a barrier. There are a lot of issues here that extend beyond religion as well and I'm sure blame to go around if someone bothers to want to go down that road. But that really is not constructive here.

  24. I have a terrible, guilt-ridden relationship with my mother and it has nothing to do with religion. Nothing. And since she's 82 and I'm 53, I feel like I should just BE OVER IT and somehow magically be really good friends with her.
    But something inside of me (self-protection?) will not let that happen.
    It is a source of huge sorrow for me.

  25. my parents freaked out whenever i wanted to be even just slightly stricter about observance than them.

  26. From a completely oppostie point of view, my parents (a reform Jew and Mormon) FLIPPED OUT when I told them I wanted to become frum. They threw away all of my skirts, siddurim, seforim, and restricted my money so that I was only ever carrying enough cash for a meal. They didn't let me go to libraries, book stores, grocerie stores, or friends houses without strict supervision (and granted the friends weren't frum). My father brought me to his church multiple times (against my will) and even sent missionaries after me when I was away on vacation with my reform family!!! I think its just parents in general. Especially when it is the first time in a LONG time that daith has changed.


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