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Growing Up Sisters

May 9, 2009 | by

Decades of hurt and strain finally give way to understanding and reconciliation.

My only sibling is a sister three years my senior. For as long as I can remember, we competed - in school, in social life, and most centrally with each other. Our father, himself a top competitor in sports and in business, encouraged us to compete and succeed in whatever we tried.

Like many same-sex siblings with three years between them, our childhood was fraught with rivalry and disputes. I wanted nothing more than to tag along with her, and she wanted to be the older sister, separate from me.

Jewishly, our parents let us guide our own paths. Because we were girls, the Bat Mitzvah training and celebration were made optional. I chose to do it, as school was an area in which I excelled; I saw it as another opportunity to do well and to please my parents. She chose not to, but went to a Jewish camp for two consecutive summers, and came back singing the Grace After Meals and more Jewishly identified than anyone in our family.

I wanted to dance, and sing, and wear a dress just like her.

As my Bat Mitzvah drew near, she decided that she wanted one also; her training was crammed into a year so that she, as the older sister, could experience the ceremony first. When it was my turn, I wore a dress that my mother made, at my insistence, identical to my sister's dress from the year before.

I recall my father saying to my mother, watching my sister in a circle dance at the synagogue reception, how graceful she is. I devoted myself to learning the dances so I could someday dance beside her. When she showed an interest in singing, I tried out for a singing group in college. And so it went.

During the summer before my junior year of college, my sister announced her engagement to a man she had met in college. By this point, our interactions consisted largely of lengthy letters exchanged from my college typewriter to her secretarial bay word processor -- long, wordy journals of what we each were doing. My sister once commented that I was a terrible narcissist, pointing out that my letters never included the standard greeting, "How are you?" but rather launched directly into bragging about my own activities. She could always find the fault which cut me to the core.

As her wedding neared, I learned that my sister had selected a friend to be her maid of honor. I was outraged. "I'm your only sister!" I screamed over the phone. "In your whole life you'll only have one sister. I should be your maid of honor." I did not suggest that I was her closest friend, or even that my love was stronger and my loyalty greater -- these reasons would never have occurred to me (and I certainly would not have picked her as my maid of honor at that time, had I given it the slightest consideration). I felt, having shared a room with her for more than a dozen years, that it was my right to stand behind her at the wedding in a brand new dress. My sister was prevailed upon, and space was made for me as "maid of honor." (The other friend, who was married, was "matron of honor." That I could live with.)


I went on a trip to Israel to learn more about Judaism from an adult perspective. On the trip, I learned a section of Genesis which described the paradigmatic Jewish sisters, Rachel and Leah, who had also been pitted as erstwhile competitors. In each one's time of worst potential devastation, the other had found a way to give up something supremely meaningful to her, in order to help her sister. I found their story profoundly moving, but very remote from my own experience as a sister.

After Jacob worked for seven years to marry Rachel, Rachel learned that her father intended to bring the older sister Leah to the wedding, under a heavy veil, and marry her off to Jacob instead. It is said that Rachel and Jacob were predestined to be together and to give birth to the sons who would lead the Jewish people. Leah was predestined for another (Jacob's brother Esav), who had turned out badly, but as the oldest, tradition would have her marry first. Although Rachel and Jacob feared this switcheroo, and planned secret signs by which Jacob could confirm he had the right sister, Rachel relented and, to spare her sister the ultimate humiliation of being "spurned at the altar," shared with Leah the secret signs. And the wedding went forward.

Each had found a way to give up something supremely meaningful to help her sister.

Jacob then also married Rachel, but Leah was blessed with six sons, while Rachel remained barren for many years. One can only imagine the strain between two sisters under these circumstances, one having let her sister marry her intended, and then being forced to watch her have the children she could not.

But these are our holy ancestors, and their ways of navigating these painful circumstances establish the standard for all sisters. As the commentator Rashi explains, When Leah learned that she was again pregnant, she prayed fervently to God to make the baby a girl. Aware of the prophecy that Jacob would have 12 sons, Leah realized that her six, when added to the four sons which Jacob already had with the handmaids, would leave Rachel with a maximum of two. If Leah had a seventh son, Rachel would wind up for all eternity with only one son -- that is, even fewer sons than the handmaids. Leah's prayer that her seventh baby be a girl meant that Leah was walking away from the "one-up" of all time. The child was born a daughter.

I was overwhelmed by the self-sacrifice of these two sisters for each other, but found it very far from anything that could be said about my relationship with my own sister. I had frankly never given any thought to what she was feeling about anything.

While still in Israel, I decided to do something nice for her, and bought a silver candlestick for the baby she was expecting. Hardly on the level of giving up a son, but still a bigger gift than I had ever thought of giving before. Naturally, I felt I was being incredibly generous, and psychologically patted myself on the back. I was anxious for the baby to be born, so I could show what a nice gift I'd bought.

After his birth, I joined my sister's new "family" before sundown to bring in the baby boy's first Shabbos, and gave her the candlestick, which she lit along with a pair that did not look like it had not been getting much use. We sang Shalom Aleichem and welcomed the angels into her home, and then I left to go spend a "real" Shabbos with my friends.

This became a pattern that continued on Friday nights for several years. During these years, I felt very proud of myself. "She wouldn't be doing anything Jewish at all," I would tell myself. Although my sister welcomed this new tradition, and continued it even when I was not there, I felt it was all my doing. Her son's Bris was held in my home, further demonstrating my important contribution.

The nadir of our relationship was surely the Shabbos she brought her toddler son to spend with me in the Jewish community I had by that time made my home. My sister had moved 1,000 miles away six months before, and I was quite desperate to see my nephew again and to spend time with him. I had looked forward to this for months, confident that she would see my community and my observant Jewish life and acknowledge the value of my life choice. Hopefully, she would want it, too.

"I can't believe you would choose to live in a world which treats women as second-class citizens."

That night, after the Shabbos evening meal, the peace dissolved. Although I thought our hosts had modeled a perfect Jewish family, with the wife's delicious and beautifully prepared food, and the husband's inspiring words of Torah, she saw it differently. "I can't believe you, of all people, would choose to live in a world which treats women as second-class citizens," she began. "If you believe that your education and life experience is worth no more than preparing a pretty dinner while your husband holds court, I guess that's your choice."

I figured I could argue her into seeing the beauty of our God-driven world, but as we repeated versions of arguments that have been made in many homes, neither convinced the other. My sister became increasingly agitated and also began to complain of a physical ailment that had plagued her for years, which I knew was exacerbated by stress. Rather than trying to tone things down, I took advantage of her discomfort to push forward. "At least my husband will be able to lead my family in a Torah discussion," I offered of my as-yet-unidentified spouse. Her pain increased, and we both kept at it.

Shabbos morning, she woke me early because her physical situation had deteriorated into great pain, and she needed a doctor. "I have two religious friends who are women and doctors who live within a block. They probably have samples of what you need, that they could just give you," I offered, relishing the final twist of the knife. "But I wouldn't imagine you would want to receive medical treatment from a second-class citizen."

As she angrily swept her still-sleeping son into her arms and headed for the door -- cutting short our Shabbos together and my fantasy day with my only nephew -- I did not realize how it would have been more gracious to have just run out and gotten the medicine, and skipped making the point. But our interactions were never known for delicacy or selflessness.


As I spent more time in my observant community, I was surrounded by people with stories like mine -- people whose families had become distanced from them as they became more committed to living according to Torah. This struck me as a great irony, that the Torah, which preaches that we should love others as we love ourselves, and put honoring one's parents in the Ten Commandments, should produce so much strife among family members. But, I felt, the problem was that my sister was mistaken in not seeing the magnificence of an observant life, and thus the solution must be hers as well.

It took a trip to a spa in Costa Rica to change my view. There was a "healer in residence" who specialized in a strange practice which everyone there said could cure your life problems in one session. More as an anthropologist than a patient, I signed up. Once he had finished "curing" the problem I presented to him, he said, "There is some time left. Should we spend it on your relationship with your sister?" I was stunned. I had not mentioned anything about my family, or even that I had a sister, no less that our relationship was strained.

Even more, I had never imagined that my relationship with my sister was something which could be improved by me.

The "healer" got me thinking. Thereafter, whenever I would race around my community to do this or that act of kindness, the thought was in my head: Would I rush to do this for my own sister? As I swallowed a wisecrack at someone's expense at a Shabbos table, I thought, would I have swallowed that crack if I was with my family? As I handed out gifts of books of Torah wisdom to people I met in all kinds of circumstances, I wondered if perhaps my sister would also find them interesting. After all, my sister is a voracious reader. Was I a better friend and companion to everyone else than I was to my own sister?

I realized that I was scared. To act differently toward my sister was to change everything. To treat her as my special, most precious friend, would make me even more vulnerable to her criticism. To recognize her divine beauty would require me to celebrate her greatness rather than attacking her weakness. I did not know how to do that.

The Torah teaches that you love the one to whom you give. So against all odds, I started giving. Calling more often. Listening more patiently. Getting on a plane and visiting regularly. Bringing interesting books, and talking late into the night. Sending emails. Celebrating her work successes. Being her cheerleader. It got easier, and eventually, it became normal.

What I did not expect is how she reciprocated, willingly, as if she had been waiting for this door to open. A wellspring of support and big-sisterly pride came flowing back. Soon we were talking frequently, getting together for holidays. She loved me (it turns out) and relished our expanding relationship. We were well on the path toward becoming real sisters.

Meanwhile, the gap between my Torah-observance and her nonobservant lifestyle was still there, just under the surface of our developing new relationship. Over time, I only grew more certain of my choice to be observant. I may have failed to inspire her - but I can still love her.

Years later, I watched the efforts my sister made to ensure that her son would know he was Jewish and develop a relationship with God. This concern led to her insistence that the local community strengthen its teetering Sunday School program. A community composed of largely intermarried couples, there was little parental support or knowledge to draw from. As in most cases, the person who suggests the project usually winds up with the responsibility for seeing it through, and so it was with my sister, who became the head of the Sunday School, in charge of all of its curriculum for all grades. An entire bedroom in her house was devoted to Jewish teaching materials, which she hungrily gathered from many sources and lovingly maintained for the school's future. And now that he is older, she rides a ferry and a bus each way twice a week, so her 10-year-old can go to Hebrew school.

In some ways, the enormity of the task she had set for herself dwarfs the efforts I make to lead a Jewish life, nestled in my community with kosher markets all around and a dozen shuls within walking distance, Torah classes every night of the week and encouraging friends everywhere.

As she engrossed herself in Judaica for the school, she became more open to materials that I readily supplied from my local Jewish bookstores. She took to a particular book about Jewish marriage, and studied it like a college student, flagging pages and underlining passages, highlighting others, and quoting from it in conversation. I sent others, including How to Get Your Prayers Answered by Rabbi Irwin Katsof, and The Bible for the Clueless But Curious by Rabbi Nachum Braverman. She devoured them. Another commonality was born.


At some point, having an only child became unbearable for her, but she and her husband found themselves with "secondary infertility," a not uncommon phenomenon where a fertile couple finds that they do not produce a second child. My sister suffered greatly over this, complaining tearfully that "there is a hole in my family where another child is supposed to be" and seeing every woman with a baby while she had none.

Heartbroken, they prepared to adopt and/or foster one or more children, reconfiguring their entire house for the anticipated child (as required by foster care regulations), advertising for adoptions, and using every resource to pursue leads. I found her endless misery exhausting, but tried to be supportive by listening and by contributing to the project financially. (It finally occurred to me that charity begins at home.)

She had, for 40 consecutive days, trudged out to the forest -- rain or shine -- and prayed until she wept.

Eventually, they were blessed with the adoption of a healthy baby boy. My sister then explained how it really happened. She had read a teaching by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: "Pour your heart out to God in the forest." My sister had figured that since she lived near a national forest, she should do just that. She had, for 40 consecutive days, trudged out to the forest -- rain or shine -- and prayed until she wept. It was shortly after that effort concluded, without missing a day, and sometimes in the dark, that she located a young woman whose unborn child would become my sister's second son.

My sister prayed by herself in the forest until she wept, for 40 days. I don't know if I have wept a total of 40 times during prayer over the past decade.

More than a year after the adoption, my sister called me sounding very dark. "I had a miscarriage," she said quietly. "It's been very painful, and very confusing," she said, as one would only imagine after shedding so many tears and being told so many times that it was impossible for her to get pregnant at all. "I'm not telling Mom and Dad," she said.

In the weeks before the miscarriage, they had felt that maybe God was rewarding them for adopting a son. They were devastated by the loss. "But," she added, "I thought you would want to know."

In her most painful moment, my sister was able to transcend her pain to convey what was, in a way, wonderful news for me. Her supposed "infertility" over the past years had weighed heavily on my spirit. As she well knew, my health had always tracked hers. Three years after she developed asthma, I had also; her stomach problems presaged similar ones for me. Her "infertility" in her 30s had been sad for her as the mother of one, but for me it was devastating: threatening to end my hopes of ever conceiving.

So my dear sister wanted me to know that she could still conceive -- so I could, too.

"I know this was hard for you," I told her later. Then I told her the story of Rachel and Leah, of absorbing a loss to give a sister joy. "I feel I have a sister," I said.

"I feel that, too," she said. "I remember the day they brought you home from the hospital," she shared with me for the first time.

"I always thought you were annoyed that I entered your world," I said.

"Are you kidding?" she laughed. "I was so excited, I loved you immediately."

I never knew.

My sister and I may disagree about how God wants us to live as Jews, but, thankfully, we have finally learned how God wants us to live as sisters.

In memory of my sister, Cindy Klein,
who loved all HaShem's creatures.

Roger M. Klein


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