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Dear Emuna: Embarrassed to be Religious

December 29, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

Help! I've become observant, the antithesis of how I used to think.

Dear Emuna,

Though I was raised without much religion, I was aware of my Jewish heritage and was always searching for something real. I became more and more Torah observant over the years, and I am still trying to figure out how far I want to go. I have two main problems:

1. I was somewhat anti-religion for a while, and now I am embarrassed to be seen as something I disparaged. I can't even begin to explain how hard this is for me. One of my most difficult trials in life is to be myself, without worrying about what others think and say -- and others have always been very vocal!

2. My sister in law, with whom I am very close, grew up in a very strict Orthodox Jewish home and left it. Strict religious Jews make her very tense and anxious, just because of how her family was. It doesn't matter to her that it was not the Judaism, but the people's choices that led them to treat her so cruelly – she is still quite hurt and damaged. If I show up as what frightens her, namely a Torah observant Jew, she will be hurt, confused, stressed out, and I think our relationship will be strained. Her mindset is not something I think I can fix. What can I do so that I can be true to myself and continue to study and live Jewishly, without being so embarrassed about what people will say and without hurting my sister in law? Thank you.

-- People Pleaser

Dear People Pleaser,

It takes a lot of courage to pursue your heritage in the face of obstacles. Clearly the Almighty believes you have more courage than you realize and that you are able to overcome the remaining hurdles as well.

In terms of worrying about what others think, this is a universal problem and challenge. I always think of the blessing that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai gave his students as he lay dying, “May your fear of God be as great as your fear of people.” Whatever they may say to dissuade or mock you, your job is to do what’s right. Not only will you emerge stronger and more committed because of it but I can pretty much assure you that once people see that you are firm and immovable in your convictions, they will leave you alone (and maybe even respect you).

With regard to your sister-in-law, while you can’t fix her mindset, relationships and compassion are not one-way streets. If you can be understanding of her choices, doesn’t she owe you the same? Approach her with love and warmth and concern. Explain your choices but don’t try to influence hers. If she cannot accept your growth and journey, then it is (and always has been) a very limited relationship.

We are taught that it is “Better to be thought a fool our whole lives in the eyes of man than to be considered a fool for one minute in the eyes of the Almighty.” Pursue your relationship with God proudly and openly. You can’t lose.

-- Emuna

Needy Classmate

Dear Emuna,

My nine-year-old has a very difficult girl in her class. Since nursery school this kid could not sit still, and was quite the menace. Her home was not a happy place, and her parents recently divorced. To make a long story short, she disturbs the class a lot and the teachers use the classic "keep her busy" technique in the classroom and send her to secretary on errands or have her erase the board etc. They cannot punish her every time she calls out in class or they would get nothing done! My daughter, who is a good kid, is very frustrated that she (or the other girls in the class who behave themselves) never gets called on to do any of the "fun" errands, gets in trouble for the slightest peep or for being a minute late, even though the other kid can walk in after her... You get the picture.

During recess it gets worse, this kid can get very nasty and controlling and often manages to upset or hurt my daughter (bully alert?). I have tried explaining to my daughter that this girl is a "nebach" and that she can't control herself, and that if she tries to be compassionate before being judgmental, she may find it easier to deal with the frustrations. Although she is a sensitive and mature nine-year-old, I think she is still too young to fully understand this and it does not seem to be helping. Her suggestion was perhaps she should also start acting out and the teachers will give her preferential treatment too! Clearly a better approach is in order. Any ideas?


-- Out of Ideas

Dear Out of Ideas,

First, to the more serious issue raised. If this girl is, as described, often hurting your daughter (does that include physical harm as well?), then I think you are correct in raising the bully alert. You need to go in and speak with the administration and the teachers who seem, in general, to be over their heads in dealing with this situation. Repeated harm to your daughter and, I assume, other girls also, is not something you or the school can afford to overlook. Not only do you need to protect your daughter but, whatever the ostensible cause, it is not in this girl’s best interests to be allowed to get away with this negative and destructive behavior.

The second issue you raise (and the one consuming the bulk of your letter) is a classic. It happens everywhere –at home, at school and in the workplace. In fact I can still recall a summer job I had about 30 years ago where I experienced this phenomenon. The company had hired three college students – two of us always arrived on time, one always late. On the rare occasions when our tardy colleague was on time, he was lauded with praise. Of course we never got a word of appreciation for our regular punctuality. So yes, this is a life lesson. On the other hand, clearly there is something to the fact that I remember this situation in my own life so many years later.

I think your explanations to your daughter have been helpful but, as you recognize, she needs more. You can begin by suggesting to the teacher that she divvy up the “fun” errands more evenly and go a little easier on the “good” girls. However my guess is that the teacher is so frazzled that she doesn’t have the time or energy to follow through on your suggestion.

And while you certainly can’t protect your daughter from all unfairness in life (nor do you want to), you can ameliorate the situation by giving her rewards yourself. Reward her for being on time, for not talking when tempted, for each time she is frustrated with the situation and doesn’t express it. Although you can’t give her fun errands in the classroom, girls her age love to play school. Get her a blackboard, some chalk, an eraser – and a teacher’s record book. She will have the time of her life. And if you hear her screaming at her students, don’t be alarmed. It is both normal and cathartic!

-- Emuna

Was I Insensitive?

Dear Emuna,

I was very unhappy with your response to the woman with the short husband. This is not the first time I have read an insensitive response in your column. It seems to happen when there is an issue about things concerning appearance (like in the article about the husband with the overweight wife). Perhaps you have issues regarding your own self-image, but I expect more from a Jewish website, and hope to read more sensitive responses in the future.

-- Disappointed Reader

Dear Disappointed Reader,

I’m sorry you feel that way and I fear you will be even more disappointed when I carefully avoid the issue of my own self-image and deem this not the appropriate forum! However it was certainly not my goal to be insensitive. I wanted to help the writer and help comes in many forms. I have always objected to the bumper sticker that reads “Practice random acts of kindness.” That is not the Jewish way. Our kindness is not random; it is targeted. It is intelligent. It is thoughtful – and it is carefully tailored for the recipient.

There are times of great pain in people’s lives where a shoulder to cry on and perhaps a hot meal is the greatest kindness you can provide. They don’t want wisdom or advice, just empathy and shared tears.

There are other occasions where friends may be caught in a dilemma and would like to hear possibly objective analysis of the situation. They don’t want clucking sounds and soothing caresses; they want an outside opinion.

All relationships have multiple aspects and needs, each requiring a finely tuned response.

Sometimes a grown child, for example, needs to live at home while looking for a job. A parent who sees their child making serious efforts to find employment and participating in household chores, will probably continue to help him and allow him to continue to live at home.

But what if said young adult doesn’t act in mature and responsible ways? What if he reverts back to very child-like behavior – laying around and watching TV, empty food wrappers everywhere, a pile of dirty laundry on the ground waiting for mom to come pick it up and making no effort to find gainful employment? Would it be kind of his parents to continue to tolerate this behavior? Would it be insensitive of them to suggest a time limit on the living-at-home option?

Sometimes the kindest and most compassionate thing we can do for someone is to be a little tough, to force them to face up to their responsibilities and commitments.

The writer with the short husband begins her letter by stating that the only way to learn is by being open and honest. Who says? We don’t need to (and we certainly shouldn’t) express every thought that comes to mind. Openness and honesty are virtues that depend on the contest. They can also be used to justify hurtful words and criticism.

In our therapeutic culture, we have a tendency to exalt openness and honesty above other qualities; hence the suggestion that this writer should be lauded and treated with sensitivity (the way she’s treating her husband?).

But I stand by my original response. If anything I feel stronger. The writer needs a kick in the pants. She made a commitment to her husband and her marriage (values that clearly trump openness and honesty) and she needs to adhere to it. She needs to stop bemoaning his height and move on. She needs to focus on giving to him and appreciating him and stop analyzing her own needs and feelings.

Chances are you still think I’m being insensitive. I actually think I’m being very kind. I’m giving her much more than a sympathetic ear and nurturing coos. I’m giving her the perspective she needs to help her marriage thrive.

-- Emuna

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