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Family First or Last?

March 4, 2020 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Who was right – my parents or me?

My parents and I lived on opposite sides of an existential divide. They believed that the purpose of life is family. I believed that the purpose of life is personal and spiritual development.

We were both true to our ideals. My father, Irv (Israel) Levinsky, at the age of 23, used his degree in pharmacy to open a drug store in Camden, New Jersey, with which he helped support his immigrant parents and two sisters, and to send his brother to law school. Irv also dreamed of becoming a lawyer. He went to law school at night and got his degree, but just before he took the bar, the Crash of 1929 shattered the world’s economy. People didn’t have money for food, let alone legal fees. His unemployed brother Harry, the lawyer, sat around with his colleagues playing cards. Irv, at 26 the oldest child, filed away his law degree, as well as his dream of getting married, because the drug store could support only one family.

My mother, Leah Lintz, graduated first in her class from high school in 1928. She dreamed of going to college but her immigrant father, who owned a haberdashery store in Minersville, Pennsylvania, had a heart attack. He closed the store and moved his family, including Leah and her younger brother Sidney, to Philadelphia. The family decided that their best financial prospects would be for Sidney to become a doctor. So Leah started working as a secretary to support the family and save up for her brother’s medical school tuition. When the Great Depression hit a year later, nineteen-year-old Leah, by then a secretary at the Philadelphia School Board, was paid in “scrip,” a substitute for government-issued currency, with which she kept her family afloat.

The day after I graduated college, I joined an ashram led by an Indian woman guru.

I, too, lived out my ideal, which was personal and spiritual development. At the age of nineteen, I was a sophomore at Brandeis University, studying psychology, fully supported by my father. My dream was to travel and experience the world, so for my junior year, I went to India on a College Year in India Program. There I learned to meditate and plunged into a Hindu spiritual path. The day after I graduated college, instead of going to psych graduate school, I joined an ashram in Cohasset, Massachusetts, led by an Indian woman guru. Unlike my parents, whose dreams of marriage and children were stymied for fifteen years due to the Depression, I had no dreams of marriage and children. I was a feminist. Who needed a husband? As for children, in the ashram where we meditated three times a day, children were regarded as nothing but annoying noise-makers. I spent fifteen years in the full-time pursuit my spiritual path.

Finally Affording Marriage

My parents married in 1944, when the exigencies of the Depression had given way to a thriving wartime economy. By that time 33-year-old Leah was living alone with her widowed mother. Her brother Sydney was serving as a doctor in the army. A year after their marriage, Irv brought Leah’s mother to live with them. He purchased a fourplex to accommodate most of the extended family. He and Leah, soon augmented by the arrival of my brother Joe and me, lived in the downstairs apartment on the right side. Above us lived Leah’s mother, who was soon stricken by Parkinson’s disease. Across the vestibule lived Irv’s sister Mamie with her husband and two children. Above them lived Irv’s widowed mother and his bachelor brother Harry, whom Irv had taken into the thriving drugstore as a manager. As much as a domicile, the fourplex was a monument to the ideal of family.

Irv Levinsky and his brother Harry in the luncheonette of his drugstore.

For my parents, family was sacrosanct. Irv’s other sister Sadie lived with her husband and two children a couple of blocks away. Sadie’s husband, who also suffered from a heart condition, did not manage to support his family. Since Sadie was a pharmacist, Irv built a branch of his Lincoln Drug Co. two blocks down Broadway from the big drugstore, and put Sadie in charge.

In a family, you didn’t do for the other. In a family, there was no other.

At the age of 42, my Uncle Harry had a heart attack. His doctor told him that he could not climb the stairs to the second-floor apartment he shared with my grandmother. So, of course, he moved in with us in our two-bedroom apartment. There was no question; there was no issue. In a family, you didn’t do for the other. In a family, there was no other. The family was its own organism. The hands put shoes on the feet, and the feet carried the hands to work. Also, there was no scorecard, no record of who helped whom more. The mouth chewed the food that the stomach digested and the arteries carried the nutrition to all the extremities. How could there be a scorecard in a living organism?

A month or two after moving in with us, Uncle Harry went to his doctor for a check-up. On the doctor’s examining table, Uncle Harry had a second heart attack, and died. His death plunged the family into a state of mourning from which they never fully recovered. Decades later, driving me through Philly’s Arch Street, where the derelicts and drunks lay on the sidewalks, my father, who, unlike me, did not grapple with philosophical conundrums, would always ask aloud, “How could God let these men live and take Harry?”

Living with My Grandmother in the Suburbs

With the Jewish exodus from the city, my father built a ranch-type house in the suburbs. Despite the protestations of the architect, my father included a “crown” on top – a suite for his mother-in-law. By the time the construction was underway, her Parkinson’s disease, in that era before L-Dopa and other medications, had made it impossible for her to climb steps. So the architect was ordered to redesign the house – four bedrooms, all on the same floor. My grandmother, both her body and mind ravaged by the disease, lived with us until her death six years later. She could not even get up from a chair by herself. My mother bathed her and dressed her every morning, prepared her for bed every night, and took care of her mother with a filial devotion that brings tears to my eyes as I write this.

On the way home from a ten-hour-workday, my father stopped to visit his mother three times a week.

My father’s mother and his sister Sadie also moved, to a suburban high-rise a fifteen-minute drive from our house. They took apartments across the hall from each other. My father paid for his mother’s rent, and several years later for a full-time caregiver, which my irascible grandmother insisted on changing every month. On the way home from a ten-hour-workday, my father stopped to visit his mother three times a week. When Aunt Sadie’s daughter got married, my father paid for the wedding in a fancy hotel in Philadelphia.

When I graduated college in June, 1970, my parents came up to Boston for the ceremony. It was a great disappointment for them. Although I graduated Magna cum Laude, there were no caps and gowns, no procession, none of the pomp and circumstance of this weighty milestone. America was in the throes of the Vietnam War, and in May four student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio had been killed by the National Guard. College students across the country reacted by going on strike. Brandeis was the official national coordinator of the strike. Students stopped going to classes and final exams were cancelled.

Oblivious to how much our parents had saved and scrimped to send us to this prestigious college, most of the students wanted to dispense with the graduation ceremony entirely. A compromise was made. The graduating students, sans caps and gowns, would sit with their parents in the audience, and there would be speeches. No diplomas would be presented, no names called out.

The only exception was a single black student, the first ever in his family to graduate college. He absolutely refused to deprive his mother of the pride of seeing him graduate. In a sea of students in street clothes, he alone wore a cap and gown. Why did the rest of us not learn from his example?

The Ashram

My plan was to pack up my off-campus apartment and move back to my parents’ house, from where I would look for a job in journalism. The day after graduation, however, as I drove my sporty red Camaro (a gift from my father) toward Cape Cod, I stopped at an ashram that Art Green, a Reconstructionist rabbi, had told me about in the woods a mile and a half from the ocean. I fell in love with the tranquil atmosphere of the place, and made an agreement with the guru, a Bengali woman then 64 years old, to come for the summer as a member of the community.

My parents suffered greatly during the fifteen years I lived at the ashram.

When I phoned my parents that night to tell them I wasn’t coming home, and would be going to an ashram instead, they disowned me. My father said, “I’ll send you the deed to the car, and that’s it.” They hung up on me. Their disownment lasted for twenty tortured hours, more tortured for them than for me. Then they called me back to rescind it. I was a part of the family organism. No matter what I did, no matter how much pain I caused them, they would no more cut me off than they would amputate their aching arm.

Parents visiting Sara at the ashram

My parents suffered greatly during the fifteen years I lived at the ashram. They were staunch Conservative Jews, a pillar of their synagogue. They kept a kosher home, attended synagogue every Friday night, and celebrated all the holidays (including Sukkot and Shavuot). The ashram was a repudiation of the Judaism they cherished.

I, on the other hand, had found no spiritual path in Conservative Judaism. The ashram provided a spiritual path, a spiritual guide, and fellow travelers also focused on personal and spiritual growth. My parents resigned themselves to my choice. They would visit me at the ashram once a year for a week and I would visit them twice a year, at Rosh Hashana and Passover. I called them, collect, every Sunday morning. When asked about how she felt about her daughter living in an ashram, my mother would respond, “When you hang long enough, you get used to hanging.”

There was more to my parents’ heartbreak at my lifestyle. They wanted me to get married, give them grandchildren, and live nearby, as they had done. But, to me, becoming a suburban housewife, living for a husband and children, as my mother did, was a death sentence. I had personal and spiritual aspirations – to attain enlightenment, sahaj samadhi. Samadhi is a state of God-consciousness, of experiencing the supernal oneness behind all reality. Samadhi is the goal of meditation. My goal, however, was even higher. Sahaj samadhi is a constant state of God-consciousness, 24/7, where the natural state of mind is immersed in the all-enveloping oneness. The occasional highs in meditation, as exalted as they were, were not enough. I wanted to be God-conscious all day long, a goal that to me precluded marriage and children.

I had been at the ashram more than fourteen years when someone gave me a book. It had been written by a devotee of a similar ashram in Los Angeles. It was a journal of her thirty-four years following her guru, meditating, pursuing the same Vedantic path as I was on. It ended…with disappointment. She never attained samadhi.

One day I was leading the community meditation. I entered into the highest state of consciousness I had ever experienced, truly perceiving the oneness behind all reality. The leader is supposed to end the meditation with chanting, but I was in a different world, oblivious to time. The community members gave up and left. At some point, I “came down,” uncrossed my legs from the lotus position, got up, and, still in a state of rapture, went to the adjoining room to take off my chudder [prayer shawl].

My best friend Baroda approached me, since I was in charge of the community schedule, and asked if she could change her cooking day. I barked at her, “What are you doing, disturbing me?!” Baroda shrank away. Her question – or was it my anger – made me come down to earth with a thud. Only later did I realize that there was something terribly wrong with experiencing the oneness in meditation and immediately afterwards yelling at another human being.

I learned that to see the oneness behind all reality, I have to choose oneness with my husband and love for my children, no matter what choices they make.

Around that time the ashram, true to its universal values, invited an Orthodox rabbi to speak. Rabbi Joseph Polak spoke on, “Love of God even unto Madness,” quoting Maimonides, whom I knew was a mainstream Jewish thinker. Although I had gone to Hebrew school two nights a week until the age of 18 and thought I knew the extent of what Judaism had to offer, Rabbi Polak opened for me a door to the hidden spiritual path within Torah Judaism. (Click here to read the whole story.) )

The Housewife in Jerusalem

I was 37 years old when I left the ashram and moved to Jerusalem to study Torah. A month before my 39th birthday, I married Leib Yaacov Rigler, a musician from California. My parents lived to walk me to the chuppah, and to see the birth of my first child (at the age of 40), my daughter Pliyah Esther. My father died when I was 42; my mother died a year and a half later. At the age of 46, I gave birth to my son. When, at his bris, I heard the rabbi announce his name, “Yisrael,” named for my father, I burst into tears.

At Sara's wedding. Her father was 84, her mother 77.

I did become a housewife. I did learn to live for my husband and children. My family became for me sacrosanct. And in the process, I achieved the personal/spiritual goal that had eluded me at the ashram. A baby’s life is fragile; I learned to pray to God constantly for my baby’s wellbeing. A baby brings unparalleled joy; I learned to thank God constantly for my baby’s every smile, step, and word. Uniting with one’s spouse, according to Judaism, is the only way to achieve oneness with God in this post-Temple era.

At the age of 85 and 78, her parents travelled to Israel for the birth of Pliyah Esther.

I learned, through decades studying Torah and practicing mitzvot, plus sixteen years in a mussar vaad [a group dedicated to personal growth that undertakes daily exercises], to choose connection with my husband even though he differs so much from me in terms of personality, propensities, and behavior. I learned that to see the oneness behind all reality, I have to choose oneness with my husband and love for my children, no matter what choices they make.

My parents believed that the purpose of life is family. I believed that the purpose of life is personal and spiritual development. How surprised I became to realize that the highest road to personal and spiritual development leads through the mountains and valleys, the often-torturous terrain, of family. My father and mother, who never gave a thought to personal or spiritual development, tread the road of family. Were they surprised at the end to find themselves at the goal that I had always coveted?

For the aliyat neshama of my father Yisrael ben Yosef Yehudah on his 30th yahrzeit.

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