Repairing the Gap
In my sister’s eyes, I became a foreign entity: a religiously observant Jew. As the gap widened, my sadness deepened.
My mother fondly recounts how I warned her when I was nine years old that I would run away from home if my next sibling was another brother. I was thrilled, relieved and grateful when, instead of a boy, my baby sister was born. The age gap meant that I was very involved in raising her, helping my mother with bath time, getting her dressed, babysitting and when she was bigger, telling her bedtime stories and teaching her how to ride a bicycle.
Linda wasn’t only the youngest child in our family; she was also the youngest of our entire generation of first cousins. She grew up in a very different era than us. For her, our grandmas’ were elderly and no longer the active balebuste’s that cooked and hosted our large family gatherings for High Holidays, Hanukkah and Passover. We were all in college or married by the time she was a teenager, living alone with our parents. She was nine when I left home.
I adored my younger sister and felt very connected to her, but I wasn’t there for her physically or emotionally during her turbulent teens. I was far away in university or traveling, and then in Israel, where I learned in a seminary, married and became in her eyes, a foreign entity: a religiously observant Jew.
She could not relate. Or more accurately, she did not want to relate.
Despite the distance, I didn’t see an unbridgeable gap. I could relate to my sister because I saw and felt all our common ground. I was once a teenager, part of the artistic sub-culture of Greenwich Village. I understood what her life was like, even if there weren’t skinheads in my day. I had once been like her, but she definitely didn’t feel like she was anything like me – an “ultra-Orthodox fanatic” against intermarriage, abortion, nudity, atheism, hanging out with guys. I never had a chance to say how I felt about any of these topics; she just assumed everything about my beliefs without any discussion. She could not relate. Or more accurately, she did not want to relate.
Her focus was on our intolerable differences. My focus was on the common, solid ground of the ethical values that our parents had given us and were still there, the foundation buried beneath her embracing of the norms of secular, liberal, western culture.
The loss of her friendship saddened me. And as the gap widened, my sadness deepened. I loved my sister and I wanted that special relationship and connection that only sisters can have. The alienation and estrangement was a chronic ache.
She didn’t write or call. She didn’t respond to any of my friendly overtures, suspecting that all my moves to reach out to her were motivated by a religious obligation to proselytize and “convert” her to orthodoxy.
I was in Israel for many years when she came for her first visit with her non-Jewish husband and infant. I still felt that common ground – we were both mothers, artists, writers, teachers, singers. We were both committed to educating our children and living a healthy lifestyle with wholegrain, unprocessed foods, exercise, community activism. We were so similar!
But she didn’t see it this way. She was married to a non-Jew. My idea of “fun” was a meaningful discussion about the goals and spiritual depth of life. She preferred animated political arguments about the terrible way Israel exacerbated terrorism by expanding settlements on the West Bank.
My sadness became a heavy, unbearable pain. When we were celebrating our first son’s bar mitzvah, not only was there no expression of any desire to join us… there was nothing. No phone call. No mazel tov card. Nothing. She couldn’t say “I’m busy at work and don’t have vacation now.” It was summer and she traveled with her family for three weeks.
I couldn’t talk to my parents about the situation. No parent wants their children estranged. Why should my pain become theirs?
The empty feeling inside compelled me to share my sorrow with an older, wiser woman in Jerusalem, someone who also became religious later in life. After patiently listening, she suggested that I try a prayer meditation asking God for help.
Her words to me were: Close your eyes and imagine a time when you were with your sister that was completely wonderful and connected. Imagine being very young children together. Go beyond this image to a time when you are only souls with no differences between you. Envision the Godly connection that exists between two related souls together where you were both in your highest state of holiness. From this peaceful, serene, connected place, send her your love. Send her an abundance of unlimited ahavas chinam – free love, that is not dependent on anything.
She suggested that I do this prayer meditation once or twice a day, in a focused, calm way. “Be hopeful! Miracles can happen,” she said with an encouraging voice.
That very evening I tried to do what she had instructed. I pictured my little sister… my baby sister… who I loved so much. I imagined being together as children. I remembered holding hands at the park, going ice-skating in the winter, swimming in the summer, jumping in piles of leaves that we raked in the autumn, bicycling in the spring.
The next day my sister actually called me. It was the first time in over seven months.
I went beyond these childhood images to a special location that seemed to be without physicality… just the holiness of unborn children in the World of Souls before coming to this world.
“Linda, I miss you! Linda, I love you!” I cried.
The next day my sister actually called me. My sister called me!
It was the first time in over seven months. I was so astonished, so grateful and so utterly amazed.
Our conversation was not extraordinary. Nothing controversial or risky or alienating. Just ordinary, basic words of how are you? How is everything? How are your kids? What’s new?
That was the pivotal moment that the gap between us began to be repaired.
Since that momentous turning point, there have been many events that have bonded us, and there have been a number of challenges to overcome and topics best not to discuss, as well.
When I was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, she immediately flew to Israel to be with me when I was in the hospital for surgery. And when our mother broke her hip, I flew to the States to take turns with my sister, sleeping in the hospital with Mom, while she stayed with Dad.
Over the years of slowly growing closer, I have often called my sister to ask her opinion related to her field of education. I remember when I asked her what to do about my “wayward” teenager who stayed out way too late, where the “action” was, on school nights and to my amusement she suggested, just like my daughter’s Beis Yaakov teacher would have said, “Well, try to get her busy with baking and sewing projects at home!” Oh right, if only!
Our Father’s Joy
There was also the time when I unexpectedly showed up for a surprise visit, but our parents were away at a conference that I didn’t know about. We were four siblings gathering at our parents’ home without our spouses and sitting around the dining room table – just us – for the first time since we were small kids. My father called and said, “Are you really all there together? All of you? Everyone? What are you talking about? What are you eating? We wish we were there, too!”
His joy at us being together was so palpable.
My father’s words made me realize how much nachas God must have when His beloved children sit together in unity and love; when we are united, despite our many differences.
Repairing the gap with my sister is bigger than just the two of us getting along.
The ripple effect is much wider. We are doing our small part in strengthening the stitches in our little corner of the fabric of the Jewish people. May our continuous journey to grow closer be a catalyst for many gaps to be repaired in every home, community and all the hidden corners of the world.