How Rosh Hashana Returned Me to My Culture

Author’s note: This started as a post I started writing in the Project Makom Facebook group, but I felt it deserved to be shared with a wider audience. I am deeply grateful to all of the organizers of this shabbaton, and to all of the people who make Project Makom possible. 

So a bit of thanks and a bit of confession. Firstly, thank you so much to Mindy, Yoel, and Shlomo. Rosh Hashana was incredible, and by far the most meaningful I’ve ever experienced. Thank you so much to everyone who came; it was great meeting all of you. Thank you for putting up with me, even if (and especially when) I was shouting my opinions at everyone.

Now for confession. I’ve always had a big problem with the cultural aspects of Jewish life. I love the ideology, and I’ve come to love God, and through loving God I’ve come to relate to the Torah and halacha, but the cultural aspects of Jewish observance have always made me feel somewhere between uncomfortable and repulsed. For example, zemiros on shabbos or yom tov make me want to be anywhere else but the table at which I’m sitting. Singing in shul makes me wish I hadn’t gone. Making a yehi ratzon on the symbolic Rosh Hashana foods make me feel stupid. It’s not because I’m some hyper-rationalist who thinks that religious practices based more on emotion and spirituality are less valid than logical legalism.

From age 11 onward, cultural religious expression in my family meant that life was about to get very dangerous, or at the very least very bizarre. Before age 11, when my grandfather was still alive, cultural religious expression was beautiful. Kiddush was soulful, zemiros were emotional, prayer in the home was inspirational. After he died, everything changed. He was no longer the family’s cultural spiritual leader, so to speak. That fell to my grandmother. She tried for a year or so, but we missed my grandfather, and as hard as she tried, she could never step into his shoes. Eventually she gave up. The zemiros stopped. The prayer stopped. Kiddush was mumbled. Shabbos meals were a family obligation rather than a blessed opportunity to bond. Religion became entirely ideological in practice; we lost the cultural, spiritual, hard to quantify but oh so real aspects of our family religious observance.

Which was fine. I had nothing against cultural religious expression, it just wasn’t something we did anymore at home.

But it wasn’t so simple. My mother had bipolar disorder, and mental illness has a funny way of manifesting in religious observance. When my mother was irreligious, it meant she was stable. Hearing the TV on shabbos, while heartbreaking and disgusting to a child raised to believe that religious Judaism is the only valid way to live life, meant that she was on her meds. It was when she was being frum that things got scary.

See, when she was stable, she knew that God didn’t care about her. She knew that God didn’t matter, and that being religious is for superstitious idiots or people graced with such privilege they’ve never had to wonder why God can be such a bastard while claiming to be benevolent. But when she was off her meds, she was just crazy enough to think God actually cared, to think that if she put on enough of a show, God might actually give her what she wanted. But things had to be just so, because God doesn’t stop being a tyrant just because you start listening. Everything had to be perfect for God to be impressed enough to give her what she wanted.

So if she was lighting candles, I had to stand there in silent contemplation. If she was singing zemiros, I had to either join or sit silently. If she was praying, I had to listen intently. If she was covering her hair, I had to dress as though I was standing before the King of Kings. Because the show had to be perfect if God was to be entertained enough to bestow God’s beneficence. And God help me if the show wasn’t perfect.

I came to hate all of it. Even after I stopped hating God. I still hated all of those little acts I’d been forced to put on. Even after I started loving God again, I was never able to bring myself to express that love the way everyone else finds so natural, but to me feels dangerous. I stopped singing in shul. I sat silently at the shabbos tables of my friends. I made excuses why I wasn’t singing when people pressed me to participate. I’d hurry through public expressions of religion as though I was ashamed of it, when really I was never ashamed of it, but terrified of it.

Somehow, though, that was different this Rosh Hashana. I don’t know what it was, but I felt safe, comfortable, and accepted enough, to dip my toe in the water again, and join in not only the legal, halachic observances of Judaism, but the cultural and spiritual observances and expressions of Judaism as well. And it was ok. It was scary as all hell, but it was ok. Nothing happened. It felt ok. Like I was finding something I’d lost and come to fear. And I know it’s weird, and a little off putting to attach this kind of serious significance to something as casual and lighthearted as a friendly roadtrip to Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, but in a sense this marks a milestone in my life, where I can say that a part of my religion has finally been unlocked for me – a part I’ve really missed.

And now we’re back to thanks. Thank you all for being a part of that, even if you didn’t know it was happening. Thank you all for being the ones who were there to share this experience with me, even if I was the only one to experience it. You’re all very special people and, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to thank you for being a part of changing my life.


Who Am I: I Am Unbreakable

Hi, my name is Asher, and I’m a…

I don’t know. I’m twenty-two. I work two jobs, one as a driving instructor, the other as a computer technician. I make good money. I dress well. I write well. I look fine. I’m a jokester. Sometimes I’m very quiet. Sometimes I’m the life of the party. But that’s when I’m not home. That’s when I’m wearing my mask. My life isn’t easy. At home I’m…

I thought things had gotten better since last time. I mean, things were never great, but they were livable. But then they weren’t. My mother started abusing my grandmother again, turning her into her slave, making her do things you wouldn’t make the most menial laborer do. My mother forced my grandmother to wipe her ass, and bathe her, bring her whatever she wanted at any time of the day or night. My mother made sure my grandmother didn’t sleep, made sure she couldn’t rest, and all the while degrading her, calling her names, accusing her of every wrong in the universe, laying a mighty fine guilt trip.

And I sat safely in my room, listening, waiting, attentive, making sure my grandmother’s life was never in danger. I couldn’t sleep either. What if she snapped. What if she hurt my grandmother. I was on constant alert. I needed to make sure my mother didn’t escalate to violence against my grandmother, make sure she didn’t act on the countless threats. And there was nothing I could do, you know? My grandmother refused to throw my mother out of the house even though she hated living the way she was. My grandmother was too merciful to see my mother on the street, or in a state mental facility.

My mother stopped taking her meds about a year ago, it turns out, and for the past year, she’s been steadily getting more unstable. The more unstable she gets, the more she starts lashing out at everyone she believes wronged her, and made her life the meaningless pile of shit it is today. The way the mental health system is set up in this country, the only way to get someone committed involuntarily is if they pose a danger to themselves or others. That law is very broad and ill-defined. I could see the danger my mother posed. I could see the damage she was causing my grandmother, but there was not a single thing I could do to prevent the inevitable violence. The law only recognizes physical violence as danger, and threat of violence is not always enough. I could only pray that I could contain it when it occurred, and call the police in time to stop it from escalating.

I got my chance about four months ago, when she got into a fight with her boyfriend. She had taken to walking around the house naked in the weeks leading up to this, and she was naked four months ago when they got into their fight. I heard him hit the ground and scream, so I ran out of my room to see if anyone was hurt. He was running down the hallway toward the door. I stood in the hallway, back to my naked mother, preventing her from chasing her boyfriend. “Get out!” I yelled at him. He didn’t need telling twice. I went back in my room, grabbed the phone, and called the police. They came within two minutes, barely enough time for me to pull on my pants and run to the door to open it for them. My mother was sitting in the kitchen with my grandmother, next to the door. Both were telling me not to open it. Open it I did.

She was taken away, and I thought we’d finally get some peace. I thought the hospital would treat her, make her take her meds. I thought they’d be responsible enough to send her home stable. Heh. She came home and went right back to abusing my grandmother. She never touched her, but I could see my grandmother suffering. I begged my family to do something, and this time they tried, but there was nothing they could do with my grandmother refusing to act against her daughter. Things got worse.

A few days before Rosh Hashana, I was getting ready to leave to work, and I heard my mother yelling more violently than she had been. She was threatening to kill my grandmother. I had to leave for work, but I didn’t want to leave my grandmother alone with my crazed mother, so I called the cops. A horde of them showed up along with EMS, after a fashion. Took them twenty minutes to get there. Apparently threats of death aren’t enough for New York’s finest; they didn’t care because no one had been hurt yet, and she had no weapon yet. EMS came in, checked out my mother, asked my grandmother if she felt she was in danger, and then left. My grandmother had covered for my mother again. I went back in the house to get my laptop, and my mother threatened to kill me if I ever called the police on her again. Apparently she felt powerful because they hadn’t taken her. I knew it was going to be a long holiday.

It was terrible. My mother was as angry and violent as I had ever seen her, shouting at my grandmother, making her do disgusting, degrading things I’d sooner not mention here to preserve my grandmother’s dignity, in addition to the usual slave labor she forced on my grandmother. I wasn’t let off the hook either. The entire night, she stood outside my door shouting, cursing, threatening, and insulting me, loudly enough that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I slept maybe a total of 6 hours over those three days. Rosh Hashana came and went, and I was worried about what to do going forward. I doubted I could go much longer without sleep.

Thankfully, I got a text from my aunt after Rosh hashana. Apparently, my mother had gone over to my uncle’s house, and shattered a window there that morning. My uncle hadn’t called the police because it was Shabbos, but after asking me what to do, he did call. They came and dragged her, literally kicking and screaming, into an ambulance, and off to the psych ward. And my grandmother and I breathed a little easier. Surely this time something would be done. My uncle had been talking to the hospital, and they assured us they had the resources to monitor her once she was released, and help her comply with outpatient treatment. Eventually, they promised, she’d be stable enough to be moved to a supervised living facility. I should have known they were full of shit.

A month later she came home, and this time it barely lasted at all. Two weeks ago Friday, right before Shabbos, she sent my grandmother to ask me to turn the light in her room off. I know my mother doesn’t give a fuck and a quarter about Shabbos, and more to the point, why the hell would I do anything for someone who abused me for so many years, so I just laughed and went about my business preparing. Apparently that was the last straw. She well and truly lost it. It all came out, all at once, the anger, resentment, the jealousy, how she “gave up so much” for me and how ungrateful I was being. How I was a lowlife bastard, a little baby who claimed to be abused, but was really abusing her. And that’s when I knew: She’d read what I’d written about her. I heard her hitting something on my doorframe. “I just took the mezuzah (Small parchment scroll with bible verses, placed on doorposts in Jewish homes; it is meant to serve as a protection) you hold so dear, and burned it in the Shabbos candles.”

Then she started threatening to kill me if I didn’t leave the house immediately. She tried breaking down my door, but I stood against it, shoring it up. She swore she’d kill me if I didn’t leave, and ran around the house yelling words to that effect for the next few hours until my grandmother managed to calm her down. I didn’t leave my room that night until I was sure my mother was sleeping. The next morning, I assumed everything had calmed down. I walked into the kitchen, around 12:30 in the afternoon, to fetch some stuff for my Shabbos meal.

Shabbos for me is now a very lonely affair. I have a hot plate and fridge in my room, so I buy all my food on Friday, and just eat it alone in my room if I’m not invited out for any of the meals. I make Kiddush, and wash, and then eat alone in my bed while reading a book. Sometimes I’ll sing to myself. It used to bother me, being alone on Shabbos, but after 6 years, I’m used to it. It’s what I know. Anyway, I needed some grape juice, so I left my room, and went to get some from the big fridge in the kitchen. My mother was sitting there with my grandmother, and as soon as she saw me, she started again. This time there was no calming her down, much as my grandmother tried.

I went back to my room and started my meal while my mother raged outside. It worried me, but it was always just talk, and I wasn’t going to let it bother me too much. Then I heard her come back to my door, and this time she was threatening to do something to me and my grandmother, leave the house, and leave us to die together. Now I was worried. I heard her pouring something outside my door, and walk away. She’s going to set the house on fire, I thought, and I’m trapped inside. I’m going to have to walk through fire to get out of here. Quickly, I looked around my room for something I could drape over myself as I ran through the flames I was sure were just moments away. I grabbed a flame-retardant blanket and stood by the door.

I touched the doorknob to see if it was hot, but it felt as cool as it always does. Ok, if it’s not fire, then what is it? I had heard something being poured outside my door. “I poured oil outside your door. I hope you slip and fall and break your neck. Maybe you’ll wind up paralyzed like your uncle in some nursing home. I hope you suffer and die.” I could live with that. I went back to my bed. My appetite was gone at this point, but I still had a good book to occupy my mind. My mother wasn’t having any of my not leaving the room and tripping on her trap, so she came back and tried again. I saw a clear liquid sliding across my floor from under my door, and smelled bleach. Shit.

I quickly grabbed a bundle of white laundry out of the hamper, mopped up the bleach, and slid the whole mess up against the bottom of my door. It needed washing anyway, right? Besides, on its own, bleach isn’t flammable. Unless mixed with ammonia. And then I heard something else being poured against my door. As any child who has ever done a chore knows, you never mix ammonia and bleach. Ever. The fumes are toxic when mixed, and the solution is highly flammable. I grabbed my blanket again and stood by the door, touching the doorknob every few seconds. “I’M GOING TO LEAVE NOW AND WHEN I GET BACK YOU’LL BOTH ME DEAD. I’LL CALL THE POLICE AND TELL THEM I DID IT. I DON’T CARE; I HATE YOU; I JUST WANT YOU BOTH DEAD.” And I heard the front door close.

I stayed in my room until I was sure she was gone, then went out to check on my grandmother. Of course, I slipped on the oil and went down, scraping my elbow forearm on the floor. I felt my arm start to burn and looked down. The skin had been ripped off, and the ammonia and bleach mix were beginning to burn the flesh underneath. I got up and ran to the sink, furiously washing the wound. After it stopped hurting that much, I checked on my grandmother. She wasn’t hurt, just shaken, scared, and hopeless. She didn’t know what to do any more than I did. I went back to my room and took the opportunity to sleep. With the way things were going, I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance very soon.

I elected not to call the cops this time because it was Shabbos, I wanted things to quiet down, and I wasn’t sure they’d take her. I didn’t want another false alarm riling her up. I prayed for quiet. The next few days were mercifully tolerable. She still threatened me when she saw me, but she wasn’t acting on it, which was a step up. That lasted until Thursday night.

Thursday night, she sent my grandmother to ask me for the iron and ironing board. My grandmother is not a particularly loud person, and I had been sleeping, so I didn’t hear her request until my mother started threatening to kick in my door if I didn’t give her the iron and ironing board. Well, I’ll be damned if I give in to someone threatening me like that, so I stood up against the door, ready to brace it when she inevitably tried kicking it in. She started attacking it fiercely, more violently than she had before. That door has taken many beatings from her before, and I guess this time it just couldn’t hold up. After about two minutes of her kicking it, the door finally splintered, buckled, and came off its hinges. I had barely enough time to throw some pants on, and grab my belt as a weapon in case she attacked me.

I stood in the doorway, blocking her entrance, holding up my belt as a warning. I wouldn’t attack her without provocation; it would ruin my case when I called the cops. She sent my grandmother in to get the iron and ironing board, and loathe as I was to let her have it, I wasn’t about to stop my grandmother. She has enough people forcing her to do things she doesn’t want to without adding me to the mix. Iron in hand, my mother stood there, facing me. I looked at her face for the first time in six years, and what I saw was a pathetic little toddler, stamping her feet because she wasn’t getting her way.

“You’ve taken everything from me. You stole this iron, you stole my last dollar, broke my computer, and my tv, I gave everything up for you, EVERYTHING!” Looking at her face while she delivered this diatribe, it was all I could do not to laugh. This pathetic creature was the cause for all our suffering. This little shit was what caused our family so much grief for so many years. “You ARE a bastard! I don’t care what anyone says! You’re a bastard!” I’ve never understood why that’s my failing and not hers. I’m not the one who spread her legs for someone other than her husband. “You don’t know what I’ve been through because of you; you don’t know how much I’ve suffered. You don’t know what it is to be abused. I was really abused. I was raped. You have no idea. You couldn’t handle the truth. You don’t know how good you have it; I’m only telling you this because I love you.”

I knew she’d been raped when she was 16. She’d told me so when I was 13. I knew she’d had a hard life. She and my grandfather hadn’t always seen eye to eye, to say the least, and being from the old country, as he was, he believed in not sparing the rod. My mother married at 17 to a husband she barely knew, a violent man who hit her, mistreated her, and no doubt raped her himself. She claims she’s been mistreated at the psych ward she’s been sent to for the past twenty years. It was an odd moment hearing her opening up about what had been done to her. I took a second to see how I felt about it. Not a single shred of sympathy at all. The way I see it, someone who themselves suffered should know better than to do it to someone else. I’ve suffered at her hand, and if it taught me anything, it was how careful I must be not to hurt someone else unless I have very good reason to.

This seemed like as good a time as any to pick up the phone, right in front of her face, and dial 9-1-1. The cops came a few minutes later, and took her away to the psych ward. Finally, I thought, another little breather. Two hours later, my grandmother got a call. It was my mother from the hospital: they were discharging her. Four hours later she was home, and she was pissed. I had no door, just a sheet, flapping gently in my empty doorframe. Thankfully my mother was done with me that night, and was content with just yelling at me from her room while forcing to grandmother to pick up where my mother had left off with the ironing. I was so tired I somehow managed to fall asleep anyway.

The next morning, this past Friday morning, I was awoken by my mother screaming in my doorway. She had torn off the sheet, and was trashing whatever was in reach from the doorway. I’d made sure to sleep fully clothed because I expected that sort of thing. I jumped out of bed and ran over to the door to protect my stuff. I grabbed the sheet back from her and put it up again. She tore it down. I grabbed it back and put it back up. She tore it down. And on it went for ten minutes until she got the message: That sheet was mine. She ran and got my grandmother.


And for the first time in all this, I was really scared. I had no more options. I’d called the police and they had brought her back. I couldn’t live like this. I couldn’t. Could I? Who could? And then like an angel from heaven, sent over 4G LTE, my aunt messaged me. After realizing that she was getting nowhere with me and the stuff I’d supposedly stolen, my mother called my aunt, demanding she return a sweater my mother had given her a few months back. “GIVE ME BACK MY SWEATER, LEAH, OR I SWEAR I’LL COME DOWN THERE AND KILL YOU.” My aunt, bless her heart, who has in the past been my mother’s champion regardless of how unstable or violent she’s gotten, had the good sense to call the police to report the threat. They were there five minutes later, and took her away, as she ranted on about the sweater and the iron and all the other supposed crimes we’d all committed against her. This time it stuck. She’s there now, and we’re all figuring out what to do next.

So what does this make me? Victim? Survivor? Honestly I’m not sure. I’ve been meaning to write a book about my experiences, but honestly, I don’t feel I can until this is behind me. I don’t feel I can say I survived if I’m still trying to survive. I can’t say I’m past it when I’m still getting panic attacks every time the front door opens, because she might be back before I have a new door. But I’m not a victim, am I. I’m fighting back when I can. I’m standing up for myself. I’m not that little kid anymore who sat there and took it. This time I’m doing what I can to protect myself and my grandmother. So what does that make me, somewhere in between?

Hi, my name is Asher. I’m twenty-two years old, and my story is still being written. I have my share of scars, I have my wounds, I have my cracks. I still have my battles to fight, and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. Sometimes I can stand tall in the face of everything, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I bend, sometimes I sway. I don’t know yet if I’m victim or survivor.

But this I do know: What I am is Unbreakable.


The Show Must Go On

Author’s note: This story was originally published in Ami Magazine. It has been edited from its original form. It was originally published under a pseudonym.


My story isn’t easy. It’s an uncomfortable subject for many people, for many reasons. I hope that in sharing it I can help not only myself, but others going through a similar situation.

Mental illness has always been a touchy subject. Society as a whole has done a decent job of addressing it, but as Orthodox Jews, we’re taking our time. We fear the stigma, the implications for shidduchim (Jewish matchmaking prospects) and reputation. While I’ll admit that mental illness is something to take into account when considering a prospective spouse, it must be understood that the culture built around the fear of mental illness and the stigma not only hurts countless people, but magnifies the problem. The damage stigma causes to people who suffer from mental illness, and the culture of denial and concealment, perpetuate the problem by ensuring that the people who need it will be too scared to seek treatment. My and my family’s suffering may have been avoided had this stigma not existed.

My birth was not a highlight in my family’s history. My mother was on the back end of an awful marriage, which ended shortly after I was born. That’s when her bipolar disorder decided to manifest. Various mental illnesses can lie dormant for years until some kind of inciting trigger sets it off. Bipolar is one of them. You’re born with a genetic predisposition toward the disorder, not unlike the genetic predispositions toward heart disease or cancer, but it generally takes some environmental force to trigger it. In my mother it was triggered by her divorce, and she suffered a breakdown. She was hospitalized for two months in the psych ward of a local hospital and placed on meds.

Psychiatric treatment is not a perfect science, and devising an effective regimen can be tricky. Often, drugs are not enough, and studies show that treatment is much more effective with accompanying psychological treatment as well as meds. Even when an effective regimen is devised, it can become less effective over time. People on meds need constant monitoring to ensure that their drug levels in their blood don’t get too high or too low, and the drugs’ effectiveness can eventually wear off. It’s difficult, which means that one of the most important factors in psychiatric treatment is how compliant and willing the patient is.

My mother wasn’t very compliant. She had grown up believing that mental illness was either a contrivance on the part of doctors (and what do they know anyway, right?) or that you were a gibbering loon who regularly converses loudly with people no one else can see as he stumbles down the street. The idea that most people have of functional people with a legitimate but manageable illness was foreign to her, her family, and her community. She would comply with the doctors and their regimen for as long as she needed to, but inevitably, she would declare herself “cured” and stop taking her meds.

This happened pretty regularly for 16 years in three year cycles. She would stop taking her meds, and for two months she would rapidly decompensate. She would become angry, snappish, moody, manic. She’d subject me to some kind of mistreatment, sometimes it was as small as just snapping at me if I spoke, sometimes it was a new starvation diet she decided was a good idea for herself which I for some reason had to adopt as well. My family would let her progress until she did something violent to someone and even then they were hesitant to have her committed. They didn’t like having to admit that there was enough of a problem. They downplayed it, pretended as if it could be managed at home, and no amount of experience ever wised them up. “What would the neighbors say.” “Shidduchim.”

So she would be committed, stay there an average of two months, during which she would go from angry, to “if I’m going to be here I’m going to run the place” to grudgingly compliant. I’d come visit her often. It wasn’t half bad, actually. The food was surprisingly good, and I was young enough to appreciate the activities they had for the patients. When she’d be released we would make her a welcome home party of sorts. I’d decorate banners to hang in the house, heralding her return. She’d mellow out, stabilize, and the good times would return. We’d go to restaurants during the week, touring different cities, and just sit around and talk on shabbos (sabbath) afternoons. Life was pretty good when she was stable. The two months of instability and subsequent two months of her being committed seemed a price worth paying for my mother.

Bipolar disorder, as the name suggests, is a cycling between highs and lows, or more accurately, mania and depression. In my mother, mania would make her a thousand times herself. She wouldn’t sleep. She would become very outgoing, energetic, very friendly with everyone but me, but with a very short temper. She became the life of everyone’s party. But she also became angrier, sarcastic, mean. After a few weeks of that she would crash. Her world would become grey, muted. She’d lie in bed all day, sleeping or watching TV, barely capable of walking to the fridge to get food.

They treated her with mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, anti-depressants, which worked great when she was depressed because they gave her some semblance of a life, but when she’d cycle back to manic (a muted sort of manic when she was on her meds, more like just high enough to function) the meds would make her feel limited, like her mind was hitting a glass ceiling teasing her with possibility but never allowing her to reach it. Kind of like that mashal (parable) people use to describe gehinnom (hell), where God is compared to the sun, and gehinnom is an eyepatch. She’d put up with it for about three years and then decide that she had enough. It would usually even out, though. She would crash hard and, albeit grudgingly, in some way acknowledge the fact that she needed treatment. She would never say those words, but she understood it.

For some reason, after years of being on Haldol, she suddenly developed a severe allergy to it. Her face swelled up and she had to go to the ER where they gave her IV antihistamines and immediately took her off the medication. Her doctor was supposed to replace it with another antipsychotic, but he never got around to it. To my mother it was like a convicted lifer getting a furlough. It wasn’t complete freedom, but enough to give her hope. Also enough to finally start functioning the way she felt she should. For two weeks she became more energetic, but not overly energetic. More alert, but not hyper-aware. Better but not crazy. Her doctor seemed impressed, and not only officially discontinued her antipsychotic, but lowered her other dosages. This kept happening, slowly over the course of about two months, until she was on such a low dose that she declared herself cured and stopped taking her medicine altogether.

That’s when she really started declining. She quickly started becoming manic. She became slightly less coherent, spouting ideas that only made sense to her. Her memories were distorted. Her difficult childhood rose to the surface, reawakening old vendettas ad grudges that she’d buried. She turned against everyone she believed wronged her. Her parents for not being there for her, her friends for not being supportive enough, her relatives for things they’d done to her as children, and I became the reminder of her failed marriage and ruined life.

One Friday night, when I was about sixteen years old, things came to a head. Because my mother was divorced and suffering with bipolar disorder, we lived by my grandparents. The household consisted of me, my mother, my grandparents, and my uncle, who was disabled and required constant care. He suffered from schizophrenia which went undiagnosed and subsequently untreated long enough for him to stab himself in the kitchen one night. Something went wrong during the surgery to repair his heart, and he spent the next fourteen months in a coma. He woke up, but since then he’s required constant care. We were an odd family, but my grandparents made it work.

Shabbos was always nice. My grandfather sitting at the head of the table, leading us through the meal, softly singing his zemiros (traditional songs sung on the Sabbath) in tunes from his childhood, telling us stories about “der alter heim (the old country).” He died when I was eleven, and my grandmother tried to take his place, but it wasn’t the same. Shabbos was never the same after he died. There was no substitute for him. Gradually shabbos became less about us eating together as a family, and more about getting the meal over with. We would all bring books to the table and do our thing as we made our way through the courses, hurrying to finish so we could each go nap, or in my case play. There wasn’t much ceremony to it, even less feeling. No more zemiros, no more stories. No more conversation.

Over the years, my mother’s approach to religion has moved toward the “I need something from God, let’s see what he’ll give me” approach. She wasn’t overtly religious, and didn’t really do anything particularly religious, unless she wanted something from God. Then she would go overboard, hoping for some immediate divine reward in return for her sudden piety. These “episodes” would usually coincide with her manic episodes. If she started to pray every day, or cover her hair, or do anything particularly religious, it was almost a harbinger of trouble to come.

That Friday night she had her hair covered and was singing shalom aleichem (traditional song welcoming the Sabbath). I came to the table with my book, feeling a little apprehensive. She saw the book and got angry. I was messing up her perfect shabbos. God wouldn’t give her what she wanted if I read at the table. She demanded that I take it away. I didn’t understand why I should. I mean, it wasn’t like this week was any different from any other; it wasn’t like we were suddenly going to be a regular family; what else was I supposed to do at the table if not read?

She lost it. She started insulting me, cursing me, telling me she wished I had been aborted, telling me that it was my fault her boyfriend wasn’t marrying her, and that if I weren’t around she would be able to be with him every night. I ran from the kitchen where we’d been sitting into the living room and barricaded the recliner against it. That didn’t stop her, though. She kept yelling and cursing at me to the air, to the walls, to my grandmother who was trying to calm her down. I couldn’t take it anymore. I kept the recliner barricaded against the door and slipped out of the house through the living room door.

I ran crying to my friend’s house, where I cried some more. They were incredible. His mother took me to a side room and asked me what happened, and then she and my friend sat with me for a few hours. She offered to have me over for the night, but I said no. I wanted to go home, see if things had calmed down. Maybe she would apologize. Maybe it would be ok when I got back.

I came back into my house through the living room door, hoping that they hadn’t figured out I had left and had left the room barricaded. I wanted to be alone. When I opened the door I saw my aunt and uncle sitting there with my mother and grandmother. They were all laughing at something my mother had just said. It was like nothing had happened that night, like she hadn’t told me that she’d have gladly traded my life for more sex, like she hadn’t told me that my existence was such a nuisance that she’d have been better off aborting me. She turned to me, the vestiges of laughter still on her lips, and said “hi.” No “I’m so sorry,” no “I will do anything you need me to do to get your forgiveness,” no “can we please talk about it?” Hi.


Those were the last words I ever spoke to my mother. I ran to my room, crying, flopped into bed and vowed, as my tears soaked my pillows, that on my life I would never speak another word to her. It’s been five years and I’ve kept that vow.

She’s never once apologized, or even tried to. She still talks at me, but I don’t react. I still live in that house with her and my grandmother, but I haven’t so much as looked at my mother’s face, let alone spoken to her in five years.

That Friday night was the beginning of the end of my family and my connection with it. My mother continued to decompensate. She became increasingly angry, more violent. She shouted, cursed, and threatened, both me and my grandmother. I can’t count how many times I begged my grandmother to have her committed. I’d plead, beg, scream, hoping that she would come to her senses and have my mother committed, of not for my sake then for my mother’s. She needed treatment and we needed a break from her. My grandmother kept clinging to the hope that this was all part of a process which would eventually level itself out and result with my mother cured and able to function independent of medication. I’d point out all the times in the past when she and my family were wrong and ask why this time was any different. It always came down to the neighbors and shidduchim.  I tried to convince some of my family to circumvent my grandmother, have my mother committed against both of their wills. None of them wanted to cross my grandmother, and all of them shared her concern for our family’s appearance and reputation. Neighbors. Shidduchim. As if either of those have MDs.

Finally things got bad enough for shidduchim and neighbors to not matter as much. That’s when my mother played the guilt card. Over the years my mother has built up quite the arsenal of guilt trips, things she accuses my grandparents and her siblings of having done to her over the years which contributed to the shambles her life was. In between fits of violence she would play victim just long enough to make them appeal to their guilt and empathy. Whatever kept her out of the psych ward was fair game. As soon as they would acquiesce, she would go back to angry and violent. Much of that violence and anger was targeted at me.

I have a brother who was taken from her when he was an infant. My whole life I’ve been hearing about him. For years she had been going to family court, trying to win first visitation, and then full custody. Every time she seemed to get close, she’d stop taking her meds and wind up in the hospital. She never did manage to get him back. As long as she had me, though, it didn’t matter as much. At least she had one of her sons. But now I wasn’t talking to her, and she couldn’t bear to lose another son. I knew that was the worst possible thing I could do to her, which is why I stopped talking to her. She didn’t deserve children and I wanted her to be childless.

Rather than trying to repair her relationship with me, she tried controlling and beating me into submission. If she couldn’t have a son who loved her, then by God she would have one who feared her. Chosech shivto soneh b’no. Ish imo v’aviv tirau. (He who withholds the rod hates his child. A man should fear his mother and father.)Those were her mantras. I heard them often, usually right before I felt them.

Unfortunately, this left my grandmother in the middle trying to play peacekeeper. For my part I tried to make it as easy as I could for her, never instigating the fights my mother picked with me. My mother, though, occupied every waking moment of her day, and a few of her sleeping moments, too. My mother would keep her up until very late and then wake her up very early in the morning. Eventually my grandmother lost the ability to sleep altogether. She saw a psychiatrist, a friend of hers, who prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant, to help her mood and help her sleep. I remember the exact moment she called and told me she had decided to go on meds. I wanted my mother dead. I could handle what she was doing to me, but I hated that my grandmother was becoming collateral damage. Again I begged her to have my mother committed. Again she refused. The Zoloft would help her cope.

Two weeks later she collapsed on the kitchen floor, delirious and semi-conscious. My mother wanted to just put her in bed and let her rest. She tried stopping me from calling an ambulance. It’s a good thing I did; my grandmother, as a result of the Zoloft and poor diet, had developed a severe sodium deficiency. I rushed with her to the hospital, sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance as she lay in the back, the EMTs trying to wake her up. We got to the hospital and my grandmother was taken to radiology to rule out stroke. I paced the ER, frantically calling my relatives, letting them know what was happening. They dropped everything and came running.

My mother came too, right as we were talking to my grandmother’s doctor. I was hoping she wouldn’t but there was nothing I could do about it. She wanted to be alone with my grandmother, and my uncle motioned me to come outside. I went with him, but stayed close; I wanted to keep an eye on my mother.

“RACHEL! NO!” My uncle dove at my mother as my mother tried to remove the central line from my grandmother’s neck. “But she wants to go home! She said so!” A passing nurse called security, and they escorted my mother out. She could have severely injured my grandmother, but my family still wouldn’t have her committed. The sodium deficiency was so bad that they admitted her to the ICU to keep her levels closely monitored. I stayed with her late into the night, and then came back the next day, but purim (holiday celebrating the Jews’ salvation from extermination at the hands of the ancient Persian king and his viceroy) was the next day and I had to prepare.

I spent that purim in the hospital with my grandmother. They had a very nice megillah (story of purim) reading for patients and family in the hospital atrium. I enjoyed the parts I didn’t sleep through. The food they had afterward was pretty good for hospital fare, but what I loved most was the effort the volunteers put into trying to make it as real and as festive a purim as was possible in a hospital, surrounded by the sick and dying. I think that night was one of the most beautiful purim experiences I’ve ever had. The singing was more real and heartfelt than anything I’d ever heard at home, and the feeling of togetherness of a roomful of people, each mired in their own personal tragedies, coming together to celebrate the salvation of our people, and the hope that must always exist even when death seems certain, brought me to tears. I went home late that night, and woke up early to get back to the hospital.

I spent as much time with my grandmother as I could, but even the most devoted seventeen year old can only stand so much hospital time. I made my excuses and left. I was supposed to be going to my yeshiva (religious school) seudah (festive meal), but I just went back to my room and sat on my computer. I just needed some alone time, some time away from the world and its problems. I had brought food with me from the hospital and ate my seudah alone while my cousins, uncles, and aunts celebrated together with my mother in the living room.

Some families get a little loose with alcohol and weird things happen by their purim seudos. Never ours, though. My family never drank. Our seudos were always tame. In sharp contrast to the sounds of a struggle and shouting I was hearing. I forced myself out of bed and out into the hallway and found my mother running through the house, in full view and earshot of all of my younger cousins, loudly accusing my disabled uncle’s home health aide of killing him. I found them grappling in my uncle’s room, my mother trying to push her to the floor. One of my uncles came running and pulled my mother away; the home health aide ran out of the house, yelling behind her that she quit. I ran after her and stopped her outside. My disabled uncle remained in the living room, watching the scene with a bemused smile on his face.

“Either she goes, or I quit. I can’t work like this anymore.” It was this, not everything my mother had done prior, not the beatings she had given me, not the way she used to physically push my grandmother around, not trying to rip out my grandmother’s central line, that final got my mother committed. Good home health aides are very hard to find, especially good ones who work a twelve hour shift. While my uncle kept my mother busy, I ran to the hospital. I still needed my grandmother’s permission before I could have my mother committed. I raced into her room and explained what was happening. It took ten minutes of convincing before I got the green light. I called my uncle at home and told him to have her committed. She was gone by the time I came home.

My grandmother came out of the hospital a shell, depressed to the point of catatonia. She’s gotten a bit better, but is still too depressed to function. My mother has turned her into a slave. I still don’t talk to my mother. My family still refuses to acknowledge their mistakes; they still refuse to do anything about my mother. I eventually learned to fight back when she beat me, and now she’s scared of me, but she keeps my grandmother under her thumb, uses her like a slave, and my family does nothing.

This article was originally meant to be published under my real name, but my grandmother adamantly forbade it. Ironically, that argument was the most lucid she had been since she came home from the hospital, and the most lucid she’s been since. Again the reasons for not printing my name with the article were neighbors and shidduchim. My cousins were becoming of marriageable age. Some people never learn.