Almond Trees

One of the things I love about Israel is that we have such a short period of time when there isn’t beautiful vegetation everywhere. The leaves barely finish falling from the trees when buds appear heralding the arrival of a whole new crop. In our garden, the plum tree and pomegranate tree have just completed shedding their leaves and already the pomegranate tree has its buds at the ready.

In Israel, however, the tree that is the true harbinger of spring is the almond tree. Each year, it is the first to blossom. During the time that it is bare, the almond tree is barely noticeable. As I would drive through the Jerusalem Forest, home from teaching, I would see only bare empty branches of unidentifiable trees. But today, on my way home, there they were– the delicate white almond blossoms attesting to the fact that spring will come once again. In bloom, the trees are beautiful. They are graceful and elegant.

And they made me think about marriages. Why? Because I am a marriage and family therapist– everything makes me think about marriages!! But I thought about the fact that marriages too have seasons. There are times when the branches are bare. The marriage exists, it remains, but it is not giving off anything special. The husband and wife continue to function, to raise their family, to meet their obligations, but life is just there, to pass through the days and weeks. Couples who are experiencing a winter in their relationship sometimes come into therapy defeated. The love and passion seem to be gone. The feeling of being part of something special has faded. As a therapist, I try to give them hope. Sometimes I have to help them to move toward their spring. But given the will and the desire, their spring does arrive. Suddenly their love buds once more and blooms in a deeper richer way than ever before. They learn how to make that spring appear. They learn that even though circumstances may someday impose another winter, that following it, they can make spring appear once again.

But how do they bring on the spring? Both husband and wife have to take 100% of the responsibility. They cannot wait for the other to do his/her part. Each needs to make the relationship their top priority. They have to try to recapture inside themselves the warm feelings they had for their spouse. They have to do kind things for the spouse, express their love and appreciation, reminisce about happy times, share hopes, plans, and desires. Each must be ready to listen to the other with an open heart. They must hear each other out and then respond honestly without trying to defeat or hurt the other. They must try to problem solve– understanding that sometimes there is a compromise and sometimes they will be able to have things their way and sometimes they will cede their own wishes as a gift of love.

Every couple has winters in their relationships. As they grow in their love and commitment to each other, their winters can become shorter and the springs can become the dominant seasons of their lives.

The Challenge of Marriage

When people get married, they normally assume that all will go well. After all, they love each other. If they are mature enough to have thought ahead, they know how they plan to support themselves, where they want to live, and if and when they plan to have children. During their courtship, they focused on each other– wanting to spend all their time together. They waited until finally the day would come when there was no need to be apart.

In most normal marriages, the next few weeks or months bring the issues of family loyalty versus loyalty to spouse and differing expectations to the fore. At that point each is surprised that the other didn’t naturally understand what to them was second nature– from serving platters needing their own utensils to which way the toilet paper roll was installed. Minor differences in experience can make home feel less comfortable as the young couple adapts to each other– taking “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” from each one’s background. But, with loving intentions, eventually, they create together a new reality, a home that is uniquely theirs.

But marriage offers another large set of issues. In infancy, one is tightly connected to one’s parents and counts on them for food and for love. As the child grows, he/she becomes more and more separate. By the teen years, the child wants nothing more desperately than to see him/herself as separate from his/her parents. He/she may take on opinions and preferences that are specifically different from his/her parents to make the point that he/she is different. He/she enjoys being independent and making his/her own decisions. During those years, he/she imagines that marriage will consist of him/her and a spouse who will agree with all of his/her decisions. The idea that he/she may have to take into account someone else’s point of view, preferences, and needs only peripherally enters his/her consciousness.

But marriage consists of two people who are engaged in an ongoing endeavor to reconcile two legitimate but opposite processes. One is development of each of the individuals in the couple as a fully functioning adult with independent thoughts, actions, and feelings. The other is the development of a strong bond that defines each as a member of a couple or a team that has its own character. In a healthy marriage, both husband and wife feel their bond and their shared image as well as their individual images. Each of them is both enriched by and bound by their ties. The freedom each has in his/her personal life is often a direct result of the support of the spouse (e.g., the financial ability to pursue an education or the encouragement to create). A strong bond means emotional support, encouragement, and a feeling of safety.

Yet the tension between the “I-ness” and the “we-ness” persists throughout marriage and it is one of the contradictions that both spouses need to be aware of and understand. Often, the “I-ness” has to take second place to the “we-ness,” but through the supporting bond of the couple, both members become stronger- and together— they become unbeatable!

Separation

Something’s been bothering me for a while. I think at the begining it was bothering me because of its effect on me. But now, I am beginning to understand that its effect is felt throughout the Orthodox Jewish community. I am talking about the practice of separation of men and women at social, cultural and educational events.

It has happened more than once that my husband and I have gone to a wedding where one or both of us was acquainted with the bride or groom or his or her parents, but knew virtually no one at the wedding other than them. We showed up only to find that we were seated at two different tables, sometimes only yards away from each other, but often separated by a tall partition. For any type of communication, we would be at a loss. Even now when we both have cell phones, the excessive noise of wedding bands would make hearing a person on the other end of the conversation impossible. Moreover, sitting at a table of strangers was not a delight. I am, by nature, a shy person and so the wedding then became an ordeal of watching other women interacting with each other and hoping it would be over soon. I respected the family’s desire to conform to the norms of their community and did not fault them for my less than festive experience, but it bothered me.

Then I was invited to a lecture on a religious subject. Of course I assumed that men and women would be interested and were invited, so my husband came along and indeed, other men were present. However, shortly after sitting down, we were advised that he would have to move over to the men’s side. With a look of longing, he left me. What did they think we were going to be doing during the lecture?

And now there are the performances and classes for only men or only women… What is all this about? What are we doing to our society? Children today in religious schools in Israel are gender separated from kindergarten and first grade. More liberal schools allow them to study together until grade 3 or 4. What are we teaching about the relationships between men and women? How are boys and girls supposed to understand one another? Is suppression of their natural curiosity going to help them to grow up healthier?

I fear for the next generation. The other gender is unknown to them. They will marry and procreate, but all social, cultural, and educational activities will be enjoyed with their same gender buddies.

In my experience as a family therapist, I have found that it is precisely shared experiences in the social, cultural, and educational realm that cement the relationship between husband and wife and are the glue of family life. They provide the warm memories, the shared meanings, the pleasant conversations that “old married” people have. Bereft of shared experiences, family life becomes rote and filled with chores and tasks and spouses relating to each other in the mother and father roles, but unable to find the soft padding that such shared experiences provide to make a home loving and warm.

What ever happened to, “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh”? Clearly the message was meant for us. Adam (of “Adam and Eve” fame) didn’t have a mother and father, so that’s not who was being addressed. Notice that father and mother appear in the same verse. I see no separation there. Notice the “one flesh” reference. Notice how the current “sages” have decided to demarcate that flesh and separate it into its masculine and feminine parts.

My (almost) silent protest is to avoid any lectures, classes, and performances during which I cannot sit next to my husband. My only exception is for those which are clearly dealing with women’s issues only or those which are part of an institution that is a women’s only institution.

Men and women, husbands and wives, should be able to experience life together and not from behind partitions. This is one way of strengthening the ties between them and ensuring the security and happiness of their family.

Pictures

The pictures from Tzvi’s Bar Mitzvah are up on the web. You can see them here

The mostly-asleep children had just returned from Los Angeles the night before and gave new meaning to the expression “jetlag.”

Once again, mazal tov to the entire family!

Settling down

We jut got back from the car’s biannual checkup which was due in November, but we have been on a merry-go-round for a couple of months now and this was the soonest we could get there.

Once we came back from China, Thanksgiving came charging along. And then began a series of weekends away from home to Mitzpeh Ramon, to Eilat, to Kfar Etzion. And visits and a bar mitzvah and a wedding in Tiberias and a gathering we had at our home for all of our friends from the recent China trip and a program we gave, also in our home, on our trip to Russia, and a talk I gave to two different women’s groups about creating memories for our grandchildren.

Last week, of course, was Tzvi’s Bar Mitzvah, and if he wasn’t amazing enough then, he shone bright the night of his party when he gave a wonderful talk based on the week’s Torah portion and when he played several extremely impressive pieces on the harmonica. His sisters performed too, singing and playing instruments. They were all delightful! His cousin Hadas made him a really terrific PowerPoint presentation with pictures of him from when he was a baby to the present time.

And yesterday, on shabbat, we had the pleasure of the company of two of our younger granddaughters, Tamar (5) and Ayala (3). they stayed with us while their parents were away for shabbat at a family event from the other side of the family. I had forgotten just how precious it is to have two little girls to talk to and play with. Tamar, the dark-haired, dark eyed exotic beauty and Ayala, the blonde haired, blue eyed, angelic beauty. What was even sweeter was the Hadas, their big cousin, decided to spend shabbat with us too and to help out with the little girls. All of the girls were just perfect. As were our company, our very good friends, a couple who we enjoy traveling with, and a young man, a new oleh from South Africa who came accompanied by two of his friends. We were an unlikely combination of people, but an altogether amazing experience ensued. We laughted and joked and enjoyed the lunch, including Ayala, who quietly walked over to the recliner and settled in for a nap.

And now, perhaps, after I administer and grade the final exams for my students, maybe life will settle down just a little…

I don’t get it

As a therapist, I pride myself on not being a voyeur. I listen to my clients’ stories because I want to help them. I do not ask for details that are irrelevant to the treatment nor do I force them to tell me things that they feel uncomfortable talking about. I believe that people are pretty clever about deciding when the appropriate time to reveal things is and how much to reveal.

But outside the therapy room, human relationships that become public knowledge fascinate me. I have a morbid fascination with crimes that take place within the family. I think it stems from the fact that I cannot understand them. I simply don’t understand how a person can harm someone with whom they have had a close personal relationship.

For years I followed the story of the Cherry Hill rabbi who was convicted of hiring two men to kill his wife. I was astounded that the man continued to walk around and be seen in the community and that he could face himself in the morning. I imagined that his ego had taken over and that he enjoyed being a ladies’ man and that he felt that his wife’s death would be a quicker way out of the marriage than divorce. Of course, there was money in the equation. His wife had it and he probably didn’t mind the thought of his having it once she was gone. That he chose to have her killed was not only evil, but it was stupid. He should have known that one of the hired hands would finally talk.

But if he should have known that he would get caught, how much more clever should Rafael Robb have been! He, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school (and my alma mater) and no less than a professor of game theory, should have known that he had better options than those he exercised in recent days. Leaving aside for the moment whether or not he killed his wife (although mounting evidence does seem very suspicious), why is it that he decided to lie to the police? Why did he say he was shopping at a specific store when the clerk was able to tell police that he wasn’t there that day? Why did he take time to call the police when he “found his wife”– walking up to his bedroom, putting the dog into his daughter’s room, and then calling the seven digit police number from his car cell phone when there were a number of working telephones in the house and he could have called 911? Why did he deny that his wife was seeking a divorce when he knew that there were people who knew otherwise. Why, if he is so clever at game theory, the ability to predict your opponent’s move, did he make himself look so guilty?

Maybe he did it and he’s evil AND stupid. Maybe he didn’t and he’s just stupid. But for anyone who might be reading this and has some anger toward his/her spouse, there is something called therapy– and if that fails, something called divorce.

Stormy Weather

On a sunny day in 1967, the most miraculous event of my life occurred. I had had many adventure, seen many places, and even gotten married to the guy I’d had a crush on, but until that moment at 5:10 a.m., I didn’t know how it felt to be a mother.

I remember watching in the mirror as the baby’s head became visible. I remember hearing his cry before he had fully emerged. I remember looking at him. Perfect. I will never forget any of it. I remember holding him and feeding him and thinking about who he would become. I wanted to keep him safe and protected and secure always. I hoped that one day he would grow up and become independent.

And then, thirteen years later, my heart felt like it would burst with joy as he became a Bar Mitzvah. His reading of the very long double Torah portion was impressive. Could any mother have been prouder? And then, in what seems like only months later, I got a call from him. He was in college in Israel. He called to say that he had found the girl he wanted to marry and I would soon get to meet her.

My son– wanted to get married. What could this girl possibly be like? And then I met her. She was wonderful. I don’t think I could have found anyone better for him had I searched everywhere. And then there was the wedding on a beautiful Jerusalem evening with the stars shining and the music playing and tears running down my face as my son began his new life.

It was a cold ,snowy day in New York in December when I took my husband to the airport as he left to attend the brit of our first grandson in Israel. I followed a day or two later and on a cold rainy January day, our first grandson entered the covenant of our father Abraham.

And in another blink of the eye, this weekend, on a cold, rainy, foggy Shabbat, we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of this first grandson who read the entire Torah portion and lead the Shabbat service and gave a scholarly lecture.

The years pass all too quickly, but they are filled with joy and I am more grateful than I can say.

Mazal tov to Ben and Ilana and Tzvi!