Category Archives: Family & Celebrations

Mother In Law

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My daughter and son-in- law have had problems for years. He is an
alcoholic who has been in recovery on and off. He has never brought in
a reliable income, so she has been the primary breadwinner to support
them and their daughter. They relocated to be near his family, which
first was great but I think the pressures of living up to everyone’s
expectations took their toll. He lost two jobs, fell off the wagon, and
now they have separated. First he lived with his parents, and then
moved to halfway house where they carefully monitor his recovery.
Here’s the question: My daughter is secure in our support and love for
her. I think her husband does not know that we care about him too,
and that we are rooting for the family to stay together. Is it okay if I
call my son-in- law to give him emotional support during his recovery?
He’s a good guy and I think she will be happier with him than single.

Mother In Law

 
Dear Mother In Law:

I’d caution you from just picking up the phone and dialing, certainly
from doing so without a serious and explicit conversation with your
daughter. There are so many things you may not know, because
children always shield their parents from so much of the worst of their
adult lives. I’d start by asking her what she wants, and what her worst
fears are about his returning home prematurely. Do your best to listen
and not defend him. If you think she’s off base in her assumptions or
perceptions, try to ask her questions instead of just telling her what to
do. That’s hard, especially for a worried mom.

 
If you do speak to the husband, ask what he sees as the obstacles, not
just to moving back home but also to a long and stable marriage. Let
him have as much airtime as he needs, and tell him you love him no
matter what the outcome. Try not to get more involved unless your
daughter asks you to, and don’t repeat what he said to you. Also, you
don’t say how old your granddaughter is. I’d advise doubling down on
phone or Skype time with her, because I’m sure all these changes are
very confusing and she may need someone to talk to other than angry
mom or absent dad.

Liberal

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Every year at Passover I am confronted by the fact that my relatives
are bigots. This despite that we’re a family of immigrants. The story
should be a cautionary tale: both sides of the family escaped Nazi
Germany in 1939, with the assistance of my father who had emigrated
a few years earlier. They worked amazingly hard their whole lives so
we kids had it easier. I live a life of privilege compared to the rest of
the planet so do all my family. So why should I have to sit without
speaking up at a ritual that’s supposedly about liberation from slavery
and hear my aunts and uncles say words my first-graders aren’t
allowed to us about people trying to immigrate here now. My parents
give me the eye-rolling looks that say I am not supposed to cause a
scene and confront anyone with their hypocrisy. How can I educate my
relatives that the door did not slam shut on America right after our
meshpochah landed?

Liberal

 
Dear Liberal:

Some families have rules forbidding discussion of politics at
gatherings, especially holidays. Others indulge in free-for- alls. While
it’s always possible that one or more are talking that way to annoy or
provoke you, the more possible truth, and sadly embarrassing
knowledge, is that they probably don’t realize how bigoted and
hypocritical their language is.

 
Given that it’s after the Seder, I’d send a follow-up email to the
offenders, or even to the family as a whole. Say very simply what you
tell your students when they use inappropriate language: that it is
dehumanizing and cruel, and reflects more poorly on the speaker than
the spoken of. Draw the obvious parallels between your family and
current immigrants, and ask some open-ended questions to spark a
dialogue. You might or might not have an impact, but at least you’ll
have served notice that you’re not going to be quelled from expressing
your own views. At a minimum, they’ll have to listen.

Tired of Gossip

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I know you get this question, or a variation of it, every year. But
please remind your readers about the etiquette of family events like
Seders. Every year I end up embroiled in the post-Seder round robin
conversations between various siblings, nieces, aunts, cousins, etc
critiquing the quality of so-and- so’s cooking, the inappropriateness of
someone’s attire, who said what to whom about what, etc etc etc for
every possible way that one human being can criticize or kvetch about
another. And this in a family that generally gets along and likes one
another

Tired of Gossip

 
Dear Tired of Gossip:

The irony of turning a holiday that’s about liberating ourselves from
slavery into enslaving ourselves to criticism is beyond sad. We’re
supposed to be about celebrating the end of 400 years of brick-making
and servitude. Not turning up the heat on those near and dear to us.
I’m reminded of the scene in Avalon, a movie set in Baltimore in the
mid-19th century, about two brothers who feud on a Thanksgiving.
One drives off in a huff while the other screams at him, waving a
drumstick, and they don’t talk for fifty years. (At least that’s how I
remember it.) Imagine 50 years without a sibling. You might smile for
a second after winning a small argument, but it would be a collassal
loss for you and your family.

 
So here’re the rules for all family events, from Passover through
Chanukah: Thou shalt not criticize others. That includes their cooking,
their clothing, their children, their homes, their cars, their choice of
vacations, or their choice of souvenirs for the meshpochah. Thou shalt
not say anything that can be misinterpreted by someone with a grudge
against someone else. When asked about anyone’s cooking, say, It
isn’t as good as I remember my mother’s but a very interesting new
way of doing that dish. When asked about someone’s atrocious new
sofa or dress say, It’s not my taste but it suits her and seems to be
making her very happy. Express joy for the satisfaction of others. Do
not appear to take any pleasure in the misfortunes, shame, failures, or
other life traumas of anyone in your circle. That’s actually a pretty
good way to improve your adherence to lashon hara, the mitzvah that
proscribes gossip. It’s also a good way to get people to like you more,
relatives or not. Kindness breeds kindness, not rancor.

The Good Daughter

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My brother is addicted to pills, though will just get drunk if that’s all he
has. He has now lost her room in the house she was staying and her
fourth job as a nursing aide in a year. He relocated to my city to live
with our other, who is in the last stages of a terminal blood disorder,
though Mom has already outlasted the doctor’s predictions by almost
two years. Two points: (1) Mom is not supposed to drink, but often
they do that together; (2) David is “exhausted” from the move, and
wants to “take a month off to recuperate” before he looks for work. I
think he should not get a vacation but start putting out resumes today,
but both of them loudly told me off and said I was being “controlling
and judgmental.” I’m the responsible daughter who has to pick up the
pieces when they break things. Is there any way to avoid this train
wreck?

The Good Daughter

 
Dear Good Daughter:

In a word: No. You can try to ban alcohol from the house but addicts
always find a way to get their fix until they get clean and sober. You
can try to scare your mother with mortality, but if she’s already past
the doctor’s predictions she probably figures she can do as she
pleases, and who knows, maybe she is right. But it sounds like the
codependence will not help your mother as much as your brother.
Regarding the proposed vacation, your suggestion makes sense to me,
unless he needs the month to prepare for a pee test that would likely
be required to get a job. But even so, getting his resume together and
sending out letters and applications seems like a basic reality check to
reinforce the idea that he is there to help your mother, not live off her.
It might help to start with optimism when you speak to them, even if
you get heartburn and grit your teeth. But short of a miracle I think
you will be in this soap opera for a while.

Hostess

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

What’s the etiquette of setting boundaries around politics and
discussions of same at Passover? I have a noisy, boisterous family that
includes to my shame supporters of Donald Trump as well as rabid
Hillary and Bernie people. I’m a liberal Democrat, but I am not doing
to disinvite my brother because he has outed himself as a right-wing
jerk. But I do not want the serious festivities to devolve into a political
food fight. Can I just ban all talk of politics?

Hostess

 
Dear Hostess:

You can set down any dictum you want. But the chances it will be
honored are pretty small, at least as far as I can tell, in this particular
election year, where everyone talks politics as often as they discuss
diets and which body part is aching and aging. In addition, Passover is
a holiday that is very much about liberation from oppression. I suspect
each guest will have his/her own view about what oppression means,
and feel very empowered to express that view, perhaps even more so
if you try to set boundaries that are perceived as harsh or strict.
If you try to make it humorous, you might get more traction. You
could say that there will be no political commentary during the reading
of the Haggadah, and that if anyone violates that rule they will suffer
some public shaming punishment, like no dessert. I doubt there would
be a serious food fight. But you can and should tell each of the
explicitly vocal people that you do not want your holiday disrupted,
and that if they cannot keep their comments civil and their voices
down, you would prefer that they not attend. That alone should be
enough to show them where you set the bar. If you need to, you could
send a reminder email the day before, with your confirmation of food
assignments. The PS should read, Remember, if you are tempted to
wave any political banner at this Seder, you will also have
responsibility for all forms of cleaning up the table and washing all the
dishes. That would convince most rational people to play and speak
nicely.

Just A Mother, Not a Rabbi

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m turning into a curmudgeon about the holidays. In this case,
Passover. I raised my two kids in a typical middle-class, middle of the
road, Reform Jewish environment. We went to services maybe once a
month, and were each B’nai Mitzvah. Now they’re in their twenties,
done with college, and starting lives as adults. Neither lives at home,
but they have gone in totally opposite directions. My son is a vegan,
non-gluten- eating, hippie come lately, though he does make a good
living in high tech. My daughter went to Israel, and came back almost
Orthodox. She says she hasn’t decided about moving there
permanently, but whenever I question her (which she takes as a
challenge) on any aspect of the change, she mutters about moving
“back to her people.” I’m her mother. How much “more people” can
someone be?!? How am I supposed to make a Seder with someone
who won’t sit at the same table as someone who will only eat “gluten
free matzo style crackers, not kosher for Passover ????”

Just A Mother, Not a Rabbi

 
Dear Mother:

You make the Seder you would normally have at your house. And you
invite both of your children, and tell each they can bring a
friend/date/support person if they think they need to. You could
compromise by doing a family second night Seder, but frankly I think
that’s backing down to emotional blackmail. You should set the table
as you want, with the foods and accoutrements you have likely used
for decades. If you sweep every crumb from every cupboard, and get
rid of all the leavened things, then do so. If you do not, then don’t. If
your son wants to have his matzo-style crackers on a small plate near
him, then that’s fine. If your daughter is so frum she will not attend,
you have bigger issues than one last family holiday can solve.

 

This is your home and your family, which, though it may seem to be
diverging in opposite directions, will come together again over time.
There’s hope that each of them will evolve onto a more moderate
path. But you should take your daughter’s word that she might move
away, and stress that this may be the last time you are together for a
while, so your children should respect their parents enough to live
through one last Seder together, your way, and then talk about the
politics of religion after the holiday is over.

Off Duty Please

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Can you help me design a “staycation?” My husband has had a raft of
medical problems. Sadly they include orthopedic problems, which
means that our normal hobbies of hiking and mushroom picking are
completely off the table. I’m a teacher and have a few weekends left
and then a long summer. I’m not expecting a two-week period at
home where I have no responsibilities, but I would like to design a
plan where I can get several days in a row to indulge my desire to
write. I have an idea for a children’s book, actually a series of them,
and a good friend who is an artist who can collaborate. My husband is
retired, not to mention grumpy from months of medical aggravation.
So he is lonely and looking for company. I don’t want to be unfriendly,
but I’m stressed by his condition also, and need my summer to
recharge.

Off Duty Please

 
Dear Off Duty:

You need to balance out the mix of responsibility with creativity.
Anyone who works at home will confirm that simply walking into the
kitchen to get a cup of coffee can trigger many hours of
procrastination and distraction, especially if one’s creative work isn’t
flowing. So you will need to set clear boundaries about when you do
what, and get an agreement from your husband to help you reinforce
them, and to keep out of your way in your creative time zones.

 

You don’t want him to think that your time together is all about work.
Getting him engaged in household maintenance before you get your
creative staycations is a deal he will have to agree to. Put a carrot in
the stick and make plans for a big date at the end of each one. For
example, Monday and Tuesday are together days doing home care.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday until 3:00 is your creativity zone.
Then weekend is playtime together. Part of your prep is to have your
“creativity bag” ready to go: a tote with a dedicated set of materials
including laptop, clipboard, drawing paper, dictation device, whatever
you need all packed and ready to grab. Then on Wednesday morning,
head out to a coffee shop and set up for creativity. In the house, have
a special flag or sign that says, “The Writer is Out” which hubby should
agree to respect, house fires or broken legs notwithstanding.

Second Chance at Life

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

This question is at the intersection of family of origin and family of
choice. Or perhaps at the intersection of clashing cultural norms and
politeness. Long life story made very short: I was a happily married
woman for thirty-five years before my husband died. I was single for
ten years. If you can add that puts me in my late sixties. For the last
year I have been in a warm and loving relationship with a woman who
has been my best friend for two decades. She was also widowed, and
we had a long history of taking vacations with our husbands, theatre
and dinner dates, etc, which we continued after the funerals. One
night we had a conversation about very personal and intimate things,
and within a month we were lovers. Now we think of ourselves as
“married” although we live in a state that doesn’t even recognize civil
unions between same-sex couples. A nephew, who used to be a
favorite, is having his third wedding. He’s a successful NYC lawyer and
likes showing off to his colleagues and clients. The invitation received
came with a reply card already checked off in the “Will come
unaccompanied” box, and a quick handwritten note from my nephew
that read “I’m sure you’ll understand.” In fact, I do not understand
and feel both slighted and annoyed. The reality is that my honey has
as little interest in attending as my nephew does in hosting her. But
the idea of a great weekend in NYC seeing some shows and museums
sounds like a grand anniversary weekend. I’m hurt and want to wring
his ears. What’s the right reply?

Second Chance at Life

 

Dear Second Chance:

You have a variety of options. No matter which you choose, it should
be accompanied by a blunt burst of education for your socially
conscious nephew. Tell him in no uncertain terms that your current
partner is your life partner, for better or worse, for nephew or worse,
just as his fiancée will be to him. Assure him that your relationship will
be damaged in some measure if he fails to understand that and
acknowledge that.

 

As for the wedding, you can choose to not attend at all, and the same
with a gift, or nothing more than a token. You can tell the truth about
why, or say you and your honey already have plans to be in NYC
another weekend and cannot do both. (You could ask if he’d like to
meet her, if only to goose him a little.) You could choose to attend the
ceremony, because, after all, family is family, but skip the party. But
in no circumstances should you let him off the hook for his rudeness.
You don’t need to trash him to your common kin. But if a little guilt
seeps into his head, maybe he’ll grow up, as he should.

The Queen Nana

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

This is a long distance Nana question. When I last visited the
grandkids (who live across the country and whom I sadly see only
once or twice a year) a few months ago, the eldest and I played chess
together for the first time. He’s smart and very used to screen games,
but relatively unfamiliar with longer, slower, hands-on strategy games.
He has access to online classes and a chess club at school. I’m not
that great, just an old fart who was taught by my father fifty years
ago. I play rarely. But I am still better than he is. We played a handful
of games together and now he wants to play with me through a phone
app. So far, so good. But his mother thanks I should let him win. I
think he should learn to get better. We’ve agreed to do what you say.

The Queen Nana

 

Dear Queen Nana:

I’m missing a vital piece of information which might impact my
answer: primarily, how old is this kid? If he’s five, my answer would be
different than if he’s ten. If he’s young, go easy on him now and get
tougher the more you play. You might even play while you are on the
phone or skype, so that while you’re playing you might give him tips
or say cautionary things like, Are you sure you want to do that? Or
Look around. Is anything threatening that piece?

 

If he’s older I would also have an explicit conversation with him about
not just letting him win. Tell him about how you learned from your dad
and how fabulous you felt the first time you beat him fair and square.
Encourage him to get a tutorial app that gives him exercises and
practice problems to solve. Chess is a marvelous brain training game.
Promise him the day he wins is not as far off as he thinks. The queen
will be dethroned.

Family Values

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My son is graduating in three weeks. We’re a middle class family that
lives sustainably and frugally. He is graduating with only $10,000 in
debt, has a choice of job offers, a girlfriend, and has generally been a
dream kid (teen-aged years notwithstanding). He lacks for nothing.
We would like to have a graduation party and invite family, friends of
family, and friends of his. Our relatives are poor but very proud. We
want to invite them but don’t want them to feel obligated to give gifts
even though we gifted their three kids handsomely when they
graduated. Is there a way to invite them without shaming? We don’t
mind, btw, accepting gifts from richer friends, but no one should feel
obligated.

Family Values

 
Dear Family Values:

It’s hard to have a party where some people give gifts and others do
not without the non-givers feeling guilty or shamed in some way. You
could include in the invite a note that says No gifts please, or Cards of
good-will only. At a minimum that will deter boxes and overt or
ostentatious displays of congratulations. Most millenials prefer cash
anyway, so those that wish to include gift cards of cash or credit with
their cards can do so, and the relatives will be none the wiser. If they
choose to do that also, have your son use some of the money to buy
them gifts in the future.

 
Be proud of your son and his accomplishments. Toast him lavishly and
underscore the importance of the values with which you raised him.
Lucky him. Lucky you.

Auntie Me

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Three of my best friends have sons who each just got engaged. I was
immediately struck not only by how each of the young men proposed,
but the vastly different approaches each is taking to the ceremony and
inclusion of guests. I have been an auntie to each of them since they
were in high school, helping with everything from college essays and
scholarship apps to employing them as garden and house chore
helpers. Like most young people they need me when they do and are
polite and casual the rest of the time. I am afraid the weddings will
collide next summer, and I’m trying to figure out how to solve a
problem that doesn’t yet exist but could cause angst in the future,
assuming of course I get invited. Any great ideas?

Auntie Me

 
Dear Auntie:

You’re fretting over a problem that doesn’t exist. Go do something
useful instead, or at least take a walk around the block every time you
start to perseverate.

 
Talk to each of the moms and the young men. Say how much you care
about them and how tickled you are that their lives are turning out so
well. Acknowledge that they may choose to have a wedding that has a
limited number of guests, or that may be in locations you cannot
attend, even if you are invited. Add that you know of several young
folks with whom you have a similar relationship, all of whom are
marrying next summer. Say you would love to attend and can they
please let you now the date when they choose it, so you can block out
the time. Then, if there is a conflict, you can decide which wedding to
attend. One more thing: especially if they know one another, make
sure the gift to each is identical so no mom thinks you played
favorites.

Buttinski?/Not

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I have a niece to whom I am very close. She has had three
miscarriages this year and just announced that she is “giving up” on
attempts to have a baby. I know she is under a lot of stress at work,
and that she and her new husband, who is a wonderful parent to her
eight-year- old from marriage number one, would be fantastic parents.
But their lives have been so overwhelmed with selling and buying old
and new houses, with work, and with attempts to get pregnant and
deal with the medical aftermath and the grief, that I think the odds
have been stacked against her. What can I say to help her realize that
it’s just too soon to stop trying?

Buttinski?/Not

 
Dear Buttinski/Not:

If you are truly “very close” and a regular confidante, you have the
right to talk to her about things that some couples might consider their
own private business. Timing matters, and so does tone, so you should
choose both of those very carefully. I’d suggest inviting her for tea and
talk. Start by telling her how concerned you’ve been about their very
hectic year, how much you love her new husband, and how happy you
are that her new family is blossoming, despite the setbacks with her
miscarriages. Encourage her to give the possibility of another child
another six-twelve months, after her life has settled down. And keep
telling her you love her and that when she is less stressed out, nature
may respond differently.

Momma Wife

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Everyone in my family relies on me and I am going a little nuts from
having zero time to myself. My husband is 20 years older and
medically dependant on me. My two adult children seem to be in
constant crisis with their own health, finances, jobs, and children. The
phone doesn’t stop with needy requests. I feel a little like I am being
eaten alive. I cannot remember the last time I sat with a book in my
garden and relaxed. The closest I get to quiet time is when I volunteer
to cook and serve at the senior brunches at the synagogue. Can you
help me find me again?

Momma Wife

 
Dear Momma Wife:

Bear with me on the math. There are 168 hours in a week, minus approximately
70 for sleep, showering, brushing your teeth etc. In the remaining 100 hours each
week, I am suggesting that you figure out a way to carve out 10% of them for
you. Just for you. No phone, email, caretaking, problem-solving, listening to
whining, or doing for anyone else but yourself. That comes to about one and a
half hours a day. For you. Repeat you.

 
For your own mental health, which everyone around you seems to rely on, you
are going to have to figure out how to do it. And I’m not talking snatches of time,
five minutes here or there. I’m talking about a solid chunk, a minimum of 30
minutes at a time. If you nap, nap. Meditate, do yoga, whatever rocks your boat.
Or just take whatever book you are longing to read to a coffee shop and have a
cappuccino while you sit there basking in the quiet or chatter or people who are
not depending on you to solve their problems. Start there, and then when you
have more fortitude write me again and we can talk about boundaries and more
levels of self-care.

Momma Wife

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Everyone in my family relies on me and I am going a little nuts from
having zero time to myself. My husband is 20 years older and
medically dependant on me. My two adult children seem to be in
constant crisis with their own health, finances, jobs, and children. The
phone doesn’t stop with needy requests. I feel a little like I am being
eaten alive. I cannot remember the last time I sat with a book in my
garden and relaxed. The closest I get to quiet time is when I volunteer
to cook and serve at the senior brunches at the synagogue. Can you
help me find me again?

Momma Wife

 
Dear Momma Wife:

Bear with me on the math. There are 168 hours in a week, minus approximately
70 for sleep, showering, brushing your teeth etc. In the remaining 100 hours each
week, I am suggesting that you figure out a way to carve out 10% of them for
you. Just for you. No phone, email, caretaking, problem-solving, listening to
whining, or doing for anyone else but yourself. That comes to about one and a
half hours a day. For you. Repeat you.

 
For your own mental health, which everyone around you seems to rely on, you
are going to have to figure out how to do it. And I’m not talking snatches of time,
five minutes here or there. I’m talking about a solid chunk, a minimum of 30
minutes at a time. If you nap, nap. Meditate, do yoga, whatever rocks your boat.
Or just take whatever book you are longing to read to a coffee shop and have a
cappuccino while you sit there basking in the quiet or chatter or people who are
not depending on you to solve their problems. Start there, and then when you
have more fortitude write me again and we can talk about boundaries and more
levels of self-care.

Money Momma

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m trying to help my son decide about grad school. He’s a good kid,
perhaps a little sheltered, who got great grades in honors college, then
took a gap year, and is applying for physical therapy school. It is both
very competitive and very expensive. He applied to five places and
through a clerical mishap missed a deadline for one. His two preferred
school are out west but he just got accepted to a very prestigious
program in the metro northeast, the only that actually gives
scholarships. This decision could be the difference between starting a
profession with as much as $150k in debt. How can I convince him
how important it is to not start life in the hole just because he likes to
camp and ski?

Money Momma

 
Dear Money Momma:

In the history of humans there’s never been a family in which parents
didn’t know better than kids what they should do. That is if you ask
the parents. These same folks probably ignored all the well-intentioned
advice of their own elders and bounced back (or didn’t). The moral of
the story: bring right doesn’t always convince anyone how to act.
Help your son keep all his options in play. If there’s a (relatively
minimal) fee to hold his place in the place that said Yes, until he hears
from all the schools, go ahead and pay it. Make sure he understands
that eventually he is going to have to decide but that he’s now in the
fortunate position of being able to use the early acceptance to
leverage the places he haven’t heard from yet. My advice, calling or
emailing the other schools and saying: I got into [prestige school] and
I’m waiting to hear about scholarship money. Can you please tell me
when I am likely to hear from you about acceptance, and whether or
not you do fund any beginning student.

 
Then sit down with him and do the math. Be sure to factor in all the
relevant variables, like how soon he might be paying in-state tuition at
the far-off schools, and the likely revenue stream for his first five-ten
years of employment, based on average salaries. Young folks don’t
usually understand the burden of debt. But seeing the numbers written
down in a spreadsheet, and seeing his future disposable income at
low-to- zero in some options and much higher in others might have an
impact. In the long run, he has to be happy, and he gets the last vote.