Category Archives: Family & Celebrations

10 Commandments for Covid Times

Surviving Quarantine

Dear Readers:

Reality has settled in with us all. We are locked in without any idea how we will get out, except perhaps by ambulance. We are glued to the news or our phones. We are afraid, bored, worried about what we might run out of, either lonely or frustrated with our live-ins, and unsure how to act in these terrifying and unfamiliar circumstances. We see no end in sight, and are deeply saddened by the idea of a world where gatherings and human touch are a long time from now. We are reading too much scary information online, and spend so much of our days trying to stay germ free. Our hands are raw from washing and we are starting to get more than a little testy. We jump at every little cough and life seems ruled by fear and uncertainty. There is no old normal and the new normal is either terrifying or as yet unknown.

Below are Your JFG’s Ten Commandments for Covid Times:

 

Commandment 1: Stay home and flatten the curve!!! If you do not have anyone healthier than you who can bring you what you need, put on a facemask and gloves, go out quickly and maintain social distancing. Enough said.

 

Commandment 2: Trust your doctor. If you start to have symptoms, even mild ones, keep a log of them that you could send your doc efficiently. Take your temperature. Stay in your room and self-isolate if you live with others. If your symptoms do not resolve, contact your doctor about what to do next. Also, be sure your RXs are all filled.

 

Commandment 3: Be kinder. We are all tense. Sharing one wrong meme that you think is funny and your contacts do not can be a source of friction that will last longer than it should or might in normal times. The gallows humor we are sharing is often funny. The reasons it is here are not. Be softer and gentler every time you interact.

 

Commandment 4: Prepare, within reason. Like the TP hoarders, we each have some primal impulse to be sure we have enough. This may last many months, but you cannot keep enough of everything you might need in your house. Help ensure everyone will have something.

 

Commandment 5: Help others. We need the old, the poor, even those with whom we have been feuding politically. Whether you are able to donate food or money or can give your unused sewing machine to a neighbor willing to make masks, look for ways to share. Even putting a sign in your window saying something positive might help another person’s day. Google Margaret Mead’s definition of what defines civilization. Sobering and true.

 

Commandment 6: Breathe deeply regularly. There is tons of science to support meditation as a regular part of life. But even if you never have, Google stress reduction breathing. You will find all sorts of (conflicting) insights into inhale/exhale patterns like 4/4, 6/2/4, etc. Pick one and do it at least a few times each day or whenever your panic button self-ignites.

 

Commandment 7: Go on a news diet. What you weigh matters less these days than what you feed your head. Limit yourself to once or twice max a day of news, and read the stories about kindness as often as the scary ones. For medical, health, and safety information, trust only legit sources such as the: CDC, WHO, the Johns Hopkins Data Dashboard, or the state Health Department.

 

Commandment 8: Embrace beauty. Nature is breaking spring open all around us. Staring at any small piece of it is good for the soul. Search for free museum tours and nature videos. Join any online group that posts pictures of kittens and puppies. Look for beauty, laughter, and non-covid-focused inputs.

 

Commandment 9: Open your heart. It is terrifying to actually take in all the death and dying on the planet. Like the wildfires last year, the scale is simply beyond us. But it matters that we all feel it at least a little each day, so we can remember that we will need to be different when it is over. Say I love you to everyone you care about. Today and every time you speak to them.

 

Commandment 10: Believe you will live. Thoughts help make reality. Optimism may seem like a stretch, but wrap yourself in it at waking and bedtime. The rest of us need you around for long time. Say your prayers and make them come true by your actions.

 

Cooped Up

 

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

We are a family of five. Husband, wife, one teen, one pre-teen, and one second-grader. In normal times we are a comfortable middle-class family. We have a nice home and yard. We can telecommute. The older kids know enough about technology to keep us safe and connected to family members far away. We have regular check-ins with them and family meetings at home. Everyone has their own biorhythm, but we have evolved rules of consideration about shower time, music-playing, group activities, keep-quiet zones and times. The kids are engaged with meal planning and prep, and each is in charge of family game night once a week. But we are exactly the messy humans we write about in your book: we get cranky, bored, restless, impatient, annoying, patronizing, and every other trait that would normally drive us out the door. But as good conscientious citizens we are staying home to flatten the curve, and sewing masks for the brave medical and essential workers who are keeping our world afloat. Given that the news suggests we are going to be locking in together for much longer than anyone would want, can you suggest a way to improve communication in our little microcosm?

Cooped Up Mama

 

Dear Cooped:

If you are like most families, you did a Zoom Seder, likely with variations on the plagues and Four Questions to account for these extraordinary times. Most folks I knew added The Ten Gratitudes to their Seders. If you did not perhaps now is a great time to do so.

One game I know is this. It works great with a whiteboard and or even just putting three sheets of paper on the frig with magnets. Let every family member pick a color and use markers, crayons, or colored pencils. (If you want, stick them in a jar and everyone can pick a new color every day to preserve anononymity.) You, as Mama, are queen of the game, like the host at a bridge table. Label the sheets each morning: Gratitudes, Issues, Solutions. Put 1-10 on each page. Each family member may write up to two things per page. They can self-select the ranking. For example, It makes me CRAZY when so-and-so does such-and-such. But if that complaint is given a 7, it ranks lower than So-and-so spent 20 minutes in the shower and drained the hot water tank.

Another great game is Truth or Dare, also called Two Truths and a Lie. Each person tells three things about him/her-self, only two of which are true. If a person guesses right, they win a special treat, which might be picking the meal t be cooked or ordered in (or something such). Wrong, they get a chore no one wants like cleaning the backroom, or otherwise related to staying in.

If you are looking for group activities, go on the internet, or perhaps better YouTube, and look at what families are doing, from sing-alongs to Rube Goldberg marble chasings. Honestly the idea of trying to master a new language or start a big project sounds beyond most of us in these times, but more power to you if you are inspired. For most of us, getting through the day, from distance-learning schoolwork, connecting with friends by phone or facetime, or watching some TV/movie is enough.

I like starting each day with a list, so I have a sense of having accomplished something. The classic joke is, The first item on your list should be “Make list,” so you have something to cross off. Sadly some days that’s all you may be able to do. We all have low moods and bad mental health days. With your family you may be more acutely aware of symptoms of sadness or grief about how our lives have irrevocably changed or the death of people in your close or distant network. Encourage talking and sharing, crying and feeling all the feelings. The more you can let it out the better for you all.

If you have a mask, go for a safe, socially distancing walk just to get out of the house if you feel it is safe. Or do a little yoga in your yard. Thank God it is spring, and not November. Watch nature come back to life and believe this too will end, and that we very resilient beings will find a way to make a better world after. That may feel like a stretch in bad moods, but believing it will help us all.

Surviving Quarantine!

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Even without knowing your daily life, I know you’re in the same boat as everyone else: locked in with the people they love (and occasionally get furious with) or alone and isolated, with access to the outer world only with phone, text, email, or Skype. I am locked in with a toddler and two teenagers. My sister, who lives close, lives alone. And our parents who are elderly and potentially at high risk live a few miles away. How can we all cope during this crazy time? We’ve already stocked up on basic essentials but there’s a limit to how much money we have to spend and food we can store. Who should check in on my parents? How do I keep the kids from going crazy? What happens if this is really last more than a few weeks? I can work remotely for a while but not forever. And my sister is at the edge of losing a job because her company will go out of business if this goes on for more than a few weeks. My parents are fine now, but each of them has underlying conditions. We don’t want to put them more at risk by visiting, but we worry.

In the Life Boat

 

Dear Life Boat:

Sadly I can’t solve a global pandemic. But I can give you some handy tips. Let’s focus on your parents first since they are the high risk factor. Check in with they daily by phone to keep their spirits up. That can rotate between you and your children. Skype is even better, and allows you a visual as well as verbal check in. Have them take their temperatures regularly. Do whatever immune boosting they can do, from plain old vitamin C to whatever herbal concoctions they can find or believe in. Make sure they drink lots of water, eat chicken soup, and fo everything they would do if they already had a cold. And if there’s ever a sign of a real fever or flu get a virtual doctor to tell them what to do next.

As from amusing yourself and your children, the Internet is proliferating with virtual tours of everything from museums to nature. There’s binge watching of course. Lots of great lists are proliferating. Learn new games. You and your kids can figure out how to do something you’ve never done before like art or music. Meditate together. Books are fabulous, as an individual or read-aloud activity. Let them have as much Facebook or Skype contact with friends as they want but being absolutely, 100%, zero exceptions cruel and relentless about no, none, No I said No, in person contact with others for at least two weeks. And then limit listening to whatever the guidelines are after that. Flattening the curve is a start, but this is going to last. I was distressed to realize all the early Passover displays around here translated to, This could be a while.

Your sister should be looking for a gig economy remote work now. This is going to change our entire social and economic structure. And it’s going to take a very long time to recover. So whatever she can do long distance now will likely be something that can contribute to her income later. People who alive alone face different challenges than people who are cooped up together. But if she has online interest groups, now’s the time to visit them regularly. When she’s done looking for work, she can do something like learning bridge which you can do online 24/7. By the way, when people have seemingly infinite time, we tend to be much less productive, so be sure to talk to her daily too and ask what she has been up to. A little accountability helps us all.

Beyond handwashing and prayer, I think of the three Ws as salvation: water, wifi, walking. As long as you can keep yourself hydrated, amused, and exercised, you can make it through this process. That’s assuming you have shelter and medical insurance, but those I cannot solve either. When evening comes, indulged in the new fad drink: the Quarantini. It must include vitamin C crystals. Beyond that, feel free to experiment with whatever keeps your spirits up.

We’re all in this together even though we’re all experiencing it separately. So do your best to keep your neighbors healthy and hope they’ll do the same for you. This is a time when we find out what we’re made of. With luck we will all make it through. Stay safe.

A Nosh of Jewish Wisdom: Kind words are like honey: sweet to the soul and health for the bones.

Feeling Judged

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My family is not particularly close. My brother and sister haven’t
spoken in decades for reasons I understand. I speak to both, though I
enjoy my brother and tolerate my sister. He and his wife just
relocated. They’re about seven hours away by car and a half-day by
plane, as opposed to across the country. I see plenty of them on Face
Book and when we play cards online, but have no particular interest in
spending a week or even a weekend visiting. It’s not just their two
slobbery dogs. We don’t share enough to strengthen the relationship
and we are both fine the way it is. I have a new friend, whom I like in
most respects, but she is very judgmental about how my brother and I
relate. She comes from a very large and close-knit family. How can I
convey that our family values are just fine for us?

Feeling Judged

 
Dear Feeling Judged:

The opening of Anna Karenina is cited in psychology as much as
literature: Happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy
in its own way. Your family has found a way to be happy that is
different than her family. If it works for you and your sibs, it is
intrusive and rude for her to suggest that your family be like hers.
But it does raise the issue of what happens when we make new
friends. We get very used to being ourselves. When we connect with
new folks, whether it is through dating or a social friendship, we tend
to exchange stories about our lives and history through which others
learn who we are. We cannot control their opinions (except perhaps by
shading or concealing information) but we can control how we let their
judgments affect us. She may have questions about your sibs that are
worth considering. But if she is respectful, she will accept your
answers as right for you. If not, she may not be the right friend for
you.

Helpful

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My godson has had a rough time figuring out what he wants to do with
his life since he got out of rehab. He got a job in a restaurant. Nothing
fancy, just a sous chef chopping vegetables, prepping plates, and
learning the basic of the trade. Then he got a bout of cellulitis, which
made it impossible for him to be on his feet. His mother, now more of
an ex-friend than a close one, decided to “teach him a lesson” because
he had not signed up for health care. She told him he would be
responsible for all his medical bills, so of course things got worse when
he stalled on a doctor/ER visit. I heard about it mid-week, offered to
pay for his doctor bills, and now he is recovering, and even got his job
held till his return. She is telling our mutual friends about how I
“interfered” with her parenting. I clearly see this very differently. I
know gossip is hard to fight. But what should I do?

Helpful

 
Dear Helpful:

Teaching moments are important but generally we think of them as in
the non-life threatening side of the spectrum. If your godson really
had a medical issue that could have cost him his job, let alone his leg,
you were correct to step up and offer to help. His mom was wrong,
and could have found a better way of accomplishing her goal (e.g.
paying for the bills as a loan). We could talk all week about what’s
wrong with the medical industry in America, but when someone you
love is sick, you help them, and worry about the teaching moments
later.

 
You may never hear what is being said about you. But if you do,
simply reply: I love Godson-name. He was in trouble and I stepped up
to help. I’m sure Mother-name meant well, but given what he has
been through already, I thought it best to support his recovery in
every way I could. I’m happy to talk to her about it, if she’ll stop being
angry and gossiping about me. I suspect whatever moved this
relationship from close enough to be a godparent to ex-friend is deep
and profound. You don’t say how long ago it happened. Focus on
helping your godson unless momma really wants to talk to you.

Earplugs?

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Please help me with the strategy for Thanksgiving, which is coming up
faster than I think I can handle. My sister, with whom I’ve always had
a very good relationship, is married to a jerk, not to put too fine a
point on it. He’s a lawyer. He’s double rich: he comes from money and
he’s earned a lot more of it. He serves on the temple board, the
boards of various nonprofits, and is a partner in a firm with his name
on the letterhead. He is convinced, convinced to the point of absolute
unreason, that his opinion is right on every subject, from child rearing
to presidential politics. And he will be first, last, and loudest to tell you
why he is right and you or anyone else is wrong. It’s not so much that
I disagree with him on everything, but that I cannot abide the way he
needs to have the last word and put everyone else down in order to be
the most right. Help. Short of not attending a family tradition do you
have a way of coping that won’t end up in acrimony, a bloody nose, or
lots of apologies.

Earplugs?

 
Dear Earplugs:

Earplugs sound tempting even to me, but the bounds of propriety and
your relationship with your sister suggest that donning them is not a
good idea. I’ll assume for the moment that there are other relatives
invited, and that their response to your brother-in-law, perhaps more
mitigated, is similar to yours. I’m not suggesting you start a gossip
war, but if you could find at least one ally you could divvy up the
range of topics and tag-team him in terms of who responds and rebuts
first, and last. That way there is no specific antagonism between you
and him. The more allies, the more you might succeed, the way a
swarm might befuddle a larger predator.

 
You might also take your sister aside before the event, and tell her
how troubling her husband’s behavior is. It’s hard to believe she’s
clueless or indifferent, given that she likely sees lots more of it than
you do. Ask her what works, and how she feels it’s OK for you to
respond if you disagree with him. If worst comes to worst simply leave
earlier or go into the kitchen for a side conversation with a relative you
genuinely like. Once the room he is in is empty, maybe he’ll get the
message.

Sober and Gentle

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Do you have any good advice for dealing with the drunken relative at a
family party? This time it is Thanksgiving, but next month will be
Hanukkah, and next year will be two B’nai Mitzvah’s, so this is a
problem we need to face, and believe me we are a family what is
adept at doing everything but facing things. We have an uncle who is
angry, depressive, and alcoholic. He starts off as a sullen drunk but
the more he takes in the noisier and angrier he gets. We’ve tried
everything we can think of, but virtually every family event we can
recall has him storming out in a huff and the rest of us looking at one
another in dismay. Is there a gentle way to avoid this?, short of not
inviting him, which is always tempting but highly impractical, given the
memory of our deceased mother.

Sober and Gentle

 
Dear Sober and Gentle:

In eons past, or in multi-generational families, the burden of delivering
the hard message would fall to the eldest cogent patriarch, who would
with all solemnity sit the offender down, explain what rules of
propriety have been broken, suggest appropriate penance and
apologies, and all would be well, or at least the ground rules would
have been made clear. In this day and age there is no such traditional
model to fall back upon, so everyone has to become empowered to
speak truth to the offender.

 
Short of a full intervention, the message might get lost. In this case
my vote would be for a team of adults, say the parents of the B’nai
Mitzvah children plus one older yet generation adult if such a person
has any authority to invite the uncle to a meeting. Say the family has
lived with his rude behavior too long and they have decided to set
limits. If he will go into treatment, they will support him emotionally.
But in or out of a formal program, at the first sign of disruption he will
be immediately escorted out of the event. If he can comply for
holidays before the BMs, he will get an invite. Otherwise he will not,
and the rule will apply from this moment forward. At the very least
you will get his attention.

Finally Happy

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Long complicated story made very short: Abusive first marriage.
Divorce. Fabulous year with husband #2. Perfect son born. Everything
crashes to disaster one year after his birth with second husband’s
brain cancer diagnosis. Horrible five years until he dies. Single
parenting. Remarriage to a good guy but my son who is angry about
losing his dad decides the new stepfather is “abusive.” I know abuse
and this was not not not, rather strict parenting for a kid headed down
the road to slacker-dom and pot addiction. A decade later, the family
is intact but my son has discovered his birth father’s journals in the
attic, somewhat unreadable because of his declining mental capacity.

 

He tried to transcribe them but could not read his handwriting and now
has asked me. I started, and originally found them fascinating, in part
because Dave’s parenting hopes and goals ironically seemed very close
to the step-father’s, but also disconcerting because he wrote about
things he never shared with me. When I got to the diagnosis and
decline section I had to stop. How should I proceed? I could tell my
son they were illegible (almost true), show him the parts that I did
translate which might help him reconcile with his step-dad, or pay a
stranger/professional (which requires borrowing money for which I
have a list of alternative uses). What say you?

Finally Happy

 
Dear Happy:

Many folks need more than one try to get marriage and parenting
right. I’m sorry for your tragedy with husband number two, who
sounds like he was a fabulous husband and would have been a great
parent. I agree with you that it’s important to educate your son about
the values he would have been raised with had his birth father not
succumbed to cancer. Even if life circumstances had been different
those parenting plans might have changed, but their congruence with
your third husband’s values are an important message for the young
man, especially if he hasn’t yet found his footing in adulthood.

 

 

I’d suggest sharing the journals in small bite-sized pieces, with each of
you doing your best to transcribe a section and then trading the
original and your attempts, followed by sessions to talk about the
content. After you do this once or twice you should have a longer talk
about his perceptions of parenting, and his father and stepfather. As
his long-term parent you owe it to him to provide the guidance that
you now have the safety and security to offer. Maybe his deceased
father’s voice will help.

Fierce

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Am I being over-protective and possessive? My son and his fiancé
were visiting for the holidays and one of my friends texted my future
daughter-in-law (whom she knows only through me and sees in a
group setting maybe once a year) asking for “a favor” (delivering a
large bulky item to the city where they live, two hours away). I
suspect she knew my son would say No so she approached the fiancé
directly without asking me if it was okay, and it ended up messing up
my time with the kids. I’m angry and feel like she took advantage of
them but I don’t know how to express it without blowing up at her. Is
there a nice way to say “Back off of my time with my family!”???? For
the record, I’m a former attorney and have been told that people that
I am:

Fierce

 
Dear Fierce:

If your son and his fiancé are old enough to marry they are old enough
to know how to politely say No thank you if they feel like they are
being exploited. There may or may not have been a direct correlation
between doing the favor for your friend and their time with you, or
they may have been happy for a reason to leave early for home. But
even if doing the favor harmed you a little, you should: (a) be kind to
them for helping her out, and (b) refrain from being fierce with her
when you ask her why she chose to accomplish her delivery using your
son and fiancé rather than other people, a delivery service, or
delivering the item herself. If they didn’t see it as a big deal or
perhaps wanted a favor chit from your friend in return, you should
respect their adult decision-making. Good friends are hard to come by,
and it’s not worth picking a fight unless you’ve been damaged in a
more significant way. In the spirit of the season spread kindness
rather than anger, and light rather than darkness.

Struggling

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

How can I forgive my parents the damage that I realize they inflicted
on me? Not just with the obvious impacts of living in a household
organized around parental alcoholism but also because they made me
think I was “a bad girl,” a characterization I realize that I took in much
too deeply. I’m not. But at age 35 I can still hear their voices.

Struggling

 
Dear Struggling:

We all get told many stories when were young. There are the ones we
think we’re being told, the ones we tell ourselves, and the ones others
(parents and more) act like are true even if they are far from who we
really are or think we are at the time. These stories all help shape and
define us even if they are stories we run away from me instead of
embracing. Some people’s stories were told with seeming love and
support, but got taken in sideways or in ways that people felt
constrained by having to enact them to satisfy family (e.g. my smart
son the future doctor, who might have preferred to play jazz clarinet).
Other people who have had bad stories beaten and raped into them go
on to become the most tender loving people, while others stay stuck in
pain all their lives. Inside we’re all battling some version of these
stories, regardless of how they were defined or delivered.

 
Every family is organized around some story. A parent’s mental
problems, alcoholism, abuse, fill in the blank. But whether the scarring
and stories come from ignorance or are willfully inflicted, part of
becoming our adult, healed selves is wrestling with them and coming
to our own understanding of who we really are. If you really want to
grow you will make it through this passage, on your own or with
trained help. But please distinguish between the stories that came at
you, and the better stories that you are making and have already
made for yourself.

 
Two practices of the High Holidays might help. Perhaps do a private
tashich ritual around this, and talk it out at a riverbank the way you
might in a therapist’s office. Then during the appropriate prayers, try
to forgive your parents, and also forgive yourself for ever believing the
stories they told that are not true for you. None of this is easy. But
you can become happier.

Nana

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

One of my dearest hopes has come true: my granddaughter has come
to live with me for the summer. She is a delightful young woman of
sixteen, intelligent and creative, but sadly she also suffers from a set
of symptoms that make it unpredictable when she will become faint,
weak, and need to take a long rest. It is hard to diagnose and treat
but the doctor recommended that she join me for my morning aqua-
robics class, because the exercise will be good for her and I will be
around to supervise any emergencies. I need the class for my own
medical and go six days a week.

 

In addition, my physical therapist has
added a workout on a specific machine that is surprisingly popular at
the gym. Before Sarah came I was leaving early to get access to it.
That means leaving the house 6:30 latest, which is still a sprint. I
don’t have time to coax a reluctant teenager out of bed, and the
struggle is not helping our otherwise good relationship. We have only
one car. Though she has promised to use it later and go to the gym, in
a week of staying with us she has accompanied me once and gone on
her own only once. That’s not what I promised her mother. Can you
help?

Nana

 
Dear Nana:

It’s time for a family meeting. That means not just you and your
granddaughter, but also your daughter via Skype. I suggest a
discussion with your daughter beforehand, not to alarm her but to
establish what will constitute appropriate agreements and
consequences for failure to comply with the agreements. Teenagers
are notoriously balky about both getting out of bed (and even some
adults might bristle at leaving the house at 6:30) and also complying
with what might seem like reasonable health measure if they are
externally imposed. Hopefully you and momma agree about the
proposed schedule, and that all of you want your granddaughter with
you enough that the threat of returning home will be a sufficient
incentive.

 
Let her air all her “grievances” and excises first and try to listen
respectfully. Then state clearly that the terms of her visit had been
verbal not written, but for her to continue to be in your care requires
adherence to her exercise schedule, as well as whatever other house-
related agreements re helping with cooking, cleaning, shopping etc
seem reasonable. Ask if she wants to stay given those boundaries. And
then act accordingly. A sign on the fridge that says, The gym bus leaves
at 6:30 will reinforce your point.

In the Middle

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My husband is a pretty good sport about how often his in-laws come to
visit. Luckily for him (or perhaps by design), his sales job often means
he is travelling when they are around, so I get lots of family of origin
bonding they get lots of quality time with the grandkids, and none of
us have to put up with his obvious discomfort around them. He is
Jewish while they are not, and though I never thought of them as
bigoted, I am uncomfortable with how often they ask “How do your
people do such-and-such” which they do regardless of how often I
have asked them not to. Our firstborn is turning eleven so they have
had plenty of time to learn. This trip he will be in town the whole time,
and I am looking for ways to keep the peace. Ideas?

In the Middle

 
Dear In the Middle:

Any household with extra guests is surely in need of additional errands
to be run, to the grocery for example, which would get your
beleagured hubby out of the house. If your son is eleven he might
already be in training for his B’nai Mitzvah, and you could consider
inviting the in-laws to services. I suspect they would decline but it
would make the point that this is a Jewish family, not just an outsider
who married their daughter.

 

 

I recommend that your husband take the kids with him on some of the
errand runs, and to a movie, miniature golf, or just to the gym or the
mall. Keep it civil and do your best to retrain them. Bigotry is ugly the
closer you get to it.

Second Fiddle

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I come from a big and generally loving family. The only time we sibs
(two gals, two guys) have problems is with competition, as in who
gives what gifts to parents, etc. But every year my sister tries to
upstage me at Passover. We have a family tradition of alternating first
and second nights. When she goes first she puts on such an
ostentatious display that my Seder feels small and average. She says
she cooks everything herself but I’m convinced she’s used a deli.
When she goes second she makes a point of outdoing whatever I have
done. It sounds petty, but if I make one dessert she makes two; if I
make two, she serves three. My brother is single and never has to
host. I know he loves us both, but he knows how competitive she is
and always compliments her profusely. It shouldn’t bother me but it
does.

Second Fiddle

 
Dear Second Fiddle:

Annoying relatives are one of life’s challenges. Silly or not, it’s clearly
gotten to you. A lifetime of sisterhood should have taught you that
you’re unlikely to change her personality. You could create a lot of
tension in the family by trying, but why? Instead, get into the true
spirit of Pesach and try to modulate the game. It won’t be as satisfying
in the short run, but in the longer one, you’ll be happier. Plus your
family will be more in tune with what the holiday is really about.
Bonus: if you master this lesson with your sister, other people will
have a harder time getting under your skin.

 
Passover is about liberation from mitzrayim. For the moment, consider
your personal mitzrayim to be a vulnerable ego and your sister’s
vanity. Since you’re not going to beat her at her own game, move the
goalpost. Instead of buying into perpetual one-upswomanship, strive
for simplicity, piety, and a hamish sense of family and warmth.
Compliment her for what she does well. Smile. Dig deep for sincerity.
Match it with your simplest best. Sparkle where it counts, from within,
and liberate yourself from this annual plague.

Earplugs?

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Help me with a problem with a relative and politics. We were
completely on opposite sides of most issues in the last election. This
caused unbearable friction in the family, most of whom are liberal
Democrats. But one cousin, the eldest son of the eldest son of my
grandparents, at whose home we tend to celebrate the big holidays,
because they are sill alive (!) and we love them both, is not just a
diehard conservative, but openly scornful of “fool and idiots” who have
social values different than his. We agreed on ground rules last year,
but as this new president (whom many of us consider a “fake
president”) has begun to attack institutions that nay of us hold dear
and even are employed by, the cousin has become emboldened again.
At Passover he took over the floor for long, pontificating rants that not
only were offensive but also disrupted the Seder. No one knew what to
do and we couldn’t just leave, though many of us wanted to. Finally my
grandfather said “Enough!” and he shut up, but honestly it’s enough
that there is talk in two generations about avoiding any gathering he
attends. Do you have a recipe for family unity?

Earplugs?

 
Dear Earplugs:

One rule can be: zero, absolutely zero, discussion of politics or the first
offender will be summarily ushered from the family gathering. You can
distribute a pledge form and ask every family member to sign it prior
to attending. Another might be to agree that it is okay to talk about
politics but not more than one sentence, or the person will be escorted
out. Another, which is not very democratic, would be to disregard the
one outlier person and say that since 90+% percent of the voting
members of the family agree on a point of view, no other opinion is
allowed to be heard. But that’s the kind of thinking that has brought
this country to our current political standstill, so I am not advocating
that solution.

 

 

Since autumn there has been a wave of listening classes that have
allowed split relationships, be they familiar or friendships, to heal by
learning how to talk about subjects they disagree on. It has worked in
places like Northern Ireland and South Africa, so I’m betting your
family could pull it off. Google to find some ground rules and see if you
can all get a lesson in living in a world that’s not a bubble. You are not
alone in this, and in many families it is akin to the US before the Civil
War, which is not healthy for any of us.

Descendent

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Recently I went to a Yon HaShoah service for the first time. My family
has a complicated history. My great-grandmother was hidden during
WW2 with a Catholic family by her parents. All her living relatives
perished and for most of her life she did not tell anyone, including her
Catholic husband, that she was really Jewish. After his death, she
gathered her children (among them my grandmother), and told them
that she would not ask them to change how they lived their lives, but
to honor her own family, she would ask them to tell their own children,
when they felt the children were mature enough to handle it, about
their heritage to honor the memory of her departed and to keep
knowledge alive. I know in a world of increasing globalization,
intermarriage, and more complex identities that my story isn’t all that
unique. But I grew up not knowing much about the Holocaust and I am
not much of a history buff. Can you recommend some books that can
educate me please? I started with the movie Shindler’s List and that
was eye opening in a horrible scary way.

Descendent

 
Dear Descendent:

I have a ritual that I do every year for Yom HaShoah to honor the
many relatives on both sides of my family who were murdered. I think
it is a great place for you to begin, but be forewarned, for a very slim
book it carries a huge punch. Go to a bookseller or library and find a
chronicle of the Holocaust called The Seventh Well by Fred Wander, a
French Jew who was in 25 different work camps. That and Night, by
the social justice advocate Elie Weisel, are my two favorites for
intimate portrayals of day to day life in concentration camps. Another,
far more cerebral but very much about the 20 th century post-war
diaspora, is called The Lost, by Daniel Mendelsohn, a Yale humanities
professor, who tracks down survivors of a small Polish town that a
deceased great-uncle was from.

 

 

There is a wealth of Holocaust literature, movies, art, and memoir. It
is very easy to feel overwhelmed, because the scale of murder and
suffering was so great. In addition to educating yourself, be sure to
think about other people you know who might not have the same
family history but might be as ignorant and innocent as you might
have been without what you learned about your family. We must all be
vigilant to avoid allowing the rise of contemporary anti-Semitism, in
Europe but also right here in America, to create conditions where
being targeted simply because of one’s religion can be seen as
anything other than repugnant.