Ask Rabbi Dan
Dear Rabbi Dan,
I appreciate your wise commentary and would be grateful for your thoughts. I apologize in advance for the length.
I was married to a woman from an observant conservative Jewish family. The father is a physician, and what many people consider to be a “pillar of the community”; he was a former president (he’s now ~86 years old, and still working) of the shul, and has blown the shofar for many years. While I believe that he has many fine qualities, there is one that is toxic. This characteristic, which also describes my ex-wife, threatens my dear 10-year-old daughter.
The family I married. The man is, at his core, very shy**. He covers it by being haughty, priggish, and stiff-necked. During the marriage, he would never have a friendly lunch. In the middle of a conversation that he didn’t like or perceived as in some way competitive (“H___, I just had this idea about xyz.”) you would suddenly see the back of his neck receding in the distance. Typically, when I would ask him on the phone to speak with his daughter, he would listen for a moment, make some pronouncement, and then hang up. At the time of our divorce, when I was desperate for someone from the family to help US---me, my then-wife, and my then 3-year old daughter---he said candidly (a shocker) over the one lunch that we had together, “I am constitutionally incapable of getting involved [in a heart-to-heart with M___].” He officiates a terrific seder, but woe to the person who interrupts or says something from the heart that he wouldn’t say; the holier-than-thou, angry stare cuts it short. No one contradicts him. Not incidentally, the mantra of my ex-wife’s siblings when asked to get involved was “I can’t get involved. You’re not my family. I don’t care about you.” The mother’s characteristic response was, “I don’t have time.”
Shyness. My ex-wife shares the family’s deadly shyness characteristic. She is extremely competent, but she lives the unexamined life, and bullies by not communicating. One day, while washing the dishes, she said to me, “I want a divorce; I went to a lawyer today; I closed our joint bank account.”) She would not negotiate; she wouldn’t talk about it. Indeed, right after the announcement, I was frantic, and she stared into the distance in a near-catatonic state. Sure, we went to marriage counselors/therapists (of her choice only) but she would never discuss the key issues: Why? Is there a middle ground? What could we do to preserve an intact family for our daughter, then three. Later when I asked why she even bothered to do the therapy, she said “I did it for your mother.”
Schooling. Immediately after the divorce, she enrolled my daughter in a Jewish day school (without discussing it with me) where her mother had been librarian. It is a perfectly fine school for religious education, but is nothing special on the secular side. It is not my style. Coming from a Reform background with keen interest (and a fair amount of reading) in Judaism (one of my dearest friends is a rabbi), I would have chosen a more liberal, inclusive school or public school, which was great for me. I don’t relate to many of the kids’ parents. Suffice to say in a presidential election where 74% of the US Jewish population voted for Obama/Biden and 26% for McCain/Palin, the parents at this school voted in the exact opposite direction.
My worry is that my dear daughter, greatly influenced by her mother by proximity alone, will grow up to deal with problems using the non-communicative haughty cover-up. I fear that she will not abide by my late father’s oft repeated maxim, “Take care of the small problems before they become big problems”. I believe that it is inimical to a happy marriage. My ex-wife was 42 when she married me (her first marriage; my second, after a 22-year marriage) and desperate for a child (as was I).
Sometimes an impasse calls for extreme measures. Unable to address the communication issue, I picketed her family’s second seder. I wore a suit; walked silently in front of the house for 15 minutes; carried a 10 in. x 10 in. sign that read simply “3 y.o.”, my daughter’s age at the time of the divorce. The ex-wife’s brother videotaped my silent walk as if to use it as evidence of harassment. Her response request for a reconciliation was “I don't have anything to say to you right now. I____ doesn't want to talk to you or see you, but she will communicate with you through email.” See my response below.
That my daughter is being drawn into the family’s bullying strategy is new and threatening to her and to me.
My question: How can I help my daughter aside from completely capitulating to the demands of this very controlling mother. She has the power. Her uncle (mother’s side) is sympathetic and would mediate, but he can’t risk getting shut out of the family. I asked the current rabbi at the shul. He was understanding but didn’t want to get involved. I believe that any person who would get involved would be an embarrassment and therefore vociferously rejected.
Do you have thoughts on what I should do? I’m perfectly willing to re-examine any of my assumptions expressed or implied. I understand that this is a tall order, perhaps without a good compromise/solution.
Again, I apologize for the length.
** Many people are shy (it has been shown to be inherited), but they learn to compensate for it in constructive ways.
My last email to my ex-wife:
M____, I know you feel that way. It is nothing new. What is new is that I____ is now joining you. When all is said and done, the current issue is:
A) You refused to address an issue that is very important to me,
B) I, in desperation, walked silently in front of your parents’ house for 15 minutes at the time of the second seder.
On the face of it, it is:
· Do we communicate to work out a problem or do we not communicate.
· Do we come to the table or do we refuse to come to the table.
· Do we do as Barack Obama does (ask for discussion without pre-conditions) or do we abide by the behavior of Iran and North Korea (each with great power which we don’t want them to use)?
· Do we risk war (a law suit) or do we act like mature adults with a very, very important outcome in the balance: the welfare of a child that we both love?
I really think we are at a crossroads. Most of the people we know would take the Obama approach.
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