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When the Going Gets Tough …

Barbara Bensoussan

There used to be a toy called a Bobo doll, a five-foot inflatable clown with a rounded, weighted base, which when pushed, kicked, or punched, keeled over, and then righted itself, no matter how many times it was hit. Lala Bessler is like a Bobo doll.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

punching bagAfter surviving an alcoholic husband, two shattering divorces, single parenthood, and an overeating problem, Lala regained her feet and reinvented herself into a highly successful businesswoman, becoming the president of a large company. Now happily married for the past 18 years, these days she also enjoys her roles as mother, stepmother, grandmother, and most recently great-grandmother. And she’s setting out on a new venture: life coaching, helping others attain their often-elusive goals.

But getting there was quite the journey.

Lala, Live

Lala doesn’t look much different than any other Flatbush bubby. She’s not particularly tall, and wears spectacles over clear, steady blue eyes; today, her roundish face is topped by an angora beret. When she begins telling her story, though, she’s impressively honest and forthright. Unhesitatingly, she recounts trials many would probably keep hidden.

She starts by telling me about her parents. “They both came from the same block in Lodz, although they didn’t know each other before the war,” she says. “Their families knew each other, though. Both my parents stemmed from Alexander Chassidus, and they met when they returned to Lodz after being liberated from the camps.”

Like so many other survivors, Lala’s parents had no interest in staying in a country that didn’t want them. They went to Belgium, where Lala was born, then to America in 1948, settling in Crown Heights. Lala’s father found work as a cutter in a sportswear factory; eventually, her father and her uncle saved enough to each open a sweater factory, and even managed to buy a house together.

Lala was sent to the Crown Heights yeshivah which, she says, gave her an excellent preparation for high school. Most of her peers went to Central High, but Lala elected to attend Esther Schonfeld of the East Side High School. “I was able to breeze through, because I’d gotten a good background in Crown Heights,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone at Esther Schonfeld, but I soon made friends, many of whom are still my friends today.”

Her marks were so good, in fact, that she won a free ride to Brooklyn College. “Education was very important to my parents,” she says. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help sense that as far as her parents were concerned, all that intelligence was wasted on a girl. “There was this idea that there was no need for a girl to be smart,” she says. “A boy needed it for his learning, and to support a family.”

She enrolled in Brooklyn College, but then life interfered: a shidduch with a young man known as a talmid muvhak of his rosh yeshivah. It sounded great on paper.

It wasn’t. Today Lala maintains that the boy’s rosh yeshivah suspected something was amiss right from the beginning.

“My ex-husband was an alcoholic even when he was still in yeshivah,” she says, with a frown. “The rosh yeshivah saw he had problems waking up in the morning. Maybe he thought marriage would straighten him out.”

Lala married, blissfully unaware what she was getting herself into.

“I was naïve,” she says bluntly. “I was just following the pattern, like everyone else. It took me a long time to realize something was wrong — that his sleeping habits and absences were signs of something deeper.”

At first, she thought maybe he had a neurological problem. She made him appointments with doctors, but he never went. It didn’t even occur to her, at first, that a bit of drinking could be a problem. “My uncle used to take a shot of vodka in the evenings,” she says. “I thought that was normal.

She had held some jobs while single, keypunching IBM cards for an insurance company, working for a lamp company, and for a company that made signs. While she continued after her marriage, her husband took over her job once her first pregnancy became advanced (he later became a salesman).

“His boss never realized there was a problem,” Lala says. “My husband was what they call a ‘functioning alcoholic.’ He was okay during the day, but at night he transformed. It was like living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most of the time he was simply never home; I was the one making Kiddush and Havdalah on Shabbos for the kids.”

For years, she resisted facing the truth, even when, during a moment of rare sobriety, he admitted he’d run up $20,000 in debts.

“My father bailed us out,” Lala says.

“Around that time I read Cynthia Freeman’s As the Heart Listens, which describes living with an alcoholic. I realized, ‘That’s my life!’ I saw the exact same patterns. I finally saw this was an addiction, not some neurological problem. Also, a friend of mine sat me down, and said, ‘I’m not leaving until you admit he’s an alcoholic!’$$separate quotes$$”

Things came to a head one night when her husband was unable to drive himself home from her brother’s house. Lala picked him up, confronted him, and had him hospitalized.

But Lala was loathe to divorce. There were three children, she was deeply afraid of change, and divorce was still a rarity 30 years ago. But after the best efforts of therapists and rabbis failed she reached a breaking point.

“I took a bungalow in the country with the kids for the summer, and told him he couldn’t come,” she says. “When I came home, it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to move out, so I moved out myself. I got an apartment in Flatbush and found a job at a lumber company in Queens.”

The divorce went through in 1978, after ten years of struggle. Lala had just turned 30. Her ex-husband didn’t seek much contact with the children; he eventually remarried, but that didn’t work out either. “I feel sorry all his talents were wasted,” Lala says, more regretful than bitter. “He passed away last year.”

While divorce provided relief from the turmoil of her marriage, Lala found herself very much on her own. Many of her friends, awkwardly unsure how to handle the situation (what frum woman divorced in 1978?), simply put distance between them. Her parents were at a loss how to advise her, although they always supported her decisions and occasionally offered gifts or help. But “I’m not a taker, by nature,” she says. “I’m thankful Hashem gave me the strength and the smarts to go on by myself,” she says. “I was also lucky to get great kids.”

After struggling for a year to make ends meet with her minimum-wage lumber company job, Lala realized she was on a slow track to nowhere. Then someone she’d met through mutual friends offered her a job as a customer service representative for a company selling hospital, nursing, and dietary supplies.

Before she knew it, Lala was making a living comfortable enough to buy a house, and moving steadily up the company ladder. She invited Shabbos guests frequently and enjoyed all manner of friends — divorced, widowed, and married. Her parents invited her for all the Yamim Tovim, and her father, brothers, and ex-brothers-in-law served as good male role models for her boys.

But it’s still challenging — and lonely — to raise three kids on your own. So when Lala met a man seven years after her divorce who seemed to be nice to her children and nice to her parents, she married him. “There was only one catch,” she says, “he wasn’t so nice to me.”

Lala’s new husband was soon revealed to be a borderline schizophrenic, and she realized almost immediately what a grave mistake she’d made. Within weeks she wanted out. “In many ways the second marriage was more psychologically devastating than the first,” Lala says. “If I was so smart, I thought, why didn’t I see this man was a fraud?”

This time Lala wasn’t going to wait 10 years. “I could’ve become a shmatteh, but I wouldn’t allow it,” she says. “I couldn’t do that to my kids or myself.”  

Blessedly, her children were spared most of the breakup. She’d married right before her kids went off to sleep away camp, and by the time they returned: “I took them out for pizza, and told them I was going to divorce him,” she says. “Then I asked them, ‘What’s the worst part for you?’ They told me, ‘We don’t want to move back into an apartment. We like our house!” So I promised we’d live in a house. They were also worried about people talking about us, but I told them, ‘The people who really love us will understand, and only want what’s best for us. The others, well, we don’t care about them.’ ”

Getting out wasn’t easy; it took her eight months, and when the dust settled, she was $25,000 poorer, but free. She bought another house and took her children to Israel for three weeks that summer, to allow all of them to heal.

She continued to advance in her job until she could move no higher — she eventually found herself president of a multimillion dollar company! She also continued to pursue friendships and maintain an active social life; an enthusiastic traveler, she voyaged to the Caribbean and to Israel. “I can never know enough, experience enough,” she remarks. “I just love learning.”


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