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Letting Go

As told to Miriam Klein Adelman

By the time summer came around, I knew I wanted to stay for a second year. I wrote to my mother with my request

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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All these years later, I knew I had done the right thing. I had followed the guidance of my mentors. Still, sitting in a shiur, hearing Rabbi Mellin explain how we have an obligation to ask for forgiveness — even when we believe we’re in the right — gave me pause.

Twenty-five years had passed since I made that decision. And in twenty-five years, my mother and I had never once discussed it.

Twenty-five years since I had left home for the first time, stepped onto a plane for the first time, on my way to seminary. I was sure it would be one long year of camp. Best of all, I’d be on my own. Away from overbearing mom. The weeks before I left were filled with her stifling care. “I bought you ten rolls of film, that should be enough for the year.”

“I hear winters are cold in Jerusalem. I bought you a pair of hot-pink slippers.” “Don’t forget the lining to your raincoat.” “I’ve packed you 20 cans of tuna fish. They don’t have StarKist over there.” The night before my flight, Mom made me sit and check off the list. “Winter skirts?”

“Check.”

“Summer skirts?”

“Check.”

“Woolen blanket?” 
 
“Check.”  
“Down jacket?”  
“Check. No, wait — where’s my down jacket?”  
“You don’t have it? Why don’t you have it? I told you to put it in this morning!” 
 
Mom started pulling everything out of the suitcase. “It must be in here somewhere. You can’t go to Israel without your down jacket.” 
 
The jacket was still in my closet. I’d forgotten to put it in my suitcase. 
 
“What if you had gone to Israel without your coat? You would have frozen in the cold winter on those mountaintops. You would have gotten pneumonia and probably ended up in the hospital.” She was up to my deathbed when I put up my hand and said, “Mom, I’m not dying. I just forgot to pack my jacket.” 
When I touched down, 6,000 miles from home, I thought I would be free. My mother’s voice, though, followed me, worrying and criticizing. Did I put on enough sunscreen? I would obsess on a trip down south. Oh no, where is my sunhat? I would anxiously think. I had heard of someone who got sunstroke because she didn’t cover her head in the hot sun. And if I didn’t succumb to sunstroke, maybe I’d develop skin cancer. 
Still, I grew that year. By the time summer came around, I knew I wanted to stay for a second year. I wrote to my mother with my request. 
I don’t think it’s a good idea, Mom wrote back. It’s time to get on with your life. How do you plan on marrying a kollel boy if you don’t go to college, get your education, and get a good job? If you don’t come home now, all the good boys will be gone and maybe you won’t get married at all. Remember Myra? Well, her daughter stayed in Israel for four years after seminary. She’s 28 and still not married. You don’t want to be like her, do you?
“Mom, I’m only 18 and I can date from here and start going for a degree too.”

Mom wasn’t happy. Daddy and I want to meet the boys you date, checking them out is not enough, she wrote. And we need to be there to make sure you take your college classes seriously. Mom often used the plural when trying to emphasize a point but truthfully, my dad was the most passive guy you could meet; whatever Mom said was always fine with him. Ultimately, she relented and I got to stay my second year.

By the time the third year approached, I realized I wasn’t ready to return home. My mentors agreed that another year on my own would be healthy. But how to broach the topic with my mother? I took the coward’s path and sent a letter.

I received a sharp reply; Mom forbade me to stay. I would be wasting my life, she wrote. It was time to come home and attend university (like a normal person) and time to come home and date (like a normal person).

What should I do? To stay or to go? I agonized night and day. When I thought about returning home to live under my mother’s obsessive, possessive thumb I panicked. On the other hand, refusing to obey was bringing on anxiety attacks. I clarified my halachic obligation. My rabbi and mentors and therapist were clear: “It’s not time for you to go back. Remain respectful always, but let your mother know that you’re going to follow through on your determination to stay in Israel.”

After I told Mom my decision, she cut off all communication. She even forbade my brother, who was coming to Israel the following year, to have any contact with me. I continued to write, but the letters were returned, with a red stamp: Return to Sender. I worked two jobs to support myself, and gained tremendously, emotionally and spiritually. But still, the rift with my mother took a huge emotional toll and at the end of the year I decided to return home.

My mother was waiting for me at the airport. She held out her arms, hugged me tightly, not wanting to let go. Neither of us said a word about what had transpired the previous year. The silence about those long months in Israel lasted for 25 years.

My mother and I, if not deep and intimate, enjoyed a friendly and cordial relationship. She must have learned something during the years I was away, because she rarely interfered in my life once I was married and  raising my own children. That’s when I realized that, if you weren’t her youngest daughter, she was actually fun to talk to. She had interesting stories to relate and was a great listener.

Privately, I thought about the third-year episode off and on, especially as my children grew older. When my daughter informed me she wanted to remain for the second-year program in her seminary, sharp images of that painful time sprang to mind. I gave her my blessing and the space she needed.

Therefore, it was with mixed feelings and some trepidation that I walked into my mother’s kitchen to bring up this past history. “Mom,” I said, rushing into the subject before I lost courage. “What I want to talk about happened years ago, but I just finished a course on asking forgiveness even for long-past events. It occurred to me that although everything between us has been fine since, I never apologized for what happened the year I remained in Israel against your wishes.”

For a full minute, my mother stared at me. Then she began to cry. She cried for a long time. “Mom,” I muttered awkwardly. I reached out to pat her shoulder, “Mom, are you okay? Mom?” Finally, she composed herself, looked straight at me, and said quietly, “I was devastated. I thought once you stayed that third year, you would never come home. I thought I would never see you again.”

I stood, numb, shocked. Then I began to shake. I never had a clue of the depth of hurt and anger my mother harbored. I never dreamed that she hadn’t ever forgiven me.

“Mom,” I said, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea, I’m so, so sorry.” We hugged. I left a half hour later, my mother smiling as she waved goodbye from the porch. Inside, I was still shaken, but I was smiling, too, grateful that this ancient grudge had been released and forgiven. 

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