The rain fell lightly as I left the City College Writing Center and headed to the train.
It was a Friday afternoon, only a few months after I had stopped observing shabbos, and I relished the ability to attend the Grad Center’s Friday Forum lectures and events.
I had gotten into the habit of calling my mother during this walk from my job to the Friday Forum. She expected a Friday-afternoon phone call from me as she did from all her kids who didn’t live at home – the marrieds, and the boys in yeshiva, and me.
I censored my conversations carefully, letting her think that I was calling on my way home to prepare for shabbos (though never actually saying so). A few times, when I got caught up in the conversation and slipped back into the ease with which I always used to talk to my mother about everything, especially intellectual passions, I nearly told her excitedly about the lecture I was headed to.
But until now, I had managed to keep up the pretense, to hear all about the family’s shabbos plans – the menu changes and special purchases and which of the marrieds would be visiting for shabbos – to fudge details about my shabbos seudah plans, to wish her good shabbos and respond with appropriate “amen”s to her brachos and shabbos wishes.
On this mild, misty April day, the truth came out.
It was two weeks before Pesach. I was planning to spend the first days at my parents, but I had made plans to go to a friend for the first day seudah and the second night seder. I had told my mother about all my plans a few weeks before, but she seemed to have forgotten.
“So,” she said cheerily, “will we be seeing you next week for shabbos hagadol?”
“I can’t,” I said, thinking quickly. First of all, I didn’t want to spend the pre-Pesach shabbos at home. Second, there was an event on Saturday that I really wanted to go to. But of course, I could say none of that to my mother. So I lied.
“I already committed to a shul’s shabbos hagadol seudah on the Upper West Side.”
“Why can’t you come home? We hardly get to see you as it is, now that you’re living in Manhattan, and you barely ever visit.”
“I know, Ma, but this is important to me. And don’t worry, I’ll be there for the first seder and for the second day.”
“What do you mean, the first seder and the second day? What about the first day and the second seder?”
“Remember, I told you I’m going out to my friend for those?”
“No, you didn’t tell me.” Her voice had gone quiet and pinched. “Why do you need to go away? Pesach is a time for family.”
“I know, Ma. But you know our family can get really loud and rambunctious. And there’ll be so many people there, what with all the marrieds and the babies, not to mention Bobby sleeping over for Pesach… You know how we all start chafing at each other by the end of a two-day yom tov… And you know how overwhelming these things can be for me, the way I tend to shut myself in my room by the end of it… I just figure it’ll make things easier for me to handle if I schedule in a break!”
I thought she would understand. I felt a little guilty blaming this on the bipolar disorder that my psychiatrist had already told me was a misdiagnosis. But I figured that was something my mother could understand to make it hurt less, to make it feel less like a rejection of the family and more like I was focusing on my mental health.
“So you’re saying that your family makes you depressed and unable to cope? You’re saying that your family is too much to handle? That you need to get away from your family? Is that what you’re saying?” Her voice was still quiet, but now brimming with anger.
“No, Mommy! That’s not what I’m saying! I’m saying – look, you know how hard it is! You’ve seen me, over and over, every yom tov, I have to shut myself away because it gets so overwhelming!”
“Sure, I saw that,” she fired back. “I just didn’t think it was your family that was causing your depression. Your family!!”
By this point, I had stopped walking. I stood at the top of the hill that sloped down to the train station, leaning against a hydrant while my umbrella balanced on one shoulder and my bag weighed down the other, phone clenched to my ear.
“It’s not only the family,” I said, near tears.
And then something overcame me – was it a desperate attempt to insist that I was not so abnormal as to be affected so negatively by my family? (Although is there anything so abnormal about being affected by family this way?) Was it a reaction to the accusation in my mother’s voice? I don’t know. But my next words were both far from wise and at the same time a huge relief.
“It’s everything. It’s the whole yom tov – which I don’t believe in! It’s the whole atmosphere of frumkeit and the brachos and the rituals and everything that I no longer believe in!”
There was silence for a moment, and then a pained: “You… don’t believe in? What do you mean, you don’t believe in them?”
I sighed. “I mean I don’t believe. I haven’t been frum for a while now. I stopped keeping shabbos when I moved out, and I just didn’t tell you till now.”
What followed remains in my mind in snippets of images – my tears and the rain on my face (it’s a cliche for a reason), an impassioned plea on my part where I tried to explain my different belief to my mother by using the purple-ness of my umbrella as an example, the resultant confusion on her part (and mine), frustration on my part, and finally, this:
“So why were you even planning to come for Pesach, if you don’t believe in any of it?”
“Well, it’s like you said. Pesach is family time.”
“No,” she said sharply. “No, Pesach is about geulah. Pesach is about yeshua. Pesach is not family time. If you don’t believe, why even come? This isn’t Thanksgiving dinner.”
My heart stopped for a moment. I gasped for air, and then took a deep breath.
“If that’s what you think,” I said calmly – as calmly as I could, though I was sure the raggedness of my breath was audible.
“Esther Shaindel. It’s not what I think. It’s the truth.”
“Okay,” I said. And stayed silent, rubbing my thumb over and over the ridges of the umbrella handle. “I need to go now. I need to catch the train.”
“Are you even going home now for shabbos?”
I took a deep breath. “Do you want me to tell you where I’m really going?”
“No. No. No.” She took a deep breath in turn, and I waited, no longer even trying to fight back the tears that slid down my cheeks. “Gut shabbos, Esther Shaindel. Gut shabbos.”
I hung up and rode the twenty minutes down to the Grad Center in a daze. My friend greeted me as I entered the lounge, took a look at my face, and asked what happened.
“I think I was just dis-invited from Pesach….”
“I thought you didn’t really want to go anyway?”
“Yeah, but – but my mother just told me not to come. That’s different. That’s like – she just rejected me. If I’m not religious, it stops being family time. If I’m not religious – I don’t count as family…
“I don’t want to be there, but I want them to want me there…”
Postscript: When I spoke to my mother the following week, she exclaimed in surprise at the idea that she had dis-invited me. I did go, and I did spend the first full day and night away from home.