The very last time I visited my family was Shabbos zachor, the shabbos before Purim 2017. That shabbos was a major factor in why I decided not to go home for Pesach, which led to my parents pressuring and pleading with me to join “family time,” and eventually led to my decision to cut off contact with them.
Here are some highlights as I wrote them to myself, to make sure I remembered, immediately after the shabbos (and yes, during shabbos too, when I could escape to the room I was sharing with my sisters, and take out my phone and type for a few minutes).
The best part is the very last point here, which happened at the very end of shabbos, in which I did not remain silent, did not clench my teeth.
- My brother tells a story on his way out to shul Friday night. It ends with “a goyishe kup. Goyim are so stupid.” I wasn’t part of this conversation, and although I thought about saying something, like a comment about all my goyishe friends, in order to make everyone aware that not everyone in the room agrees with them or has the same experiences, I stayed quiet too long and the moment passed.
- While the men are in shul, the three new sisters-in-law are discussing how their husbands use yeshivish and chassidish language that they don’t understand. One points out that her husband doesn’t understand some of her “girl talk.” Another says, “yeah, he never will. Boys can’t understand girl talk. Boys and girls are just different. That’s just the way it is.” I was half-part of this conversation, and I’d heard this line from this sister-in-law before, and had no interest in engaging.
- One sister-in-law talks about her job in a real estate office, and how one agent is chassidish and looks totally “foreign” and barely speaks proper English. She says, “I don’t know how he’s so successful. I mean, I wouldn’t trust someone who barely speaks English.” She imitates his chassidish-English, and marvels in awe at how successful he is at selling houses even though he looks and sounds so foreign. I refrain from commenting on the locales where he’s selling (all the places around Lakewood that are the center of an outrage because Jews are pushing goyim out by out-pricing them etc), or on the attitude about someone who doesn’t speak English not being competent… Another sister-in-law says, “you see, it doesn’t make sense, it’s because Hashem is amazing. He didn’t need college, Hashem takes care of him. It’s so clear.”
- The three newlyweds discuss married life. One talks about how she hasn’t gone to the gym since she got married, and it leads to a comment about “when I was single, if I wasn’t at the gym, I’d be shopping or sleeping.” The third sister-in-law, who has been quiet through most of this conversation, says, “I didn’t shop much at all when I was single. But I was in college, so I was always busy with that, I never had time because I was studying.” I think she felt a little guilty after she said that because it was obvious she was being snarky about the idea that a “single girl” has absolutely no life besides work, shopping, and gym.
- A discussion about one of my brother’s fish dying and the necessity of maintaining the ph levels in fish tanks leads to this comment: “Oh those ‘environmentalists’ were shrieking chai v’kayam when the oil spilled, and they worked so hard to clean it up. But then winter came and they had to stop working, and when they came back after the winter, the oil was all gone – because idiots, the ocean takes care of itself.” I was part of this conversation but was trying so hard not to blow my top at this point. These little things build up. So I kept quiet and didn’t say, “and what about all the sea-life that died while the ocean was taking care of itself after irresponsible money-hungry oil companies caused an unnatural spill?”
- In the kitchen during the meal, one sister-in-law asks me, “so you’re really a professor?” I say, “yep. Well, not really because I’m still working on my PhD, but my students call me professor.” She says “It’s amazing that you’re doing that. Getting a PhD. It’s like, so much work. Is it like, *in* something, the PhD?” I stop myself from guffawing and say “yes, in English literature.” She goes on to give a long speech about how hard college is, and she knows someone who took an accounting course, and it was so difficult and this girl almost broke down so many times. I try to say something about my actual experience as a college student before and a PhD student now, but end up just agreeing that yes, college is hard and college students break down fairly often. (This was less annoying than the time a few years ago, when another sister-in-law asked what I do as a literature PhD student, if I write “book reports.” But that’s not entirely related to OTD / XO – all grad students deal with that from family members.)
- One brother shares a story he had seen but mistells it as a male boxer tricking his way into being on the women’s team and therefore being able to beat up all the women. Another brother (who I expected way better from) starts going on about how people get offended when he thinks they’re male because they’re dressed like a man and “if you want me to know what you are, dress like what you are. You can’t get mad at me if you dress different than what you are.” My mother pulls aside the first brother to tell him he got the story wrong, that actually a trans man who was in the process of transitioning was forced to play on the women’s boxing team even though “she” already had male hormones. I’m upset at the misgendering but surprised that she even said anything, and also that she’s no longer calling trans people “it.” I leave the table when the transphobic comments get too much. The meal is over by then anyway.
- My mother tries telling a “vort” about how the optic nerves actually match the lines of tefillin. My brother (who is in college) says no, that’s not how the optic nerves look in the brain. They argue a bit, my brother says “look, I know, I held brains in my hand and saw it.” Another brother says, “but that was a shvartze brain, so it doesn’t count,” and then laughs like it’s so hilariously funny.
- Someone tells a vort about how Haman’s daughter heard Haman saying “kocho yai-aseh la’ish….” And should have recognized her father’s voice. But she knew that he was so attention-hungry that if no one was around to lead him on the horse and proclaim this, he would do it himself. Some details of how and why she then threw garbage on Haman’s head are unclear, and everyone gets very involved in trying to make the plot details work out logically. I refrain from telling them what I told my students about a medieval romance last week: in these kinds of stories, the logic of the plot is not all that important…
- My mother tells over what she heard a rav say – in the age of the internet, when everyone has access to “Dr. Google,” they don’t trust doctor’s prescriptions and diagnoses, they google everything themselves and then tell the doctor “but I read…” and don’t listen to the “mumcheh.” And that’s why students don’t listen to their rebbeim and ask questions, and reject the rebbe’s authority. One brother (the one who held brains in his hand) objects to this and says that there’s nothing wrong with a student asking questions about what the rebbe presented. Another brother says that he won’t ask questions like that until he’s a talmid chacham himself, otherwise he will accept the chacham’s authority (this is verifiably false, because he has asked numerous questions and apparently doesn’t even realize that asking questions is a large part of how gemara study works). Rather than yelling “critical thinking is not a bad thing!” or pointing out the lack of logic in comparing one situation (trusting Google more than a doctor who spent years in training) to the other (asking a rebbe to explain or prove his statement or provide a source), I leave the table.
- And the last one, in which I speak up: As we’re waiting for the zman, my brother says, “oh, Esther Shaindel, it’s almost your day!” (referring to the upcoming Fast of Esther, the day before Purim) And goes on to say how Esther was the one who got things done, because even though Mordechai had to tell her what to do and how to do it, she got things done, because she needed Mordechai to give her that push… He was attempting to be empowering, I think? It came out terrible, it came out sounding like Esther was a weak-willed girl who needed Mordechai to remind her that if she doesn’t go to the king, “revach v’hatzala” etc. I did respond to that – I said “well, she was contemplating being killed…” and then said “yeah, in this story, Esther is the one with balls!” I think only one brother (who wouldn’t care if I say things like that) heard me, and the rest were confused and then just ignored what I’d said.