When Someone You Love Leaves the Fold

Last week, my youngest brother traveled to Brooklyn to celebrate Purim with me and my family.

Except, not really.

He came in to interview for a position at a local doctoral program in Clinical Psychology (my alma mater!). It just happened to be Purim day. But it snowed heavily all night; his long-awaited interview was canceled.

“It’s hashgacha! You’re here for Purim!!” It seemed as if G-d orchestrated this: my brother’s interview serendipitously scheduled on this special day, his flying to New York, the mounds of snow, the suddenly-canceled interview, and my brother then celebrating the holiday with us– instead of it being any regular kind of day for him.

Suffice it to say, he didn’t feel the same way.

My youngest brother Yosef was born on my 11th birthday. (Yes, my birthday party was canceled. No, the pocket math game was not enough of a consolation.) We celebrated his 1st birthday at my Bat Mitzvah; at his upshernish my parents announced to our friends and family that I would be going to boarding school in a couple months. Every day after school, I’d burst into the front door and run up the stairs yelling “Yosefieee!!!!!” excited to play with him for hours on end. And now, as adults, we share many common passions and interests– in certain ways, our lives’ journeys mirroring each other’s.

He’s always held a special place in my heart.

I watched as he grew through his years of elementary school until his Bar Mitzvah, where he layned his Parshah with ease and confidence.

I watched as he diligently, almost obsessively, went to Shul for every minyan, even trekking through a mile of high show to make it on time.

I watched as he poured over his laptop in his little free time while away in yeshiva, teaching himself math and science so he could keep up with his secular studies and get his diploma through an online program.

I watched as he developed an incredible talent in guitar, playing everything from Metallica to niggunim with so much style and grace.

I watched as he slowly became more and more disengaged in yeshiva, forced by his Rosh Yeshiva to give up his secular studies and play his guitar in secret, hiding in his dorm room.

I watched as he eventually left yeshiva, got his GED, graduated from college, became a vegetarian (it’s a big deal having to give up Persian stews) and found a fulfilling, grueling  job as a counselor with trauma victims.

And I watched my brother as, little by little, his relationship with Orthodox Judaism shifted and morphed into something that belongs to only him and G-d.

And now, it’s Purim day, and he’s with my family, celebrating with us.

It’s so cold outside, heavy white fluff weighing on our homes, streets and cars while we attempt to remain light with joy. Packing the kids into the car, buckling seat belts over costumes of two princesses and a bride while my nine year old boy, the Policeman for the day, earnestly asks me these questions:

“Mommy, is Yosef religious? Does he keep Shabbos? Does he always wear a yarmulka?”

It’s funny. I’ve heard these kinds of questions before from my children. We have all kinds of guests regularly for Shabbos and not all are practicing Jews. My little ones show curiosity about all sorts of things — Shabbos observance, significant others, pants on women — and we talk it through.

Yet somehow, these questions about my brother catch me off guard. They feel different to me — they touch a nerve.

“Yosef made a different choice than we make, he doesn’t follow Halacha like we do, what makes him Jewish is his Neshama…” I stumble on the words. It doesn’t feel smooth.

“Well then, do I have a choice? Can I choose not to keep Shabbos? Can I take off my yarmulka?”

I want to say to him that we all choose, every moment, day in and day out, how we wish to express our innate connection to Hashem — that every moment and mitzvah is a choice.

I want to say that religious is a dirty word, a tainted concept. Judaism is not a religion — it’s a soul identity.

I want to say that there’s no such thing really as a Jew who is ‘off the derech’ — one׳s relationship with Hashem, His Torah, and the Jewish people is nuanced and deeply personal. But it is always there, ever present as we journey through life. And no matter what paths we choose to take, I pray it is one that extends from our deepest selves, our truest homes.

I want to say that one day, when he asks me why we chose to live this life, we will be brutally honest with him– about the struggles, the highs, the lows… That the reason why Mommy and Abba are guiding him on this path is because it is Truth — the most wholesome, holy, fulfilling, real, sublime way to live one’s life. But that ultimately, he will have to find his own meaning in it all.

I want to say that despite the choices my brother made about his observance, he is a kind, loving, deeply thoughtful, happy, healthy, committed, upright person who is constantly working on making himself a better person — and that Judaism is about all that stuff, too.

I want to say that as much as I can try to understand it, or explain it, or justify it, it hurts so much- oh so much- that my brother has chosen a different life that he was raised to embody. Sometimes I feel cheated, betrayed, afraid and angry– a sense that our family’s future was snatched from us. But mostly, I feel love.

And I want to say to my son that as much I will always love and accept him no matter what life brings and no matter which path he chooses, I don’t want him to choose to live in a way that is not guided by Halachic Judaism.

Please, continue to choose to keep Shabbos, forever and ever. Please, always be mindful of kashrut, wherever you are. Please, let your fringes dangle and your kippah sit on top of your head with pride, no matter what life brings.

Please.

But I am quiet. I don’t answer his questions.

Later, we go to a festive Purim seudah at my friend’s house. My brother is there waiting for me, kippah perched on his head, playing guitar with the kids.

We sit at the table, gathered to celebrate. Purim is in the air. All are happy and joyous, infused by the holiday spirit — including my brother.

It feels so right.

I sit, looking at my brother, and so many memories wash over me. My expectations– his reality. The awareness that we have no control in life- except whom we choose to love. And prayers for my son to feel empowered by his essence- to choose not only what’s right by him, but the world.

I sit there watching my brother drinking l’chaims, singing holiday songs, talking about his yeshiva days, and I can’t help thinking: For whom is this more healing, him — or me?