Meeting Meah Shearim's "Starving Mother"

Photo courtesy of Flickr.com user Oberazzi

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This past Saturday evening, I met the Meah Shearim mother who became front page news last year after she was accused of starving her children.

The night after meeting this mother, whom I will call Chani, the many questions that filled my head left me tossing and turning the whole night. How could such a seemingly good person do such terrible things? Maybe all the accusations against her are untrue? What really happened?

At one point that night, I had a dream in which I met a rebbetzin I admire at an all-night supermarket at 3:30 AM. The rebbetzin shook her head and told me that the whole case against this woman sounded very fishy to her.

After that I woke up, my veins coursing with adrenaline, and lay in the darkness of my bedroom composing the stirring article I would write in Chani’s defense the following morning… I spent at least half an hour tweaking the declaration: “Before I met Chani, I was quite certain that the accusations against her were true. After I met her, I returned home far from certain.”

But then the sun rose and reality sank in.

It’s true, Chani seemed like such a good-hearted and normal person, no different from me or you or any mom you’d meet by the playground swings. And she seemed like a devoted mother towards her year-old son, the only one of her 6 children whom the authorities haven’t taken away (as soon as he stops nursing, he will be removed from Chani’s custody as well).

But then again, I’m not a psychiatrist. And I’m not a prophetess either. Who knows? Maybe Chani did starve her children?

That morning, as usual when I’m stumped by a question or situation, I wrote my dear friend who also happens to be a therapist to hear what she thought about this whole story. My friend wrote back with the following response:

“I think you should write an article about Chani. It is crucial that people see that someone like this is a complex person who is suffering, whether or not she is sick or guilty.”

And my friend’s response reminded me of a few things.

It reminded me that when I heard the news about the notorious “Starving Mother” last year, like most people I immediately envisioned this mother as the Wicked Witch of the West.

But when I actually met Chani, I was surprised to discover that in real life the “Starving Mother” looks more like little Dorothy. Chani too seems like a good-hearted, well-intentioned mother who has become so confused and overwhelmed and depressed in this surreal, scary, new land of courts and police and social workers.

And what if the horrific accusations against Chani are true?

As my therapist friend pointed out, people are complex.

My mom is a psychiatrist and every single day she treats people who have done and do terrible things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are terrible people. At the age of 67, my mom has no plans of retiring because she loves her work, and she loves her patients who, she often tells me, are generally wonderful people.

A mother like Chani, if the accusations are true, doesn’t deserve our hatred. If the accusations are true then she is a very sick women who needs treatment and deserves our sympathy and our concern.

At present, Chani is under house arrest. Her three oldest children are in England, living with members of the Toldos Aharon community there. Her fourth and fifth child (the one she was accused of starving) are living with Chani’s siblings in Beit Shemesh. Chani is allowed only a 1-hour visit with them each week. She hasn’t seen her older children in over a year.

In addition, as a result of a botched epidural during an emergency C-section a year ago, Chani has spent this entire year in a wheelchair. If she needs to travel somewhere, she must be transported in an ambulance. The only effective treatment for this kind of paralysis is available abroad, but the Israeli authorities will not allow her to leave the country because of the accusations against her.

Chani and many members of the Charedi community believe that Chani’s 5th child was the victim of medical malpractice. They claim that Hadassah Hospital was using an experimental French treatment that was never approved by the Ministry of Health, and that they were using Chani’s son as a guinea pig. They claim that in order to cover up their own wrongdoing, the hospital has chosen to place the blame on Chani for her son’s decline instead.

Chani told me with tears in her eyes, “I feel like Avraham Avinu. One test after another after another.”

Again, I have no idea what the truth is. Really I don’t.

All I know is that this past Saturday night I encountered a fellow Jewish mother whose family and life, justly or unjustly, have been thoroughly torn apart.

May Hashem provide this suffering woman and her family with comfort and healing.

CLICK TO RECEIVE THE #1 WEEKLY NEWSLETTER FOR JEWISH MOMS
“It is the only regular email I receive (and I receive many) that I always read cover to cover”–Rishe Deitsch

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10 comments

  1. we are not to judge. the mother is suffering, the kids are suffering, the husband, family. tragic story.

  2. I had no idea that she is now paralyzed – how terrible! Isn’t there any way she can be allowed to be treated? Even people who are in jail are allowed medical treatment.. this is a really awful turn of events!

  3. Thank you for sharing Chana. It’s nice to see a controversial take on the matter.

  4. Often people with Munchhausen when striped of their ability to hurt their children in turn develop paralysis.

  5. Rishe Deitsch

    if I were her I would nurse forever

  6. Nurse Yachne

    It’s a sad story, but one of the reasons the abuse took so long to prove was that the mother is, indeed, “nice”. Munchausen by proxy parents are in need of help themselves and usually come from a background of abuse. This does not change the fact that they are physically dangerous to their own children.

  7. We don’t know that she has Munchausen. Don’t people know they can’t believe everything they read.
    I don’t know if she is guilty or not, but indeed it sounds fishy.
    The thought that she may not be guilty- what she’s going through is unforgivable.

  8. I imagine that if you interviewed the doctors and social workers and police involved in this case, you will also find nice people with good track records at helping families in need and protecting children.

  9. How is Chani doing now?

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