The Sister-in-Law’s Secret by Dina Neuman
The following article is reprinted from Ami Magazine. I’m posting it here because I was thinking about it for days afterward, and wanted to share…By the way, I discovered Ami a few months ago, and it is AWESOME!! For me, Shabbat just wouldn’t be Shabbat without it, and especially their women’s magazine Ami Living. Check it out, JewishMOM!!
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do my homework. I wondered if at the age of 32 I could get away with the classic “my dog
ate it,” but in the end I settled on the messier truth.
“I can’t give you an example of how I was able to overcome my ego and do something for the right reasons,” I tell the teacher.
“Even trying to come up with an example, I am dismissing anything and everything that can cast me in a bad light! Or even in
an unoriginal light! I am all ego!”
The teacher was sympathetic. “We are working on our ego, not negating it,” she assured me. “We are just trying to be mindful
of where our motivations are coming from. How much of what we do is for other people’s eyes?”
“I was thinking,” said the woman to my right. “I was thinking about the example from earlier today, of pulling out your Tehillim when someone said that there was a terror attack and you are in a community that doesn’t tend to pull out Tehillims and it was hard to do. Because it was somewhat embarrassing. Or what about if you do take it out even though you don’t usually, because you want people to think that you are the kind of person who does? You realize the reason for your action. Great. But so what? Better you shouldn’t say Tehillim?”
The other women had been coming here, to the middos vaad [a group to work on character traits], for years. I was new. Was that why everyone was murmuring thought-fully, thinking this over, while I felt like someone very small and with a very big hammer taking up residence in my skull?
The teacher noticed my burning cheeks.
“These guidelines are only here to help in your avodas Hashem [serving Hashem],” she said. “If they only distress you…”
“No, no,” I lied. “I am not distressed. I’m just thinking.”
It was rather like opening up a fruit to take out the pit but as you try to separate the fruit from the pit, you realize it is almost all pit. There is almost no fruit. Or there is fruit, but it is firmly enmeshed with the pits, thousands upon thousands of them.
It is just so hard to know. Do I use my real name when I write to keep me honest…or to get accolades? Maybe, horribly, both.
Do I confess to using a pen name at times as well, because it came up in conversation, or so that people know that I write a lot? Or both? And why did I confess to it just now? For people to say, “Oh, I wonder who she is?”
Is my voice softer in the park, surrounded by my friends, so that they can admire my parenting, or so as not to embarrass my
child whom I am scolding? Is it lekavod Shabbos or my guests that make me want to try that new and complicated recipe in
Whisk? Do I explain that my daughter dressed herself this morning because it makes her proud, or explain that I had
nothing to do with her wearing a pink jumper with a red blouse and fur-lined boots in June? Both, both, both.
The teacher gave us new homework after the class. We were to try to find things in ourselves that no one else knows about—a
private chesed [act of kindness], maybe. Or do something that could be misunderstood, but when you are doing it for the right reasons, you do not have to explain yourself. Because sometimes you should not explain yourself. Sometimes what you have just done is too private, too precious to explain just for the sake of making yourself likable; it is just between you and Hashem.
This seemed to be so important, maybe one of the most important things of all, and maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.
Who am I, after all, when I am alone?
I think about it as I clean my house. I clean all the time. Every mother cleans all the time if she does not want to be buried in clutter. Though cute at times, kids can be remarkably like slugs, leaving a trail in their wake. I find that keeping a reasonably clean house is like running up a down escalator; if you stay still for a second, you’re back to
But this afternoon, I know a guest is coming home with my husband. Am I cleaning a little better because of that? Of course I am. Am I sharper than I normally would be with the child who spilled markers or the one who left them there in
a colorful puddle? Will my “what will they think of me” forever be confused with my “what will He think of me?”
I have a headache again.
That night, my Israeli neighbor and I had our weekly chavrusashaft [study session]. She wants to improve her English and I my Hebrew. We take turns talking in each other’s language.
Usually, you can eat off of her gleaming marble floor. Today, not so much.
“Hard day?” I asked her.
“In Hebrew…” she reminded me. She is a tough teacher. I am surrounded today by tough teachers. I repeat my question in
“No, not really,” she said. “Normal. Normal, yes? That is the word?”
I assure her that it is. I take in her sticky floors, the toys littering the surfaces, the unwashed dishes, the onion and potato peels sticking to the counters.
“So, what should we talk about?”
“It was for my sister-in-law,” she said. She sighed.
“You left your house a mess for your sister-in-law?”
She didn’t want to tell me the story, I could tell. I decided to leave it at the same time that she decided to tell it.
And in the end, she did my homework for me, both the new and the old.
Her brother-in-law was critical about how his wife kept the house. “He’s a great guy,” she hastened to reassure me. “It’s just this one thing. She is not so neat and he is so neat. And I guess it’s important to him. And it’s hard for her. It can make her cry.”
They had visited my neighbor’s house this afternoon. She told me why but in fast Hebrew, and I decided to let tutoring go in
favor of the meat of the story. “And so, I decided,” she said, and there was a look on her face of someone who has done something absolutely right. “I decided not to clean.”
I pictured how I had bustled around my house earlier, scolding marker-throwers and wiping down counters that normally would
have waited until after the kids went to bed. But my husband was bringing someone home. Someone I didn’t even know.
“It’s just a little thing,” she said, interrupting my reverie, but how could she not see that it was not at all a little thing? How could she not know that it was the very biggest thing, maybe the biggest of all?
“That is hard,” I said.
She shrugs. “It was for my sister-in-law.”
We learned then, for a while, and I wrote the hard words down on a paper and so did she, to review later.
“The hardest part,” she said thoughtfully when it was time for me to leave, “was that I did not apologize for the mess when they walked in. When I opened my door, I didn’t say anything about it at all.”