My eldest sister Sara, whom I’ve affectionately called Sarala since I was a baby, turned 50 on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. When I was a boy of 8 and she was 12, my parents separated and she bore the great responsibility of being the sibling who looked after her younger brothers and sisters, nursing them through pain and confusion. It would be a role she would play throughout her life, even as she in turn became the mother of six children of her own. As the eldest in the family, she also understood the most at the time of our parents’ divorce, and in this case understanding was not synonymous with blessing.
The world makes much of the brother-brother relationship, how two men connected by blood rely on one another and support each other through life’s vicissitudes. Endless movies like A River Runs Through It examine and celebrate the relationship of brothers. In politics we hear constantly about the Kennedy brothers, or now, the Koch brothers, in entertainment the Bee Gees and the Belushi brothers. In entrepreneurship, the Wright Brothers. But the brother-sister relationship, with perhaps the sole exception of Donny and Marie, is subordinate by comparison.
But there are dimensions to the brother-sister relationship, especially when it’s an older sister, that are superior. Sisters nurture their brothers and brothers protect their sisters. In my case my sister Sarala did both for me, nurturing and protecting me.
As we grew up in Miami Beach, my mother worked two jobs to support us and when we would come home from school it was so often Sarala who was responsible for making dinner. As the eldest of five young children in a broken home, she had little time to reflect on how our parent’s breakup effected her, charged as she was with helping to raise her younger siblings.
When I went to live away from home at Yeshiva, at the tender age of fourteen, she would pick me up from the airport, babies in tow, with a huge smile on her face and make me feel instantly special and welcome. She would drive me around in my few days off, helping buy everything I needed to be more comfortable at my dorm. When I, in turn, got engaged, she treated my fiancé instantly as her own sister, having her stay at her home, driving her around to buy clothes, and making her feel loved in every way.
When my children were born, Sarala washed them and bathed them, dressed them and fed them, drove them and teased them.
When she in turn divorced, amid an amicable relationship with my brother-in-law, she courageously assumed the huge responsibility of being a single mother to six children, five headstrong boys and a headstrong girl. The most important thing to her was raising her children with values. Success was secondary to goodness and being hospitable and treating people with respect was life’s highest calling. To support her children she built a successful jewelry wholesaler (Saret Gold) and made charity a central part of the business. All these challenges she met without ever once complaining of the significant burdens and responsibilities she carried at so young an age.
When I wrote books that were controversial, like Kosher Sex and Kosher Jesus, Sarala defended me like a lioness, debating many of the Rabbis who came to her business for financial support who had been critical of my work. “He’s my brother and if you want our assistance you better lay off him.”
As someone who was himself raised by a single mother, I’ve learned that kids never forget the sacrifices made on their behalf. They become inordinately attached and grateful to a single mom, and I watch in awe the devotion and admiration that my nieces and nephews have for my sister who has grown to be an inspirational matriarch of a growing family and a grandmother to three. She has, in turn, been blessed to witness all her children embrace her values as they have become passionate members of the Jewish community known for their loyalty as friends and charitable commitments.
What I have learned from having a big sister (and I am blessed with two, thank God) is that it’s having someone who always looks out for you because, even in your mid-forties, you never cease to be their baby brother.