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Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Loving a Mentally Ill Parent

It is my father’s z”l, yorzeit.

My father, Yisrael (Irving) Magnus (ne Magnuszewski/ Magnushevski), fled Poland as a boy of about bar mitsva age, after antisemitic hooligans threatened to kill him after he tore off placards they had put on his parents’ store, in Mlawa, Poland. This was sometime in the 30s, I believe.

I know this from my father’s brother, Mordechai, who wrote me this after my father’s death.

I did not hear my father’s stories from him because he became mentally ill and was hospitalized when I was four; paranoid schizophrenia, we were told. Effectively, I lost my father then. Though of course, he was alive. But not the same father I had known as a very young child, and whom I adored. And, putting it very mildly, helping people cope with mental illness in the family– supporting family members, certainly, children; helping them make sense, navigate healthy ties, and boundaries, and heavens, grief, was not developed when I was a child. Did not exist. I sure hope it’s better now though I know this continues a terrible problem.

Loving a mentally ill parent is a very, very complicated thing.

It was more complicated because, eight years after my father was hospitalized, my mother, z”l, sole survivor of her family, quite Orthodox, sought a gett, a rabbinic divorce, the only kind she recognized.

She never got one.

The same cousins who took my father in and, in his telling, so my mother related, saved his life, told him to refuse her (why should he facilitate her desire for “boyfriends,” when she should take him home? The ready recourse to misogynistic tropes is impressive). They also told him to cut off his veteran’s disability checks (he had served in the US army during World War Two and been injured, and liberated camps); and the social security payments he got as a disabled parent of minor children, which is what we lived on. Which he did. Which put us under the poverty line, eligible for welfare. Which my mother refused to take.

My father should not have done this. On the other hand, as I have taken many times to saying, he was mentally ill. The rabbis, on the other hand, presumably were/are not. And they were the ones, they and their system, and their pathetic throwing up of hands, that made her an agunah, unable to end the marriage. He was mentally ill. What was/is their excuse?

So, it is very complicated.

I remember a brilliantly alive, creative man– incredible artist, such beautiful drawings he did for us children, flowers that were fleshy and real, on paper! and horses, too, with sinews and muscles! He was ambidextrous, switching between hands as he wrote; more magic from him. I remember the scene of him running down the block after my older sister as he taught her to ride a two-wheel bike and she had taken off, and of him bundling her in a blanket and rushing her to the doctor after she caught an eyelid on a hook (it ended well). And oh! the Flexible Flyer sled with which he surprised us one wintry day, outside our apartment door. An involved and loving father, impossibly handsome, who loved books and ideas and delighted in me. He taught me to sing, la la la,bent way down to show me the tongue at the roof of his mouth, so I could copy.

I wish with all my heart he’d had an easier life.

He deserves a zekher. A flame burns in my kitchen, in my memory, and in my heart.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.