Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian
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Loving a mentally ill parent

It wasn't his fault he left us destitute, but what about the rabbis who refused to release my mother from the marriage?

It is my father’s z”l, yorzeit.

My father, Yisrael (Irving) Magnus (ne Magnuszewski/ Magnushevski), fled Poland as a boy of bar mitzvah 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. 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 get.

She never got one.

The same cousins who took my father in and saved his life, told him to refuse her (why should he facilitate her desire for “boyfriends” when she should take him home?). They also told him to cut off his veteran’s disability checks (he had served in the US army during World War II and been injured; and liberated camps); and his social security payments 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 aguna. He was mentally ill. What was/ is their excuse?

So, it is very complicated.

I remember a brilliantly alive, creative– incredible artist, such beautiful drawings he did for us children, flowers that were real, on paper! and horses, too, with sinews and muscles! and oh! the Flexible Flyer sled with which he surprised us one wintry day, outside our 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, tongue at the roof of the mouth.

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

He deserves a zekher.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history and writing.
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