Esther Feinstein
Esther Feinstein

Making the Impossible Possible

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A mother-in-law to a daughter-in-law would never be the way for us.

What should have been, what could have been — it should have been the worst of times, and yet it was the best of times. It should have been this competition between us; there should have been a deep-seated anguish that we should have had with each other. The two of us are from different places in life, different countries, and different world outlooks. Yet a beautiful deep love and friendship blossomed until a relationship between mother and daughter was formed.

My children were mine, and yet she felt they were hers. I should have fought with her; I should have shown her it was I who was really their mother. Yet I couldn’t and knew it was the right way to share the title with her; my kids complied, and she became a second mother.

It was a look; it was a whisper that he said to me: “My, mother would be so proud that I found you.” He was an only child from a world so different, a country so different, and yet as we stood together, we knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. I realized that it was so right that I was getting married to him, but as with most only-child families, I was also going to be marrying his mom. I prepared myself for the fun times and the not-so-fun times, because in an only-child family when you get married, you also marry one’s mother-in-law.

Finally,  this molding between my mother-in-law and me happened. It was regardless of our differences: it was no matter the long discussions, different attitudes, different outlooks, and even different viewpoints on life. Learning to respect one another saved us from fundamental problems, and there were only ever little nicks and tears at a strong steady foundation.

When I was engaged my husband used to joke that “One should be happy even though one’s happy.” It was this idea of capturing lightning in a bottle, true happiness, and never letting it go. It was this sense of realizing that my mother-in-law and I would always be connected, and strangely  I couldn’t wait to see her daily.

I always hear the words, “Who’s the mother, and who’s the daughter?” It is as if to say that she is the mother of us all. When that happens, when those strong words are said, I usually just laugh with her, but sometimes the idea makes me feel very relaxed and happy to know how much she cares about all of us.

There could be disagreements with a mother and daughter, let alone with a Jewish Russian mother-in-law to her very American New York daughter-in-law. Although we have a few scattered moments, moments of not being on the same page but the overall painting, the overall portrait with her is peace. This connection, this silence, and this mutual understanding between us two acts as a stepping stone.  Then nothing can ever tear away a mother from her daughter and a daughter from her mother.

When it would be those summer months and most of the business of the Chabad house and home life quieted down, then a new summer life would always begin. I was taking the kids to camp and needed to stay in her house; some of the children would cry, and it resulted in very long nights. My husband always wanted to stay at his post, to be one of the older Shluchim, emissaries who never would leave their post for anything, which meant camp too, and therefore I had to go alone.

She would come and always be a part of it with me. She would take a baby in her hand, and I would have a baby in mine, and we would be talking as I would be putting the children to sleep. She would always make it so personal and so caring. With her actions I felt that this is not just my burden alone to bear, but also hers.

I remember the first time that I had to go to camp alone, and I would be alone with my mother-in-law alone with the children. Our views are so different: in her view, my children needed to be a doctor, a typical Jewish mother’s approach to life.

Her question to me was, “Is your child going to be a doctor? You have seven sons. What profession will they have?”

However, in my mind the only job for them is a rabbi: I want them all to be rabbis. I wouldn’t dare say these words out loud knowing that we would be staying together, and I alone without my husband.

What would we do or say to each other? Can we do it? Could we make it? Most people couldn’t handle a night in their mother-in-law’s house let alone a month alone by themselves.

Yet here we were cooking together before sunrise, a beautiful yiddishe Russian breakfast for the children. Each dinner was a meal fit for a king, and each lunch was prepared for camp that was piled so high with so many snacks and drinks that the kids became heavy to lift up.

One day the kids told us, “It’s enough! We can’t have this much food, the huge breakfast, hot lunches, and a million snacks it is hard to run around.” These words made us both blush but didn’t persuade us from continuing our traditions to be yiddishe mama’s and push that much harder to fuss over them as if each one was an only child.

Well, it shocked me and surprised me that I enjoyed and missed being in there, and loved going to her in the summertime, even if it meant trying to squeeze all of the kids and myself into a three-bedroom house. However, each summer we all did it: loved it, treasured it, and cherished it, and I  couldn’t wait to go back again.

There were always these silly superstitions, that one was supposed to wear a metal safety pin before the children could see anyone, or if one hurt their nose, then they placed a hot hardboiled egg on it or a potato on your foot. It was all the silly things that came with Jewish Russian superstitions.

The thing that I always think of most is that she is this Jewish mother hen that would come flying when anyone needed anything. She would always run to us and give us a snack or a drink. It felt like we were kings and queens: no one should move or even get up. Why? My mother-in-law was coming, and she will serve you.

“This is such a beautiful concept.” I found myself thinking, “Oh, I would never be like that, no way! I’m an American girl.” Yet, after over fifteen years of marriage, I find myself running to each little thing that my kids need or want. I’ve become this Jewish, old-country-style mother and know my kids wouldn’t have it any other way.

This unconditional love that was shown to me in those long summer months, the love that was and is always shown, is why it awoke within me to be so caring and loving towards complete strangers that need my help as a Chabad Rebbitzin.

I loved it when she would teach me something new. A Russian dish from over a century ago would magically show up in the frying pan. It was this connection that we showered each other with that became overflowing and unnatural, but it suited us well. We always found ourselves in the kitchen cooking together; we then enjoyed laughing and whispering in the woman’s domain, passing over boundaries, making the impossible possible.

In my role as a Chabad Rebbitzin, if a person needs me to be one’s mother, to be one’s friend, to be their daughter, granddaughter, or whatever role that person is needing of me to be, I try to be. Whatever they are needing of me at the time, I try to meet them that way, and this is because of her. It is her care and kindness that illuminates my shy soul to reach out towards others.

I remember how my mother-in-law always wanted me to be  a movie star, a career girl, and then she would give me this look  and say, “You’re so smart and so pretty, are you just going to be the rabbi’s wife?”

I would tell her, “I am a rebbitzin, this is my job, and this is who I want to be.” Even though she heard these words many times, I always felt she thought that she knew better and always tried to persuade me to take a different direction in my life.

I’ve always noticed that I  could never keep up with her because she is always fifty steps ahead. We had two completely different styles of living: I like to teach and sit with my kids all day, but whatever she is doing she is always moving. It was like the chair and she barely became acquainted with each other.

She always was thinking of how to make our life nicer, and I find that I can never keep up with her in any way. I enjoy it! As surprising as that might seem. I enjoy the challenge of looking up to her and appreciating new things that I can learn.

It was abnormal, and some would think strange, this closeness between my mother-in-law and me. It was each good time and each difficult time that she would pop in our house or we would pop in hers, I would feel this sense of being home and feeling happy.

She recently moved to our Shlichus town and already comes to my house twice a week. However, I always feel so privileged and wonder if she will come a third time in the week, and this is what it means to me to be family.

About the Author
Born in New York state into a family on Shlichus, Esther was formally trained in Chabad institutions in America and Canada as an educator and community leader with the lifelong goal of helping an under-served Jewish populace. She and her husband, along with their children, have been serving the local community, as well as the Northeast Wisconsin region, for over a decade, providing for any and all needs of everyone's personal journey with G-d.
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