Esther Feinstein

The Teenage Daughter I Never Had

Words from the heart penetrate the heart

It was a few years after her absence, but my heart couldn’t stop thinking of her and where she was going. I wished that I could go back in my memories, replace the wrong word for the right one, and keep showing this young lady that I cared.

I might have been her rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), and she, my congregant, but to her, I was her older friend who came running when she was in need, and to me, she was the teenage daughter that I never had.

As with most mothers and daughters’ arguments, there is this battle of which direction she should take or how she should steer herself, and I felt many times like most teenage mothers: completely emotionally drained.

I wanted to help her with life, family, marriage, and peace of mind. I remember scribbling up lists for her and her husband to do equal chores to share and hoping with bated breath that some good will come of it.

I was worried about her marriage and tired of her husband sleeping on our couch and no solution in sight. I gently tried to explain this to her in our weekly get-togethers, but it seemed that she was only half-listening. Instead, she would fantasize about being free of all responsibility.

It was because of this concern that a deep fear grabbed me as I watched her knee-deep in a shakier marriage that sunk with each argument about freedom from responsibility.

The mother within me kept popping out each week in our discussions like an over-eager jack-in-the-box that I forced to calm. I tried to show her and explain that compromising and being fully committed is the greatest gift to contribute to the hardest job of all: being a wife and a mother.

Our conversations seemed to go in circles and circles, leaving us both frustrated with no real outcome. Each quality conversation ended where she seemed to smile and nod but kept going back to her questions. Why should one stay married, and why is being a mother important?

I felt like most days that I was tap dancing in front of an audience, but my shoes didn’t line up to the beat, and instead, I had acquired a double left foot. My mind found no peace, and I worried about my adopted daughter constantly. I probably worried way more than I needed to, but we know this struggle to the Yiddish mama all too well.

My mind would race laps around itself, trying to come up with practical solutions, but the harder I tried, the farther away the answers felt. I, knowing of her battle with G-d, knowing of her abhorrence to motherhood, and knowing of her feelings of being cheated of her teenage youth, that my eyes finally opened to see what she really sought.

She came from her country only 20 years old with two children and all the hardships and physical discomforts of living in the Frozen Tundra. It seemed before she even settled in that every argument from her side was made not to have to be a caring mother, wife, daughter, and friend. She threw the towel in way before the time, and it became apparent to me that even friendship can take its toll on the one who is overwhelmed.

It seemed that she really wanted the break from responsibility, even if there was a price to pay. All of her complaints about G-d were emotionally motivated. All she really needed was a good friend, a friend who cared unconditionally, who would ask a few questions and be in a free relationship where no effort from her side was required.

I was sitting quietly on my couch after a long Friday afternoon and finally acquiesced to my feet’s desire to rest. I was sending out “Shabbat Shalom’s” and began to feel self-pity. Sometimes, my personal good Shabbos messages glanced over and unanswered. It felt like I didn’t exist, and no one could be bothered to respond.

I quickly checked my phone and saw a new response; it was from her — a young woman who moved back to Israel and felt conflicted about a woman’s role in Judaism. It was her battle within to see if there really was a G-d.

I held my breath, unsure how I could help her, as I looked down at her note. Yet, instead of needing my help, she was messaging me with beautiful words, kind words, and caring words that were words of the soul.

She had written to me in her note that I had changed her life, and she was not ready yet to be more observant but was open to maybe, someday, starting slowly sooner rather than later.

However, her most personal words touched me as a reluctant daughter, writing to an adopted mother. She said she was grateful for my kindness and our long back-and-forth discussions. She then wrote words that for anyone can be difficult to write but for her impossible, but there they were: She always loved me as her friend from the very beginning.

It might sound silly to the outsider and perhaps lost in translation to the newcomer, but our friendship, and the many sacrifices that I’ve given to help her and her family, made those words golden words. They were words that grew wings and danced as butterflies do to the trained toddler’s eye.

She continued to write that my kindness towards others forced her to get in touch with her own kindness, which was hard for her to do because she didn’t have a lot growing up. Regardless, she decided that helping out more people was something she had to explore. Her message was truly uplifting for me, and I felt that I finally made an impression and fulfilled the dream that shluchim (emissaries) are meant to fulfill.

I remember sitting with her in my dining room. She was at one side of the table, and I at the other. I foolishly believed I could make a difference to convince her logically that Torah is true and G-d exists.

As much as she argued from a logical standpoint, like all atheists, it was emotionally motivated. Then it dawned on me that this was the reality to all her questions and confrontations with me; it was all because of her grief and ups and downs in life. The decision to stand with G-d and her religion was a huge step, especially for her growing up observant and not having her many questions answered.

I asked her once if she didn’t believe in G-d, then why celebrate holidays? She replied, “Well, life and our culture are part of the holidays, and I want my daughters to have them in their life.”

I continued, “So you want your little girls to be observant and keep Shabbat, correct?”
“No,” she replied. “Not at all. That is not what I’m saying. Only if my daughters decide to.”

“I see,” I said. “So college and school is mandatory, but their life as a Jew is just only if they decide?”

“Correct,” she said to me. “Their religion is only mandatory if they want it, but school is necessary because they need to get their degree.”

Standing before me, a daughter of Sarah, Rivka, Rochel, and Leah; besides, she grew up frum (observant in the faith). How can I convince her not to give up on G-d or her people?

I realized, for now, after two years of learning with her, very little progress was made, or so I thought. Perhaps, I should alter my approach. I clearly needed just to be her friend instead of her adopted mother.

It happens to many; many times, one wants to help people, and a different hat needs to be placed on one’s head – a mother, a sister, a friend, and a confidant. It’s tricky which hat we wear at the right moment.

So, whenever I was needed, I came running, and time continued to slide by, and her beautiful little Jewish daughters went to the local goyish (non-Jewish) school. The happy part of this terrible decision was she agreed to send her daughters to Hebrew School each week to gain some of their heritage about Judaism.

One day, her younger daughter came crying to me and asked me to draw her the cross. I said, “Leah, you’re Jewish, and a Star of David is what Jewish people draw when they’re sad. Can I draw you a Star of David?”

“No, No. Please, Morah (teacher), draw me the cross. My teachers always draw it for me when I’m sad.”

I had to turn away and force myself not to cry. I then started to draw a few hearts, and then she wanted more hearts and even asked for the Star of David. I then began davening (praying) with the group, and she sang along and clapped her hands to songs she knew so well.

I might have won that day, but I knew this battle was one of many, and perhaps, I might lose the ultimate war with my adopted daughter. I didn’t want to think about her girls marrying out of our faith. So, I tried to keep my mind busy with other things.

After some time, we bumped into our conversation again. Does Hashem (G-d) exist? As she joined our cooking class to help us cook for Shabbos. Education came up, and she adamantly refused to send her daughters to a Jewish school and told me outright that they can have non-Jewish boyfriends if they wanted, as long as they were happy. I tried to explain the outcome of intermarriage and how both sides become hurt and confused, but to no avail.

She was like a burning fire refusing to be appeased. I closed my mouth and made sure I was focused only on my cooking. Sometimes, silence is the strongest of words. Pictures and pictures filled an album of solutions, but my mind was turned off, and I continued to help the rest of the ladies.

A few more years had passed since our attempt to reignite the discussion, for me to at least try to argue the case for her and her kids to stay frum, but the chance never came. It was a hectic time for us, and she announced to me that she is going to Israel for a few months, and we should get together.

I was so excited to host her and her family and decided on a good old BBQ. We said our hellos, and she started helping me with the salads and fruit. She began with her usual questions and derogatory remarks about Torah and being frum.

I changed the topic and asked her about her plans. We were interrupted by the call that all the food is ready. We sat down together with our kids entertaining us–from wild screams to cute Jewish songs and a thousand questions about the Parsha (weekly Torah portion). It was finally time to go, and we ended off with a bang of fireworks.

I said my goodbyes and went to start cleaning up. Suddenly, she rushed into my house and hugged me tight– she, who never hugs or shows much affection to anyone. It blew me away; she began choking up, crying, and telling me that she would miss me so much. I said that I would miss her, but we will see her in a few months.

She then said, “You don’t understand. I’m not coming back to America ever again. I’m leaving for good. My older daughter needs a special school, and my younger daughter can’t stay here by herself even with my husband, who will join us later. Instead, I will take them both, and they will come to learn Torah with me in Israel.” I looked at her as if she fell off the moon or I was in an alternate universe.

She said that she would keep in touch, and she was happy that I pushed her to get herself a degree to work in Israel. Now, this time I had tears in my eyes. She was changing so slowly that she didn’t even realize it. I vowed to stay in touch and slowly walked her back to her car. As they drove away, I wondered for the first time what changes really lay ahead for them.

The words on the screen spoke volumes of her mindset and where she is really headed. She is growing up, and her kids are slowly becoming more observant in their faith. She is lagging only a few feet behind them and is catching up quickly. A few more turns and I will allow myself to remove my mother hat more often and replace it with just a caring friend.

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. Her recently released book - "The Lamplighter: Experiences of a Chabad Rebbitzin" - chronicles these experiences and is available for purchase through Mosaica Press at