We had a death in the family last month, and we are all full of sorrow. Strictly speaking, Barry Weinstein was not a member of my family. He was my son-in-law’s father, connected to my husband and me only through our daughter’s marriage. But that “only” speaks volumes. Once a marriage takes place, the couple’s parents share things with each other that they don’t share with anyone else, including their closest friends. With Barry Weinstein and his wife Anita we shared concern for the happiness of our daughter and their son, and a love for each of those grown children and both of them together in a way nobody else could. And when the grandchildren came, of course, we shared our adoration, devotion and pride in them.
My husband and I didn’t see the in-laws very often, because they had made their home out of town, but when we did, we were never at a loss for what to speak about: our family.
Barry’s death and our connectedness to him led me to think in general about the intricacies of family life, those mysterious ties that might shackle us on the one hand or, on the other, support us when we would otherwise fall. Often the worst problems people face center on their families. My husband and daughter, both psychiatrists, daily treat patients suffering because of a destructive father, an overbearing mother, a jealous sibling, a demanding husband or wife. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest works get their power from the complexities of family relationships. “King Lear,” which I saw at the Armory this summer, ripped my heart out with its tragic father and daughter. Even the comedy, “As You Like It,” which played in Central Park, featured brothers mistreating each other.
There is no mystery to difficult family interactions, given our human frailties — our jealousies, ambitions, or self-centeredness. But given those frailties, the mystery lies in how often family life works well, and how it has sustained society for thousands of years. And the mystery lies in our ability to extend the intimacy and warmth of family feelings to others, outside the immediate family. Two terrible events happened on the day Barry Weinstein was buried. Eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky was kidnapped, to be found brutally murdered soon after, and a fire devoured much of Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ), the Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper East Side. Thousands of people all over the world prayed for Leiby’s safe return, and felt devastated when his murder and its gruesome details became known. In the Jewish community, hundreds grieved also over the destruction in the KJ synagogue, not a tragedy like the little boy’s death, but a staggering blow nonetheless. Even people who had never stepped foot in that synagogue felt pained, as if a part of them had gone up in flames along with the building’s walls.
In a gracious statement released to the public, Leiby Kletzky’s parents thanked their community and the public everywhere for proffering support to them during their ordeal. “We feel that through Leiby we’ve become family with you all,” they said. People had demonstrated the highest ideals of the family in responding to the kidnapping and death of a child only a few knew. The same could be said about the reaction to the synagogue burning.
The Bible, that sourcebook of sibling rivalry and questionable father-son relationships, gives us at least three examples of extra-family ties that may be tighter than ordinary family ones. The loving friendship of David and Jonathan outweighs Jonathan’s loyalty to his father, Saul. Ruth gives up her home and family to follow her mother-in-law Naomi to a foreign land with a foreign people whose God she will worship. And Moses trusts his Midianite father-in-law Yitro to such an extent that he accepts Yitro’s guidance in organizing Israel’s judicial system.
To be sure, the family has changed so much in recent years that defining it altogether has become near impossible. Along with the basic nuclear family of mother, father and child, we now have surrogate mothers and sperm-donor fathers, gay couples adopting children, single women bearing them, and growing numbers of step-brothers and sisters, as couples divorce and remarry. There may be several sets of in-laws and grandparents in remarried families, and they, too, have to work out their relationships.
We had a simple relationship with our son-in-law’s father. This year, he and Anita had dinner with us on Shabbat eve before our granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. We spoke for several hours afterward, nothing special, just talk about the kids and the excitement of the event. But it was the kind of talk only the four of us could have, because only we shared those children and grandchildren. No, Barry Weinstein was not a blood relative, but he was family, and he will be missed.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”