I was too emotional to talk about it before now but I wanted to tell you that when I was there with you, I had so much nachas from seeing you in your element – with your family, in your beautiful house, as a mom to your terrific kids, in your neighborhood, and with your friends. It made me so happy to see the life that you have built for yourself.”
My younger sister, who became Orthodox just under 10 years ago, called me recently to speak these words to me. They might be the most important things she’s ever said to me. You see, it’s been a long road to this point in time and I’m filled with pride that we’ve arrived at this place but it certainly has not been easy.
You could say that I’ve spent the majority of my adult life trying to navigate my relationship with my sister who is four years my junior. When we were younger, I was the ‘religious’ one – the one my parents was sure to grow up to become a rabbi (I actually applied to rabbinical school and got rejected – that’s a topic for another essay). With an age gap of four years, we were close growing up but always at totally different developmental and life stages. We also fulfilled our roles as older and younger sibling quite well; I was the serious rule-follower and worrier (is anyone reading this who knows me IRL surprised?) and she was the inattentive and goofy boundary-pusher. As we got older, I vividly remember calling my sister at the end of the summer and inquiring what her plans were for the High Holy Days. “Oh, are those soon?” she would inevitably respond. Every. Year.
Fast forward to sometime in early 2008 when she met and started dating a guy. “He’s TOO Jewish,” I remember her saying. “I’m not sure he’s for me.” But, apparently a higher power had other plans and they’ve been happily married now for nine+ years with, קײן עין־הרע, four gorgeous and healthy children. We were joyful for her when she was married within the year, but also in a state of shock.
To say that it was basically a 180-degree change for my sister to become religious is no exaggeration. And to say that it’s been hard for members of our family is an understatement. I don’t want to speak for others but I know that for those of us in my family who believe wholeheartedly in egalitarian Judaism, who don’t keep kosher or keep Shabbat, or who just cannot grasp the desire for religious structure in one’s daily life, these have been challenging waters to navigate in her wake of חזרה לתשובה, her becoming religious.
That’s not to say that our relationship has been irreparably harmed; it’s just that it’s much different than I anticipated it would be in our adult life and it has taken quite a long time to mourn for what is never going to be. For example, my sister and her family will never come here to visit for Passover. Even a visit over Shabbat needs special planning. There have been plenty of tears shed (mostly mine), and frustrations (mostly hers), all of which have been compounded by us living across the country from one another and having young families of our own. So I was understandably both thrilled and anxious when she decided to come here for a visit this summer with her four young kids.
And though we did not have any particularly deep conversations about our lives over the last 10 years (because who has time or energy for that when there are seven kids between you and one of them is inevitably always hungry), something palpable changed in our sister relationship that week in July. She is now planning to come visit every summer. We managed the laws of kashrut and no one starved while she was here! Dear friends in the St. Louis Park eruv hosted them for the entirety of Shabbat. My nephews and niece had an incredible time, visiting all the best Minnesota kid spots like Como Zoo and the lakes and the Science Museum and making a campfire in the backyard and roasting marshmallows and sleeping in a tent (p.s. if you keep kosher, you can even have most of the ICEE flavors at the Science Museum cafeteria! Who knew?!).
When all was said and done, this visit taught me that I could finally stop mourning for what will never be and start celebrating what we have and what is possible. We may never spend another Passover seder together (at least not here – I’m sure she’d welcome us at her house, of course), but we can have the quintessential Minnesota summer experience together. We can help our kids forge important cousin relationships with one another. We can laugh until we cry about totally ridiculous outfits/hairstyles/incidents/family members we remember from our childhood. We can practice Judaism in our own ways and respect one another for our life choices and we can tease one another for who is becoming most like our mother (spoiler alert: it’s her).
I have been to the other side of this relationship and I’m here to tell you that though it may be painful at times, celebrating one another’s choices and being supportive of the person who makes a significant life change is actually liberating. So what if the “rules” (AKA the way I imagined this was supposed to go) no longer apply? The relationship with my one and only sister is way too precious for even this worrier to worry about that.