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Chapter 1 of Cinder-Oy-La: How a Jewish Scapegoat Becomes a Princess

Which Turovs are you?”

Everywhere I go in the holy city of Jerusalem I am asked, from which branch on this celebrated family’s tree did you emerge? My married name conjures towering figures of Orthodox Jewish learning and refined conduct. The Turov dynasty spawned several English-speaking Torah giants in the twentieth century with innumerable descendants devoted to the cause. Hailing from Belarus, where their family combined European culture and erudition with the highest standard of fealty to ancient Jewish law, the Turovs are revered like royalty in the Torah world—which respects lineage.

But I carry an amusing secret. Estelle, the irritable, overbearing mother of George Costanza on the 1990s TV series Seinfeld, more closely resembles my kin. YetEstelle Costanza was much more benign than my mother was.

As fate would have it, my mother happened to have borderline personality disorder and narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders. But she didn’t come shrink-wrapped and labelled. Nor did we get her at a discount. In fact, I only found out about her diagnoses as a grown woman when the scars she had left on me could no longer be ignored. Clinical depression is like that. When one falls apart at the picnic because the roasted hotdog fell on its way to the bun and lies in the dirt—when this releases a torrent of tears and self-recrimination of the kind Stalin doesn’t deserve to suffer—one comes to the attention of a psychiatrist. That’s what happened to me when I was eighteen and a freshman at an Ivy League university.

Until then, I suffered. But I didn’t take it lying down. I fought as though my life depended on it.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fighting with my mother. My earliest, vaguest memories are of violence accompanying my decision to wear the green playsuit rather than the pink one she had laid out for me.

My mother was indeed a pushy woman. When she picked me up from a friend’s home, she would blow the car horn nonstop until I came out the front door, deafening wildlife within miles. When we ate in restaurants, she would inevitably request menu substitutions.

“I’d like a beverage instead of my second vegetable—a coffee, please.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, we can’t do that. You can have applesauce, peas and carrots, or corn.”

“I’ll have a hot tea, then.”

“Ma’am, we don’t substitute beverages for vegetables.”

“Well, I suggest you tell the manager that he ought to allow menu substitutions. I’m on a special diet for diabetics, and I can’t eat too many vegetables.”

Cringing behind my menu, I knew what was coming next.

“Did you know that my daughter got a 96 on her math test in school last Friday?”

I copied the answers from Peggy Calhoun, I thought to myself—tell him that too, okay?

“That’s very nice.”

“She’s a very good student.”

“That’s very nice.”

“She was reading before she was walking.”

“How nice. I’ll bet she ate her vegetables.”

Growing up with Evelyn Portnoy for a mother was like walking around with a thumbtack in my shoe.

My mother knew what her assets were and how to accentuate them. My name is Evelyn Portnoy, and I’d like you to meet my décolletage. After work, she usually wore dyed skinny jeans on her short, stacked frame, with high-heeled pumps. Her hair and lips sported a matching shade of atomic tangerine, her cropped hair the texture of Rumpelstiltskin’s straw from too many trips to the beauty parlor. Encrusted with chunky gold rings as big as brass knuckles, her small hands were transformed into prizefighter’s fists.

A high school star who married at eighteen, my mother dedicated herself to the most conventional path to glory open to women of her 1950s generation: vicarious accomplishment through her husband and children. Convinced that doctors were an uber-race of demigods—holding the key to life and death in their hands—she determined that her children would gain admission to this exalted sect, intoxicated by their power. She uttered the words residency, internship, and fellowship many, many times a day with the holy reverence due a biblical hymn.

With a twelfth-grade diploma and mere secretarial skills, my powerless mother waged her power over us with uncompromising control. Driven by an emptiness too vast to fill, she would crush us like candy between her teeth for failing to gratify her outsized ambitions. Promised paradise or threatened with annihilation—depending on whether I acquiesced to her desperate fantasies—I would come downstairs in the morning and lay my head on the vinyl placemat, listening to the whoosh of the kitchen faucet with an already quickened heartbeat, knowing that at any moment, my mother’s harsh voice would summon me to a new day.

Nevertheless, I credit my mother with the birth of my scruples. As early as I could remember, I recoiled from her contemptuous slurs against African Americans and Gentiles. I shrank from her obsession with money and her worship of doctors, who epitomized the social prestige she craved. She was the caricature of the Jewish mother. With her greed so naked, I had no choice but to embrace the opposite values.

We drew battle lines early: I shaped my identity in a firing kiln. My social-climbing mother gave birth to an artsy, bohemian daughter determined to bring compassion to Madonna’s material world. Born with a surfeit of conscience, I remember crusading as a tot through my grandparents’ littered Roxbury, Boston neighborhood with a placard taped to a yardstick on which I had scrawled, “Don’t Plute [pollute]!” I won a place in the county newspaper for banding together girls to collect for the SPCA with cat and dog-shaped coin banks, instead of hustling candy at Halloween.

Along the margin of the popular clique, but attractive enough not to be excluded entirely, I made my mark as an early reformer, sticking up for the awkward girls that were picked on. Serving as the resident pincushion for the popular set, I was the perennial victim of the malicious bull sessions of the kind in which fifth-grade girls excel. The two blonde queens would go around the circle of girls sitting Indian style and gleefully roast every member to her face. Only my turn was distinguished by an added ritual: they would repeat my nickname over and over, shaking their heads disdainfully, “Miri, Miri, Miri, Miri,” as though they just couldn’t stomach reciting my shortcomings. Then they would declare me the source of the resurgence of childhood polio.

Forsaking my mother’s dreams of a B’nai B’rith Girls’ princess—complete with a surgical nose and frosted hair—I defied even my generation and became a feminist-socialist-Zionist, clad in blue work shirt and Wallabees, long after it was fashionable. Alone on a Habonimsummer camp stage at fourteen, I strummed Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” and John Prine’s “Hello in There” on my guitar—mournful, cathartic folksongs—to an audience much more interested in adolescent debauchery than I was.

Habonim Dror—in English, “the builders of freedom”—was a group founded in 1929 by European Jewish Marxist Zionists. We were dedicated to purging society of everything hypocritical and bourgeois, and to establishing a utopian socialist society modeled after the Israeli kibbutz. We championed the ideals of the American sixties—which I considered myself fortunate to be touched by, despite coming of age a decade too late. Needless to say, my participation in Habonim was nothing less than vexing to my mother, for whom the term social justice meant eugenics.

Owing to the increasing tension at home, I suffered debilitating insomnia in junior high school. I would lie awake from midnight until morning, sleeping only for a few hours after school each day. On the less stressful weekends, I took special joy in sleeping until ten in the morning. Faced with my conscientious objection to her daughter-improvement program, my mother deployed more subtle tactics to induce my submission.

Her favorite maneuver was to charge through my door at seven o’clock on Saturdays, snap up my window shade in a cacophony of noise, and yell, “RISE AND SHINE, MIRANDA! TIME TO WAKE UP! THE WHOLE DAY IS ALMOST OVER!” If I failed to open my eyes, she would throw back the blanket and slap the bottoms of my bare feet. Next, she would blast the radio—shattering my dreams of a world without mothers with ear-splitting WBZ news.

When I would oversleep during the week and miss the school bus, we would ride to school in frenzied silence, my mother tapping her inch-long, pink plastic fingernails on the steering wheel—TAP! TAP! TAP! TAP! TAP!—inhaling and exhaling so loudly and forcefully, I feared the dashboard would catch fire.

At about age ten, I became acquainted with my older brother’s best friend, Shawn Dougherty. Shawn was a gentle, sweet guy eight years older than I was who lived across the street and occasionally gave me guitar lessons. He knew—as did the whole neighborhood—that my mother tormented my brother Richard and me, and he sensed that beneath my withdrawn shyness, I was very unhappy. If Richard wasn’t home when he stopped by, Shawn would convey a big-brotherly sympathy in the few words we spoke.

By the time I was twelve, I was passionately infatuated. As is typical of twelve-year-olds, however, I became increasingly dumbstruck in his presence and hid in my room whenever he came over. I confessed my feelings only in a notebook I stashed among old magazines and schoolbooks in a box on my closet shelf. In that notebook, I sketched out elaborate fantasies of the day during a guitar lesson when Shawn’s eyes would get misty, he would lean close, take the guitar from my hands, and whisper, “I want you, Miranda,” and give me a warm, juicy kiss.

My mother, however, detested Shawn: He wasn’t Jewish. He wasn’t going to be a plastic surgeon. He was a dangerous influence on my brother and me.

When I was fourteen, we moved away, and Shawn and my brother drifted apart. I rarely saw Shawn anymore. Yet I still thought of him, trying to accelerate my growth so he would no longer be too old for me.

One day, at fifteen, I was sitting in my mother’s room, talking animatedly on the phone with my friend Julie. Fiddling absentmindedly with the phonebook on her night table, I knocked some papers tucked between the pages onto the floor. Retrieving the material, I immediately recognized my own handwriting. I felt the blood surge to my face as a siren blasted off between my ears. The pages were photocopies of my fantasies about Shawn Dougherty, clipped to an envelope addressed to him.

I was mortified: my shock, humiliation, and utter fury at the invasion of my privacy were so overwhelming that I flew out of the apartment and ran over three miles, propelled by pure emotional energy. Julie—who lived upstairs in the apartment building—followed me to the high school football field. She sat with me while I vented hours of unrelenting tears in an outpouring of shame.

My mother, when confronted with this violation, merely inverted the truth: she blamed me for being secretive. “I have every right to determine with whom you associate, by whatever means you force me to use,” she accused. I could only presume she was sending a letter along with my diary musings, threatening an indifferent, unaware, and astonished Shawn Dougherty to keep away from me. I felt my sense of control over my life and welfare completely dissolve in the face of my mother’s intransigence. During my entire childhood and adolescence, I never heard her say the words “I’m sorry.”

Before long, my overactive conscience, initially occupied with righting the wrongs outside my family, turned inward upon saving myself and my father and brother from the corrosive force in our own home. I fell instinctively into the role of my older brother’s savior and my parents’ therapist—trying to preserve harmony and promote détente between the ever-shifting factions. Here and there, I abandoned diplomacy to double as a pint-sized bouncer, breaking up my parents’ brawls.

In the early years, my father and I forged a subversive alliance against my mother; we both needed protection. Berating him mercilessly for his weaknesses—whether social, financial, or sartorial—she goaded him to defend his fractured masculinity.

In one moment’s lapse in her vigilance, my mother offered a compliment of my father, which I forever cherished: in contrast to her friends in their role-segregated early 1960s marriages, she never had to press her husband to spend time with his children. In childhood, my father was my hero, releasing me from detention at the kitchen table by inviting me to unload my soggy unfinished peas onto his plate while my mother was behind the refrigerator door. I remember him reading to me as a child and teaching me to ride my first two-wheeled Raleigh bike. My father liked little children and pets, creatures who could be both pacified and manipulated by treats and pats on the head. As long as I was naive and worshipful, he was gentle and tender with me.

Yet I remember my father’s red face, wet with tears, his body beaten after a particularly bruising battle with my mother: “Miranda,” he exclaimed, “I just can’t take it anymore.” When he moved out, life got worse, and no less dramatic. Instead of the fights erupting between my parents in our den, my father broke into our house every so often to vent his rage at my mother’s outlandish legal gambits in their bitter divorce. Once he managed to twist the steering wheel of my mother’s car into a pretzel before he even crossed the threshold of the front door. The police knew about the Portnoy family. We aroused the sleepy suburban police of Medway, Massachusetts with the occasional distress call.

Unfairly, in retrospect, I blamed my mother for fostering the estrangement between my father and me. Although my mother would come home several times a week with Loehmann’s shopping bags under each arm and had two walk-in closets stuffed with clothes, purses, and shoes, she never had money for her children’s needs. When I would ask her for milk money or change for a school trip, she would snarl, “I haven’t got it. Ask your ignoramus father—that %$#$&@# hasn’t sent a penny in months!” Every day she would rail about the heinous things my fatherhad done.

My father’s weekly visits provoked scuffles between my mother and me: I would have to wrestle her to get outside to see him, her fists pummeling me while she blocked the door. “Good, go and don’t come back!” she would shout, as I pulled out of her grip. I would wait with trepidation until the end of our visit before sheepishly bleating, “Dad, Mom won’t give me milk money ’cause she says you’re not sending any—is that true?” My father began to treat me like an accomplice and hold me responsible for my mother’s behavior, as she exploited me to do battle on her behalf.

When my mother would become particularly violent, I would call my father for help. He would call the police. After they would summon me to confirm I was still breathing, the police would reprimand me for pitting one parent against the other. (We lived in the suburbs, and parents don’t beat their children in the suburbs.)

However, I came to realize that the idealized savior of my childhood dreams is a much more ambiguous and shadowy figure. My father disappeared from my life in adolescence without a backward glance, only to usher in critical traumas later on. I maintained a stubborn loyalty to my father for longer than he deserved—reluctant as I was to part with comforting illusions. Realizing that flattering my father was the only route to preserving some connection with him, I found his neglect eventually snuffed out what remained of my gratitude.

After building a new life with his second wife, Theresa, my father reappeared for a cameo in my early twenties when he was going through another divorce. He was warm, attentive, and apologetic. After a few congenial phone calls, he asked me for a letter for the judge declaring that he had sent me a sizable monthly sum for support all these years.

“I’ll have more money for you,” he claimed.

“No,” I told him. “I’m not going to lie.”

“C’mon, you never liked Theresa anyway.”

This paper is too pristine to print the language my father hurled at me before hanging up, when his plan to bilk a second wife out of alimony encountered resistance. His new offer to contribute to my college tuition—had I even believed it—would not persuade me. I clung like a leech to morality that was decidedly absent from my upbringing: it was my only insurance that I would not meet my parents’ fate.

As an adult looking back, I once shed a rare tear of self-compassion in utter perplexity: my brother and I were both—by anyone’s objective standards—good kids. We were both bright children; administrators placed us in the academically talented track early in our schooling. I remember proudly marching up the aisle in Hebrew school to claim all six of the honors given out to the first-grade class. As teenagers, we were neither promiscuous nor profane. We managed to sidestep delinquency, drugs, and drink, despite being caught in the crossfire of a hellish divorce. In truth, our parents had reason to be grateful that we displayed strength and self-possession amidst a chaotic family life.

Yet I am struck dumb when I remember my mother’s foul-mouthed tirades, day after day, moment by moment, because I wouldn’t salt my eggs or change into a freakish green lounging robe at dusk, or memorize a medical school anatomy workbook when I was a child longing to finger paint. My mother’s blistering rages, along with my father’s creeping abandonment—so inconsistent with my actual transgressions—left me feeling guilty and bad beyond what I deserved. Faced with the contradiction between my self-image and my parents’ reflection—and the subsequent cognitive dissonance—I leveled the gap by accepting the projection of their sins. A child needs her world to make sense, and her parents to be sane, if she is to feel protected at all in the world.

My mother was whipped about between two forces: a terrifying emptiness and an unparalleled entitlement. I was buffeted between the currents of her mercurial moods, one moment clutched to her chest like a suckling babe, the next receiving the thwack of her hand full force across my face.

When I was a small child, hours after a savage attack, she would come into my darkened room and scoop me up—limp from wailing—and rock me in her arms: “Ah, ah, baybee, ah, ah, baybee,” she’d soothe. My mother’s secret lure was her touch. The tenderness of her hugs and kisses almost made up for the horror that preceded them. Her uncanny ability to switch effortlessly from the most ardent idealization to the most eviscerating demonization left me hurtling like a pinball between withering curses and grasping praise. My mother could careen so impetuously from rage to pathos and back again that in time, I had no choice but to flee from her whirlwind and forfeit the warmth I cherished so much. The misplaced ambition transformed her love into domination, yet she claimed to love me.

Had my mother been solely rejecting and cruel, I might have detached sooner. Instead, I was tempted by her kindness to chase after her love. Daughters of borderlines are driven, like all daughters, by dependency. We cannot forsake our mothers without imperiling ourselves.

A social worker whom I saw as an adolescent explained to me that she had once had a patient whose mother was schizophrenic. Because the patient’s mother was so clearly and incontrovertibly crazy, the daughter adapted by seeking support and succor from others in her life, withdrawing any expectations from her mother. Because my mother had some veneer of sanity and professed to love me in language almost lyrical, I never stopped hoping that one day my plaintive cries would reach her heart and mind. With the spectacle of her adolescent daughter, tears streaming down her cheeks, pleading for mercy from her merciless tirades, she might finally cease her degradation. But the sight of me, reflecting her own powerlessness, only seemed to enrage her further: “Are you finished yet?” she’d demand, refusing to look at me—her crossed leg shaking as fast as a jackhammer—“I haven’t got time to listen to your G-d-d-mn-d psychological bullsh—t!

Her abject lack of compassion, the viciousness with which she shamed and humiliated me, forever stains my memory of her. And the utter denial, the feigned innocence—casting herself as the unappreciated martyr, who lived only for her children’s happiness—is what purges my heart of all sympathy.

A narcissistic borderline’s abuse is different from an average hypercritical parent’s scrutiny. It’s like growing up in a blender with Julia Child on speed. Moments after you perform thoughtful gestures, you’ll be accused of always thinking only of yourself. Innocently mentioning a new acquaintance brings instant accusations that “You only live for her. Only her you love. Heaven forbid you should ever think of your own mother. You wouldn’t care if I drove off a bridge. Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll drive off a bridge. Then you’ll realize what I meant to you. You’ve never appreciated a %@$&%$# thing I ever did for you, but after I’m gone, you’re gonna be sorry!” Remember those Looney Tunes’ cartoons with Elmer Fudd’s face being clobbered from side to side so fast it’s blurry? That’s what it’s like, except you look into the eyes of your tormentor to find yourself, or to find pity and compassion, and you can’t find either and can’t figure out who you are.

My mother once offhandedly mentioned that when I was a young child, I formally petitioned her with a list of demands. First on the list was “my right to be myself.” Although she missed the poignancy in that appeal, I felt vindicated. Learning I had so long contested her oppression confirmed that it was real and not a self-serving fabrication.

To this day, I do not know how I survived the insanity of a mother who regarded normal separation and individuation as a betrayal. Nothing would have made her happier than if I had crawled back into her belly where she could possess me forever. I defined myself in a climate where every autonomous step was an inadvertent declaration of war.

Memories of my mother are plagued by the sound of her shrieking and the image of her lips drawn around pointed teeth tearing into my sensitive soul with a brutal tongue. The daily punches were trivial by comparison. Old enough no longer to be a fool, I would threaten, “If you hit me again, I’m hitting you back.”

Hearing “I’ll smash your face in, you little $%@&#!” as the refrain of my lullaby was especially hard in that my mother had the borderline’s knack for knowing where and with whom to unleash her fury. Being secretly savaged by my mother, while she carried on a thin veneer of normalcy with the rest of the world, meant I was left to wage self-defense unassisted and suffer the self-doubt and guilt that accompany any child who dares to truly battle a parent.

That I resisted the scorn my mother heaped upon me—yet hurled it down upon myself in her absence—would be her pyrrhic victory. Instead of priding herself on having two content and healthy children who were able to separate from her, my mother preferred her children depressed and debilitated if only malleable.

I witnessed this firsthand when I suffered my beloved older brother’s first clinical depression with him, after he dropped out of Syracuse University in his first year. Richard lay on the living room couch in a fetal curl, mumbling about suicide—his greasy hair matted against his forehead by the pillow he clutched for months.

I never saw my mother so alive and so elated. She positively exulted in wishful fantasies. Richard would go back to school to study medicine. He would drop his “cockamamie” friends. He would start dressing like a go-getter. All he had to do was listen to her, and she would chart his path to stardom. “He could have been reconstructing the Boston skyline like Donald Trump by now, instead of painting houses for money, if only he’d listened to me,” she rapturized.

In his pathetic state, my brother couldn’t resist her. He put up no fight. She dressed him and spoon-fed him like a gargantuan infant. That he was unable to bring himself to bathe did not dissuade her.

Finally responding when lithium was added to his third course of antidepressants, Richard got up off that couch to resume his former life. And that’s when she descended upon him in a panic, hissing into his ears all the vile epithets he had muttered about himself for those many months when severe depression distorted his thinking: that’s how desperate she was to restore his lifeless surrender. Few spectacles highlighted her insanity as boldly as this.

Then I did what I always did when faced with my family’s dysfunction. I protected my brother; I defended him and I pleaded helplessly for his mercy. And got abused in the melee, by both of them. But my brother’s real abuse would only come later. At that age, I was still no threat to his ego. I myself was a withdrawn little creature who barely occupied the psychic space of a flea. I was busy every waking moment perpetuating the same relentless self-reproach that would eventually consume me as it consumed my brother.

Some mothers forever remain larger than life. She cast a pall across family borders and down generations. Her only brother, Isaac, would fall into dark, brooding moods whenever my mother crossed his path. Isaac’s wife, Vivienne, once confessed to me in my late twenties—by way of apology for their abandonment—“Miranda, if I had allowed our family to stay in contact with your family, it would have been the end of my marriage.” Because of my mother’s theatrics, we were shunned by relatives, so I had no one to validate my perceptions nor help me shed the shame that I carried for being a bad child and responsible for her rage.

A child of working-class Eastern European Jewish immigrants who sweated for prosperity in the New World, my mother lost her father early in her own marriage, and her mother a few years later. Perpetually lionizing them as paragons of devotion, she claimed to be the product of a perfect harmony. Her pathology belied this fantasy, yet her family’s secrets were buried along with her parents.

My own brother, driven to skepticism and wrung dry of compassion by a mother who played for sympathy too often, became an angry, selfish brute, jealously protecting his meager territory. After a lifetime of coming to his aid, I turned to him once when afflicted with severe gastroenteritis, begging him to bring me some Imodium so I could get myself to the doctor without soiling myself the whole way there. He declared, “Get it yourself—I’m too busy,” and hung up the phone, though he lived only a few blocks away. By the time my roommate returned a few days later and took me to the emergency room, I was admitted for dehydration, seeing stars.

Later, my mother’s newly second but soon-to-be-ex-husband Albert—frustrated by my refusal to cocreate the happy family illusion with him—exploded at me, “You’re just like your mother. She pretends to be so loving and inviting, but try to get close to her on a Friday night and she just pushes you away. She wants you to crawl.”

My uncle, my father, my brother, Albert—anyone who came into my mother’s orbit—was so traumatized as to punish me because they couldn’t punish her.

What does a good girl do—full of normal, filial feelings—in quarantine with a feral mother? No matter how she protests, she blames herself. My utter inability to penetrate the heart of this primitive creature left me feeling helpless and exquisitely inadequate.

Instinctively, I chose gentleness in a bid not to become like the woman who raised me. Yet her abuse left its mark. Increasingly fearful of criticism from teachers—expecting from all subsequent authority my mother’s persecution—I performed poorly, though I was believed to be gifted. My mother’s excessive pressure for me to perform put me at odds with my own ambition: To achieve was to gratify this insatiable tyrant. To fail was to vindicate her derision, restoring her place of authority and the natural order.

Two incidents emerge from the blur of my final year under my mother’s roof. Not having her talent for the pointed and cruel, I meekly defended myself with “I hate you” when my mother would tear into me, to which she would respond, “I hate you, too!” But once, I said something nasty—I can’t even remember what it was, though it was richly deserved, whatever it was. My mother spun around, yanked open a kitchen drawer, and the next thing I knew, she was brandishing a steak knife at me with venom in her eyes. Not knowing what to do, I flung the glass of milk I was holding into her face. She stood there, mouth agape, with milk dripping into her cleavage. For once, I had rendered her speechless.

The night before my college entrance exams, I went to the movies with my friend Julie. Carelessly forgetting the train schedule, we found ourselves stranded without a way home. I called my mother, who refused to pick us up, in pique. Arriving home tired, despondent after a two-hour walk, and anxious about the next morning’s exam, I found an unwelcome surprise: my bedroom door refused to give way. Forcing it open, I found my room a shambles. In front of me lay devastation wreaked by a human hurricane. Drawers were overturned and shelves spilled in an exhausted heap: books, papers, clothes, records, pictures torn from the walls. I stared in horror at my mother’s misguided vengeance on her own child. My anger swelled impotently—I knew how useless it was. Good luck on your SATs, Miranda!

By the grace of my then unacknowledged God, I was offered the chance to spend my senior year in high school living and working on an Israeli kibbutz, in culmination of my years in the Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror. Given permission to graduate high school a year early in order to do so—on condition that I pass two English classes at a university before my departure—I seized the opportunity to flee what would have become my asylum.

I remember the morning of my flight, banging on my mother’s bedroom door, begging her to open it so I could say goodbye with a hug and a kiss. I was just sixteen. No matter how we fought, she was my mother and I was her only daughter. But she refused, tearfully cursing me for leaving from the other side of the door…until the last calculating moment.

The feelings lingering for my mother ran all the way from intense hatred to bitter dislike. Like a barren scarecrow, I was filled with straw where feelings should be. The six thousand miles between us would not be far enough.W

Q & A with author of Cain V. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, Dan Ornstein

1.       Why did you write this book?

I wrote this book because I firmly believe that the Cain and Abel story has indispensable moral messages for our violence and hatred plagued planet.  It is a foundational story of the human experience, and I wanted to convey its power to a modern audience.   

 2.       How is the Biblical story of Cain & Abel story relevant in 2021?

As I write in the book, we humans with our big brains have never been able to do more damage to each other and to the planet than we can do currently.  For all our technological sophistication, morally we still too often miss the mark when it comes to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Rather than lecture us about the imperative to do good, the story of Cain and Abel draws us into its moral message with an intriguing narrative that inspires us to ask each other new questions and seek new answers about being decent human beings.

3.       Why should a modern reader read this book?

My book uses the dynamic framework of modern courtroom drama and crime stories to look at the world’s first great crime against humanity.  I take a wide variety of explanations and comments from Jewish tradition on the story to make the story – and our application of it – come to life in entirely new ways. 

4.       What will a modern reader gain from the book?

At the very least, a modern reader will find an entertaining and invigorating new way to study and argue about one of the world’s oldest and most famous stories.  At the very most, a modern reader will read my book and be able to act more justly and courageously upon that greatest of lessons found in this story:  we must act as each other’s’ keepers.  

Questions and Answers with Miranda Portnoy

Miranda Portnoy is the author of Making Meaning Out of Madness: A Jewish Journey and Cinder-oy-la! How a Jewish Scapegoat Becomes a Princess, to be released on Nov. 30.

1) Why did you publish essays along with your memoir in Making Meaning Out of Madness: A Jewish Journey?

The essay “Solving the Jewish Mystery” contains a persuasive case for the truth of the Torah, written by and for the non-scholar of Torah. The second essay “Two Orthodox Jews, Three Opinions” reinforces the arguments. These essays are crucial elements of my message; however, I knew that no one would read such pieces by a debut author unless I first captivated them with a story. Therefore, I chose to bare my own journey to Torah, though it sacrificed my dignity, in order to help my fellow Jews realize the truth.

My life is a snapshot if you will of the journey of the Jewish people: get knocked silly, return to my God, receive transcendental blessing. I desperately wanted to both beckon and warn my Jewish brothers and sisters in the West of the danger that lies ahead of pursuing their route of utopianism without God. We have seen it over and over again in history, most recently in the Shoah. By sharing my story, I’m inviting them to follow in my footsteps, for their own good, because I love them.

Sadly, my Jewish brothers and sisters are victims of the worldwide conspiracy to rob the Jewish people of its legacy; they are unwitting partners to this conspiracy, because passively accepting its premises (that there is no God and the Torah is a book of myth) relieves them of responsibility.

I am here to say that self-empowerment comes from embracing the duties of the Covenant and its privileges. Our privileges in this life are primarily personal and spiritual. Poll after poll proves that the Jews who are fulfilling the biblical Covenant are the happiest in the world, no matter their socioeconomic circumstances. There is no greater joy than knowing you are fulfilling your purpose in the world.

Ultimately, this is the route that will protect Jews from anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is just one tool by which God awakens the Jewish people to their identity, destiny, and duty in the world. We ignore these signs of increasing anti-Semitism at our own peril.

 2) Why are you releasing two books based on your memoir?

I wanted the widest possible distribution of my story among the Jewish people. I felt the memoir alone (Cinder-oy-la!) would speak to young women who face tragically diminished choices for the fulfillment of their deepest desires today. Owing to the deterioration of trust between the sexes with the advent of the “hook-up” culture, statistically, most young women can look forward to loneliness and, at best, single-motherhood.

In addition to stimulating careers, most women still want marriage and children, the most durably fulfilling occupations. My story teaches them there is another way to achieve the satisfaction in love and life they are looking for. It involves abandoning the premises and practices of the sexual revolution, and instead, cultivating self-respect, self-restraint, and fidelity to one’s values. These allow one to find that ultimate partner in life with whom to forge a permanent commitment and lasting love.

In Making Meaning Out of Madness: A Jewish Journey, I chose to pair my story with essays to give food for thought to adult Jews of every age. The essays expand the purview of my story to include the most fundamental questions of our era: Is there a God; Are the Jews bound by the biblical Covenant? What is the evidence for these contentions? What puzzling contemporary worldwide political dynamics can be explained by the Jews’ relationship to that eternal Covenant?

3) What drives you to engage in this effort?

I am broken-hearted for most of my fellow Jews who don’t realize that they’re more than muggles. They have the power to heal this troubled world, which is unraveling daily, by starting with themselves. They are the key to turning the whole dynamic around.

They also don’t realize how satisfying and enjoyable it is. Given the time, energy, and money, who wouldn’t want to host a dinner party every week for enjoyment of delicious food, stimulating company, and deep, meaningful talks? Who wouldn’t want to return to an island of peaceful restoration every week, from this dizzyingly disorienting world of ours? Who wouldn’t want to forge closer relationships with his or her loved ones and friends, and have the time and opportunity to do so? That is Shabbat.

Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to receive the wisest guidance for navigating this increasingly treacherous world of ours and enjoy the support, pleasure, and comfort of a personal relationship with a Creator Who forged us in love? And finally, who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to create that utopian world we all long for, within our families, our community, and ourselves? This personal utopia, surprisingly, is what will bring the worldwide peace and harmony my fellow nonobservant Jews are striving to bring with all their hearts.

 4) What was the impetus for starting this project?

As soon as my husband and I became engaged, I felt sure my story would inspire others. My husband is a wonderful man from a prestigious, learned Orthodox family, while I am a product of postmodern secular malaise. My story proves there is a God, because I only merited marrying him for the good that I did in secret, with God as my only witness. That ought to give people hope! None of the good that we do goes unnoticed.

5) What was it like to write down your life story and then see it in print?

Enduring years of disorienting ADD, I gravitated to compulsive note taking to cope. It was gratifying to see those copious notes serve my manuscript, as I carefully reconstructed my history from the records.

As anyone who has weathered serious adversity can tell you, it is sublimely satisfying to be able to help others and prevent the suffering that we ourselves might have experienced. I hope and pray that indeed my story saves others from heartache and pain. I rebuilt myself by writing my memoir and fulfilled what I felt was my duty. That is so rewarding. Moreover, if I succeed in attracting one Jew back to his or her tradition, I will be happy for the rest of my life.

 6) Why are you publishing under a pseudonym?

While I may not be utterly free of bitterness about my past, I do not seek to hurt or get back at the villains in my story, including members of my own family. I treasure my privacy and now, thank God, have children to protect. None of these considerations dissuaded me, however, from honoring my responsibility to my fellow Jew.

When I was first a student of Torah, more than two decades ago, I learned that one interpretation of the commandment to love your fellow Jew as you love yourself (Lev. 19:18) involves helping other Jews achieve the same satisfaction and success in life as we ourselves have achieved. That is, we are required to go out of our way to enable other Jews enjoy our own blessings, whatever they may be. These works are my labor of love for my fellow Jews.

 7) What makes you qualified to teach anyone about Torah if you have no formal credentials?

A good question. I have only my common sense, my passion, and my will to help my fellow Jew. I do seek supervision from those with far greater authority than I have before I assert anything that is not patently obvious from two decades plus of living as a mitzvah-observant Jew in Israel.

There is a Hassidic teaching that when you know “aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and your fellow Jew doesn’t know “aleph,” you must teach “aleph.” I am teaching what I can, to beginners. My website resource page has links for Jewish beginners and intermediates to locate classes given by learned teachers as well as free peer Torah learning partners. Go and learn, and may the whole world open up before you!

Book Excerpt

Chapter 1 of Making Meaning Out of Madness: A Jewish Journey by Miranda Portnoy

Which Turovs are you?”

Everywhere I go in the holy city of Jerusalem I am asked, from which branch on this celebrated family’s tree did you emerge? My married name conjures towering figures of Orthodox Jewish learning and refined conduct. The Turov dynasty spawned several English-speaking Torah giants in the twentieth century with innumerable descendants devoted to the cause. Hailing from Belarus, where their family combined European culture and erudition with the highest standard of fealty to ancient Jewish law, the Turovs are revered like royalty in the Torah world—which respects lineage.

But I carry an amusing secret. Estelle, the irritable, overbearing mother of George Costanza in the 1990s TV series Seinfeld, more closely resembles my kin. YetEstelle Costanza was much more benign than my mother was.

As fate would have it, my mother happened to have borderline personality disorder and narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders. But she didn’t come shrink-wrapped and labeled. Nor did we get her at a discount. In fact, I only found out about her diagnoses as a grown woman when the scars she had left on me could no longer be ignored. Clinical depression is like that. When one falls apart at the picnic because the roasted hotdog fell on its way to the bun and lies in the dirt—when this releases a torrent of tears and self-recrimination of the kind Stalin doesn’t deserve to suffer—one comes to the attention of a psychiatrist. That’s what happened to me when I was eighteen and a freshman at an Ivy League university.

Until then, I suffered. But I didn’t take it lying down. I fought as though my life depended on it.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fighting with my mother. My earliest, vaguest memories are of violence accompanying my decision to wear the green playsuit rather than the pink one she had laid out for me.

My mother was indeed a pushy woman. When she picked me up from a friend’s home, she would blow the car horn nonstop until I came out the front door, deafening wildlife within miles. When we ate in restaurants, she would inevitably request menu substitutions.

“I’d like a beverage instead of my second vegetable—a coffee, please.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, we can’t do that. You can have applesauce, peas and carrots, or corn.”

“I’ll have a hot tea, then.”

“Ma’am, we don’t substitute beverages for vegetables.”

“Well, I suggest you tell the manager that he ought to allow menu substitutions. I’m on a special diet for diabetics, and I can’t eat too many vegetables.”

Cringing behind my menu, I knew what was coming next.

“Did you know that my daughter got a 96 on her math test in school last Friday?”

I copied the answers from Peggy Calhoun, I thought to myself—tell him that too, okay?

“That’s very nice.”

“She’s a very good student.”

“That’s very nice.”

“She was reading before she was walking.”

“How nice. I’ll bet she ate her vegetables.”

Growing up with Evelyn Portnoy for a mother was like walking around with a thumbtack in my shoe.

My mother knew what her assets were and how to accentuate them. My name is Evelyn Portnoy, and I’d like you to meet my décolletage. After work, she usually wore dyed skinny jeans on her short, stacked frame, with high-heeled pumps. Her hair and lips sported a matching shade of atomic tangerine, her cropped hair the texture of Rumpelstiltskin’s straw from too many trips to the beauty parlor. Encrusted with chunky gold rings as big as brass knuckles, her small hands were transformed into prizefighter’s fists.

A high school star who married at eighteen, my mother dedicated herself to the most conventional path to glory open to women of her 1950s generation: vicarious accomplishment through her husband and children. Convinced that doctors were an uber-race of demigods—holding the key to life and death in their hands—she determined that her children would gain admission to this exalted sect, intoxicated by their power. She uttered the words residency, internship, and fellowship many, many times a day with the holy reverence due a biblical hymn.

With a twelfth-grade diploma and mere secretarial skills, my powerless mother waged her power over us with uncompromising control. Driven by an emptiness too vast to fill, she would crush us like candy between her teeth for failing to gratify her outsized ambitions. Promised paradise or threatened with annihilation—depending on whether I acquiesced to her desperate fantasies—I would come downstairs in the morning and lay my head on the vinyl placemat, listening to the whoosh of the kitchen faucet with an already quickened heartbeat, knowing that at any moment, my mother’s harsh voice would summon me to a new day.

Nevertheless, I credit my mother with the birth of my scruples. As early as I could remember, I recoiled from her contemptuous slurs against African Americans and Gentiles. I shrank from her obsession with money and her worship of doctors, who epitomized the social prestige she craved. She was the caricature of the Jewish mother. With her greed so naked, I had no choice but to embrace the opposite values.

We drew battle lines early: I shaped my identity in a firing kiln. My social-climbing mother gave birth to an artsy, bohemian daughter determined to bring compassion to Madonna’s material world. Born with a surfeit of conscience, I remember crusading as a tot through my grandparents’ littered Roxbury, Boston neighborhood with a placard taped to a yardstick on which I had scrawled, “Don’t Plute [pollute]!” I won a place in the county newspaper for banding together girls to collect for the SPCA with cat and dog-shaped coin banks, instead of hustling candy at Halloween.

Along the margin of the popular clique, but attractive enough not to be excluded entirely, I made my mark as an early reformer, sticking up for the awkward girls that were picked on. Serving as the resident pincushion for the popular set, I was the perennial victim of the malicious bull sessions of the kind in which fifth-grade girls excel. The two blonde queens would go around the circle of girls sitting Indian style and gleefully roast every member to her face. Only my turn was distinguished by an added ritual: they would repeat my nickname over and over, shaking their heads disdainfully, “Miri, Miri, Miri, Miri,” as though they just couldn’t stomach reciting my shortcomings. Then they would declare me the source of the resurgence of childhood polio.

Forsaking my mother’s dreams of a B’nai B’rith Girls’ princess—complete with a surgical nose and frosted hair—I defied even my generation and became a feminist-socialist-Zionist, clad in blue work shirt and Wallabees, long after it was fashionable. Alone on a Habonimsummer camp stage at fourteen, I strummed Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” and John Prine’s “Hello in There” on my guitar—mournful, cathartic folksongs—to an audience much more interested in adolescent debauchery than I was.

Habonim Dror—in English, “the builders of freedom”—was a group founded in 1929 by European Jewish Marxist Zionists. We were dedicated to purging society of everything hypocritical and bourgeois, and to establishing a utopian socialist society modeled after the Israeli kibbutz. We championed the ideals of the American sixties—which I considered myself fortunate to be touched by, despite coming of age a decade too late. Needless to say, my participation in Habonim was nothing less than vexing to my mother, for whom the term social justice meant eugenics.

Owing to the increasing tension at home, I suffered debilitating insomnia in junior high school. I would lie awake from midnight until morning, sleeping only for a few hours after school each day. On the less stressful weekends, I took special joy in sleeping until ten in the morning. Faced with my conscientious objection to her daughter-improvement program, my mother deployed more subtle tactics to induce my submission.

Her favorite maneuver was to charge through my door at seven o’clock on Saturdays, snap up my window shade in a cacophony of noise, and yell, “RISE AND SHINE, MIRANDA! TIME TO WAKE UP! THE WHOLE DAY IS ALMOST OVER!” If I failed to open my eyes, she would throw back the blanket and slap the bottoms of my bare feet. Next, she would blast the radio—shattering my dreams of a world without mothers with ear-splitting WBZ news.

When I would oversleep during the week and miss the school bus, we would ride to school in frenzied silence, my mother tapping her inch-long, pink plastic fingernails on the steering wheel—TAP! TAP! TAP! TAP! TAP!—inhaling and exhaling so loudly and forcefully, I feared the dashboard would catch fire.

At about age ten, I became acquainted with my older brother’s best friend, Shawn Dougherty. Shawn was a gentle, sweet guy eight years older than I was who lived across the street and occasionally gave me guitar lessons. He knew—as did the whole neighborhood—that my mother tormented my brother Richard and me, and he sensed that beneath my withdrawn shyness, I was very unhappy. If Richard wasn’t home when he stopped by, Shawn would convey a big-brotherly sympathy in the few words we spoke.

By the time I was twelve, I was passionately infatuated. As is typical of twelve-year-olds, however, I became increasingly dumbstruck in his presence and hid in my room whenever he came over. I confessed my feelings only in a notebook I stashed among old magazines and schoolbooks in a box on my closet shelf. In that notebook, I sketched out elaborate fantasies of the day during a guitar lesson when Shawn’s eyes would get misty, he would lean close, take the guitar from my hands, and whisper, “I want you, Miranda,” and give me a warm, juicy kiss.

My mother, however, detested Shawn: He wasn’t Jewish. He wasn’t going to be a plastic surgeon. He was a dangerous influence on my brother and me.

When I was fourteen, we moved away, and Shawn and my brother drifted apart. I rarely saw Shawn anymore. Yet I still thought of him, trying to accelerate my growth so he would no longer be too old for me.

One day, at fifteen, I was sitting in my mother’s room, talking animatedly on the phone with my friend Julie. Fiddling absentmindedly with the phonebook on her night table, I knocked some papers tucked between the pages onto the floor. Retrieving the material, I immediately recognized my own handwriting. I felt the blood surge to my face as a siren blasted off between my ears. The pages were photocopies of my fantasies about Shawn Dougherty, clipped to an envelope addressed to him.

I was mortified: my shock, humiliation, and utter fury at the invasion of my privacy were so overwhelming that I flew out of the apartment and ran over three miles, propelled by pure emotional energy. Julie—who lived upstairs in the apartment building—followed me to the high school football field. She sat with me while I vented hours of unrelenting tears in an outpouring of shame.

My mother, when confronted with this violation, merely inverted the truth: she blamed me for being secretive. “I have every right to determine with whom you associate, by whatever means you force me to use,” she accused. I could only presume she was sending a letter along with my diary musings, threatening an indifferent, unaware, and astonished Shawn Dougherty to keep away from me. I felt my sense of control over my life and welfare completely dissolve in the face of my mother’s intransigence. During my entire childhood and adolescence, I never heard her say the words “I’m sorry.”

Before long, my overactive conscience, initially occupied with righting the wrongs outside my family, turned inward upon saving myself and my father and brother from the corrosive force in our own home. I fell instinctively into the role of my older brother’s savior and my parents’ therapist—trying to preserve harmony and promote détente between the ever-shifting factions. Here and there, I abandoned diplomacy to double as a pint-sized bouncer, breaking up my parents’ brawls.

In the early years, my father and I forged a subversive alliance against my mother; we both needed protection. Berating him mercilessly for his weaknesses—whether social, financial, or sartorial—she goaded him to defend his fractured masculinity.

In one moment’s lapse in her vigilance, my mother offered a compliment of my father, which I forever cherished: in contrast to her friends in their role-segregated early 1960s marriages, she never had to press her husband to spend time with his children. In childhood, my father was my hero, releasing me from detention at the kitchen table by inviting me to unload my soggy unfinished peas onto his plate while my mother was behind the refrigerator door. I remember him reading to me as a child and teaching me to ride my first two-wheeled Raleigh bike. My father liked little children and pets, creatures who could be both pacified and manipulated by treats and pats on the head. As long as I was naive and worshipful, he was gentle and tender with me.

Yet I remember my father’s red face, wet with tears, his body beaten after a particularly bruising battle with my mother: “Miranda,” he exclaimed, “I just can’t take it anymore.” When he moved out, life got worse, and no less dramatic. Instead of the fights erupting between my parents in our den, my father broke into our house every so often to vent his rage at my mother’s outlandish legal gambits in their bitter divorce. Once he managed to twist the steering wheel of my mother’s car into a pretzel before he even crossed the threshold of the front door. The police knew about the Portnoy family. We aroused the sleepy suburban police of Medway, Massachusetts with the occasional distress call.

Unfairly, in retrospect, I blamed my mother for fostering the estrangement between my father and me. Although my mother would come home several times a week with Loehmann’s shopping bags under each arm and had two walk-in closets stuffed with clothes, purses, and shoes, she never had money for her children’s needs. When I would ask her for milk money or change for a school trip, she would snarl, “I haven’t got it. Ask your ignoramus father—that %$#$&@# hasn’t sent a penny in months!” Every day she would rail about the heinous things my fatherhad done.

My father’s weekly visits provoked scuffles between my mother and me: I would have to wrestle her to get outside to see him, her fists pummeling me while she blocked the door. “Good, go and don’t come back!” she would shout, as I pulled out of her grip. I would wait with trepidation until the end of our visit before sheepishly bleating, “Dad, Mom won’t give me milk money ’cause she says you’re not sending any—is that true?” My father began to treat me like an accomplice and hold me responsible for my mother’s behavior, as she exploited me to do battle on her behalf.

When my mother would become particularly violent, I would call my father for help. He would call the police. After they would summon me to confirm I was still breathing, the police would reprimand me for pitting one parent against the other. (We lived in the suburbs, and parents don’t beat their children in the suburbs.)

However, I came to realize that the idealized savior of my childhood dreams is a much more ambiguous and shadowy figure. My father disappeared from my life in adolescence without a backward glance, only to usher in critical traumas later on. I maintained a stubborn loyalty to my father for longer than he deserved—reluctant as I was to part with comforting illusions. Realizing that flattering my father was the only route to preserving some connection with him, I found his neglect eventually snuffed out what remained of my gratitude.

After building a new life with his second wife, Theresa, my father reappeared for a cameo in my early twenties when he was going through another divorce. He was warm, attentive, and apologetic. After a few congenial phone calls, he asked me for a letter for the judge declaring that he had sent me a sizable monthly sum for support all these years.

“I’ll have more money for you,” he claimed.

“No,” I told him. “I’m not going to lie.”

“C’mon, you never liked Theresa anyway.”

This paper is too pristine to print the language my father hurled at me before hanging up, when his plan to bilk a second wife out of alimony encountered resistance. His new offer to contribute to my college tuition—had I even believed it—would not persuade me. I clung like a leech to morality that was decidedly absent from my upbringing: it was my only insurance that I would not meet my parents’ fate.

As an adult looking back, I once shed a rare tear of self-compassion in utter perplexity: my brother and I were both—by anyone’s objective standards—good kids. We were both bright children; administrators placed us in the academically talented track early in our schooling. I remember proudly marching up the aisle in Hebrew school to claim all six of the honors given out to the first-grade class. As teenagers, we were neither promiscuous nor profane. We managed to sidestep delinquency, drugs, and drink, despite being caught in the crossfire of a hellish divorce. In truth, our parents had reason to be grateful that we displayed strength and self-possession amidst a chaotic family life.

Yet I am struck dumb when I remember my mother’s foul-mouthed tirades, day after day, moment by moment, because I wouldn’t salt my eggs or change into a freakish green lounging robe at dusk, or memorize a medical school anatomy workbook when I was a child longing to finger paint. My mother’s blistering rages, along with my father’s creeping abandonment—so inconsistent with my actual transgressions—left me feeling guilty and bad beyond what I deserved. Faced with the contradiction between my self-image and my parents’ reflection—and the subsequent cognitive dissonance—I leveled the gap by accepting the projection of their sins. A child needs her world to make sense, and her parents to be sane, if she is to feel protected at all in the world.

My mother was whipped about between two forces: a terrifying emptiness and an unparalleled entitlement. I was buffeted between the currents of her mercurial moods, one moment clutched to her chest like a suckling babe, the next receiving the thwack of her hand full force across my face.

When I was a small child, hours after a savage attack, she would come into my darkened room and scoop me up—limp from wailing—and rock me in her arms: “Ah, ah, baybee, ah, ah, baybee,” she’d soothe. My mother’s secret lure was her touch. The tenderness of her hugs and kisses almost made up for the horror that preceded them. Her uncanny ability to switch effortlessly from the most ardent idealization to the most eviscerating demonization left me hurtling like a pinball between withering curses and grasping praise. My mother could careen so impetuously from rage to pathos and back again that in time, I had no choice but to flee from her whirlwind and forfeit the warmth I cherished so much. The misplaced ambition transformed her love into domination, yet she claimed to love me.

Had my mother been solely rejecting and cruel, I might have detached sooner. Instead, I was tempted by her kindness to chase after her love. Daughters of borderlines are driven, like all daughters, by dependency. We cannot forsake our mothers without imperiling ourselves.

A social worker whom I saw as an adolescent explained to me that she had once had a patient whose mother was schizophrenic. Because the patient’s mother was so clearly and incontrovertibly crazy, the daughter adapted by seeking support and succor from others in her life, withdrawing any expectations from her mother. Because my mother had some veneer of sanity and professed to love me in language almost lyrical, I never stopped hoping that one day my plaintive cries would reach her heart and mind. With the spectacle of her adolescent daughter, tears streaming down her cheeks, pleading for mercy from her merciless tirades, she might finally cease her degradation. But the sight of me, reflecting her own powerlessness, only seemed to enrage her further: “Are you finished yet?” she’d demand, refusing to look at me—her crossed leg shaking as fast as a jackhammer—“I haven’t got time to listen to your G-d-d-mn-d psychological bullsh—t!

Her abject lack of compassion, the viciousness with which she shamed and humiliated me, forever stains my memory of her. And the utter denial, the feigned innocence—casting herself as the unappreciated martyr, who lived only for her children’s happiness—is what purges my heart of all sympathy.

A narcissistic borderline’s abuse is different from an average hypercritical parent’s scrutiny. It’s like growing up in a blender with Julia Child on speed. Moments after you perform thoughtful gestures, you’ll be accused of always thinking only of yourself. Innocently mentioning a new acquaintance brings instant accusations that “You only live for her. Only her you love. Heaven forbid you should ever think of your own mother. You wouldn’t care if I drove off a bridge. Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll drive off a bridge. Then you’ll realize what I meant to you. You’ve never appreciated a %@$&%$# thing I ever did for you, but after I’m gone, you’re gonna be sorry!” Remember those Looney Tunes’ cartoons with Elmer Fudd’s face being clobbered from side to side so fast it’s blurry? That’s what it’s like, except you look into the eyes of your tormentor to find yourself, or to find pity and compassion, and you can’t find either and can’t figure out who you are.

My mother once offhandedly mentioned that when I was a young child, I formally petitioned her with a list of demands. First on the list was “my right to be myself.” Although she missed the poignancy in that appeal, I felt vindicated. Learning I had so long contested her oppression confirmed that it was real and not a self-serving fabrication.

To this day, I do not know how I survived the insanity of a mother who regarded normal separation and individuation as a betrayal. Nothing would have made her happier than if I had crawled back into her belly where she could possess me forever. I defined myself in a climate where every autonomous step was an inadvertent declaration of war.

Memories of my mother are plagued by the sound of her shrieking and the image of her lips drawn around pointed teeth tearing into my sensitive soul with a brutal tongue. The daily punches were trivial by comparison. Old enough no longer to be a fool, I would threaten, “If you hit me again, I’m hitting you back.”

Hearing “I’ll smash your face in, you little $%@&#!” as the refrain of my lullaby was especially hard in that my mother had the borderline’s knack for knowing where and with whom to unleash her fury. Being secretly savaged by my mother, while she carried on a thin veneer of normalcy with the rest of the world, meant I was left to wage self-defense unassisted and suffer the self-doubt and guilt that accompany any child who dares to truly battle a parent.

That I resisted the scorn my mother heaped upon me—yet hurled it down upon myself in her absence—would be her pyrrhic victory. Instead of priding herself on having two content and healthy children who were able to separate from her, my mother preferred her children depressed and debilitated if only malleable.

I witnessed this firsthand when I suffered my beloved older brother’s first clinical depression with him, after he dropped out of Syracuse University in his first year. Richard lay on the living room couch in a fetal curl, mumbling about suicide—his greasy hair matted against his forehead by the pillow he clutched for months.

I never saw my mother so alive and so elated. She positively exulted in wishful fantasies. Richard would go back to school to study medicine. He would drop his “cockamamie” friends. He would start dressing like a go-getter. All he had to do was listen to her, and she would chart his path to stardom. “He could have been reconstructing the Boston skyline like Donald Trump by now, instead of painting houses for money, if only he’d listened to me,” she rapturized.

In his pathetic state, my brother couldn’t resist her. He put up no fight. She dressed him and spoon-fed him like a gargantuan infant. That he was unable to bring himself to bathe did not dissuade her.

Finally responding when lithium was added to his third course of antidepressants, Richard got up off that couch to resume his former life. And that’s when she descended upon him in a panic, hissing into his ears all the vile epithets he had muttered about himself for those many months when severe depression distorted his thinking: that’s how desperate she was to restore his lifeless surrender. Few spectacles highlighted her insanity as boldly as this.

Then I did what I always did when faced with my family’s dysfunction. I protected my brother; I defended him and I pleaded helplessly for his mercy. And got abused in the melee, by both of them. But my brother’s real abuse would only come later. At that age, I was still no threat to his ego. I myself was a withdrawn little creature who barely occupied the psychic space of a flea. I was busy every waking moment perpetuating the same relentless self-reproach that would eventually consume me as it consumed my brother.

Some mothers forever remain larger than life. She cast a pall across family borders and down generations. Her only brother, Isaac, would fall into dark, brooding moods whenever my mother crossed his path. Isaac’s wife, Vivienne, once confessed to me in my late twenties—by way of apology for their abandonment—“Miranda, if I had allowed our family to stay in contact with your family, it would have been the end of my marriage.” Because of my mother’s theatrics, we were shunned by relatives, so I had no one to validate my perceptions nor help me shed the shame that I carried for being a bad child and responsible for her rage.

A child of working-class Eastern European Jewish immigrants who sweated for prosperity in the New World, my mother lost her father early in her own marriage, and her mother a few years later. Perpetually lionizing them as paragons of devotion, she claimed to be the product of a perfect harmony. Her pathology belied this fantasy, yet her family’s secrets were buried along with her parents.

My own brother, driven to skepticism and wrung dry of compassion by a mother who played for sympathy too often, became an angry, selfish brute, jealously protecting his meager territory. After a lifetime of coming to his aid, I turned to him once when afflicted with severe gastroenteritis, begging him to bring me some Imodium so I could get myself to the doctor without soiling myself the whole way there. He declared, “Get it yourself—I’m too busy,” and hung up the phone, though he lived only a few blocks away. By the time my roommate returned a few days later and took me to the emergency room, I was admitted for dehydration, seeing stars.

Later, my mother’s newly second but soon-to-be-ex-husband Albert—frustrated by my refusal to cocreate the happy family illusion with him—exploded at me, “You’re just like your mother. She pretends to be so loving and inviting, but try to get close to her on a Friday night and she just pushes you away. She wants you to crawl.”

My uncle, my father, my brother, Albert—anyone who came into my mother’s orbit—was so traumatized as to punish me because they couldn’t punish her.

What does a good girl do—full of normal, filial feelings—in quarantine with a feral mother? No matter how she protests, she blames herself. My utter inability to penetrate the heart of this primitive creature left me feeling helpless and exquisitely inadequate.

Instinctively, I chose gentleness in a bid not to become like the woman who raised me. Yet her abuse left its mark. Increasingly fearful of criticism from teachers—expecting from all subsequent authority my mother’s persecution—I performed poorly, though I was believed to be gifted. My mother’s excessive pressure for me to perform put me at odds with my own ambition: To achieve was to gratify this insatiable tyrant. To fail was to vindicate her derision, restoring her place of authority and the natural order.

Two incidents emerge from the blur of my final year under my mother’s roof. Not having her talent for the pointed and cruel, I meekly defended myself with “I hate you” when my mother would tear into me, to which she would respond, “I hate you, too!” But once, I said something nasty—I can’t even remember what it was, though it was richly deserved, whatever it was. My mother spun around, yanked open a kitchen drawer, and the next thing I knew, she was brandishing a steak knife at me with venom in her eyes. Not knowing what to do, I flung the glass of milk I was holding into her face. She stood there, mouth agape, with milk dripping into her cleavage. For once, I had rendered her speechless.

The night before my college entrance exams, I went to the movies with my friend Julie. Carelessly forgetting the train schedule, we found ourselves stranded without a way home. I called my mother, who refused to pick us up, in pique. Arriving home tired, despondent after a two-hour walk, and anxious about the next morning’s exam, I found an unwelcome surprise: my bedroom door refused to give way. Forcing it open, I found my room a shambles. In front of me lay devastation wreaked by a human hurricane. Drawers were overturned and shelves spilled in an exhausted heap: books, papers, clothes, records, pictures torn from the walls. I stared in horror at my mother’s misguided vengeance on her own child. My anger swelled impotently—I knew how useless it was. Good luck on your SATs, Miranda!

By the grace of my then unacknowledged God, I was offered the chance to spend my senior year in high school living and working on an Israeli kibbutz, in culmination of my years in the Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror. Given permission to graduate high school a year early in order to do so—on condition that I pass two English classes at a university before my departure—I seized the opportunity to flee what would have become my asylum.

I remember the morning of my flight, banging on my mother’s bedroom door, begging her to open it so I could say goodbye, with a hug and a kiss. I was just sixteen. No matter how we fought, she was my mother and I was her only daughter. But she refused, tearfully cursing me for leaving from the other side of the door…until the last calculating moment.

The feelings lingering for my mother ran all the way from intense hatred to bitter dislike. Like a barren scarecrow, I was filled with straw where feelings should be. The six thousand miles between us would not be far enough.

How To Get Unstuck In Life

A discussion with author, therapist and Rabbi, Shimshon Meir Frankel. His new book, The Wisdom of Getting Unstuck was recently published by Mosaica Press.

What led you to write a book?

Around nine years ago, I devised a six-week relationship enrichment program geared towards individuals and couples. With permission from the participants, I recorded our discussions. I walked other practitioners and rabbis through it as well. I also taught the program as a series of classes to students in our local yeshiva. Along with the earlier recordings, I recorded and transcribed the classes. Although I faced a small setback when losing some recordings from a damaged USB flash drive, I found the entire experience to be fruitful and insightful. When Mosaica Press reached out to me and expressed interest in doing a joint project, I was excited to already have a Google Doc with sixty-four pages to devote to writing a book. 

Many people encouraged me to “get my message out there.” Like everyone, I needed some encouragement to get started. If it weren’t for certain rabbis’ encouragement to write the book, I’d still be second guessing myself. Since the guiding principles and tools in my relationship program (and book) are sourced in Hashem’s Torah, I didn’t feel like I could take any credit for them. And to boot, the voice in my head constantly reminded me, “You’re not worthy.” Had the rabbis not told me that I must certainly take credit for the ideas, I’d still be stuck. There probably wouldn’t be a book. One rabbi in particular said to me, “I’ve seen some of these Torah sources before. I didn’t see what you see, but now I do. You’ve really got something here. You’re not just allowed to take credit for it. I think you should take credit for it.” I suppose, since I’ve written the book, I may now say that I truly own the ideas.

This led to a burning desire to write down many of the Torah-driven tools and principles that I use in my practice. I brainstormed for a year and typed out more than 500,000 words.I chose to start with this particular book because it focuses on the main thing that we all suffer from, the main ailment that negatively affects our soul, the very thing that always gets us stuck. We easily get lost in the negative labels that we’ve adopted over the years. I’m referring to the old stories which hold us back from moving forward and from having productive and fulfilling lives. I zeroed in on how this affects our relationships and the relationship we truly want to be having with ourselves.

I also wrote the book as a wake-up call. I’m a huge advocate for redefining how we think about and treat people’s problems, especially the most common ones of anxiety and depression. There’s a better way to get unstuck, to grow, and to better one’s relationships than what traditional psychotherapy has had to offer. We have to roll with the times. There is very little point to analysis. How many practitioners claim to no longer embrace the medical model but are still telling their clients: “You may be feeling anxious but it’s more important to find the underlying cause.” The Jewish approach is very different. Both the symptoms and the root of the cause are treated as the same. Psychological analysis can really backfire. Therapists mean well, but are ritually throwing their clients deeper into their most painful struggles. Without Torah guidance, psychotherapy can be very misleading. Like all fields of study, psychology may be one of the wisdoms of the world, but it does not stand on its own.  The Maharal begins his Nesiv HaTeshuvah with a quote from Mishlei: חָכְמוֹת בַּח֣וּץ תָּרֹ֑נָּה בָּ֜רְחֹב֗וֹת תִּתֵּ֥ן קוֹלָֽהּ, “Wisdom shouts out into the public fair; in the streets she gives forth her voice.” We know based on a Tanchuma that chochmah is Torah. Why does King Shlomo pluralize the word? It should be chochmah, but instead, he writes chochmos. The Maharal explains that King Shlomo is referring to the different wisdoms that exist in the world. He likens the philosophies and sciences to the limbs of the body. Hashem’s Torah he calls the rosh, the head of the body. Torah is the true brains behind the field of psychology. Psychotherapy should not be practiced on its own.

What did you learn during the process of writing this book? Were there any surprises for you?

Oh, yes, I had many surprises along the way. What I didn’t realize was how much the writing process itself mirrors the struggles of normal everyday life. And for an author, writing is their life. It’s what consumes most of their thoughts and time. There are many stages to the writing process, and just like in real life, it’s not unusual for an author to begin feeling uneasy somewhere along the way.

For example, as I indicated earlier, I had the opportunity to brainstorm for a year. I typed out over 500,000 words. And then came the reckoning. I knew it was coming. I took a creative writing class in middle school. At the time, I submitted a twenty-page paper. I had such a thoughtful teacher. Instead of criticizing my work, she said, “I see that you’ve written many stories here. Just choose one and write that one for me.” So when my writing coach told me that I had to choose one of the books to start with, it was painful. I remember holding on to that pain for about five minutes, and like every uncomfortably muddy feeling along the way, I let it go. 

I’ve been watching your videos and really like them. One concept you shared stuck out for me. You said that if someone is insulted or offended in a relationship it is because they are insecure in that relationship—they aren’t confident in the relationship. So, if I am challenged in a relationship, it is really about how I perceive the relationship. Am I understanding that correctly?

Yes, perception is key. When a person is feeling emotionally negative it’s an indicator that they are lacking confidence. When a person feels insulted by another person, the first place to check is the nature of one’s relationship. When our relationship is shaky, it means we lack confidence in the relationship. If we always find ourselves getting offended in the relationship, it might be in our best interests to take a break from this particular relationship.

Another way to gain confidence in the relationship is by pinpointing and strengthening the glue that’s been holding the relationship together all along. This effort to label and define what binds two people together is what changes our perception of the relationship for the better. There’s nothing more powerful for a relationship than bringing to light the very elements that hold it together.

You also mentioned that I might not be confident in knowledge of something and that could also be part of insecurity in a relationship. Did I get that right?

Not quite. If we are discussing a topic with someone and we feel insulted, it may be due to our lack of confidence about the subject matter. Although it’s easier to put the blame on the other person, educating ourselves about the topic is a better way to go. It allows us to gain confidence about the subject matter, and as a result, be less prone to feeling offended.

Are there some immediate steps you can suggest to someone to become more comfortable in a current relationship?

The best way to grow comfortable in one’s relationship is by focusing on the basics. When one’s relationship is feeling shaky, it behooves him or her to go back and focus on reinforcing the emotional baseline of the relationship. The following two fundamental steps help a person to begin feeling more comfortable in his or her relationship:

1) Create Undivided Moments

Giving someone undivided and focused attention tells him that he is important as an individual. This top-priority individual time builds connection and trust. This time does not necessarily need to be hours — even ten minutes is effective. In times of trouble, people turn to a person who made them feel important. Everyone needs to feel important to someone. Denying a person individual time forces him or her to seek it elsewhere. Whether it be spontaneous or fixed time, we must make sure our moments together are mutually enjoyable. It’s important to listen to the other person. A person wants nothing more but to feel understood. The point is to be a person’s confidant and pillar of strength, providing him or her with emotional security.

2) Focus on Appreciation

Appreciation is crucial to any healthy relationship. Spend five minutes a day appreciating all the good this person adds to my life. (This doesn’t have to be one chunk of time.) Appreciation is something we do for ourselves. Focusing our attention on a person’s best qualities helps combat the anger, frustration, worry, negativity, and overwhelming feelings of daily life. Bringing to mind his or her unique qualities helps us focus on what a gift this person truly is. We don’t want to get to the point at which we have to lose something to appreciate it. Find joy in what you have NOW.

Just to go back to your book. What can a reader expect to take away from your book?

There are times in our lives when we feel anxious, down in the dumps, or lack impulse control; we feel unsure and disconnected from ourselves. How we perceive these moments of instability in our lives directly affects how we define ourselves and our relationships, and how we engage the world as we walk our own path. 

We may not always be conscious of it, but much of life takes place smack dab in the muddy middle.

It’s reassuring to learn that none of us are alone when it comes to stumbling into the muck. We all know what it’s like to lose direction in life. Whatever path we’re taking, we’re all bound to get stuck at some point along the way. It’s not always clear how to move from point A to point B. Yet, there’s hope. Every time we pull ourselves out of the muddy middle, the wiser and more confident we become.

Once we are fully aware of our whereabouts, we can always ask ourselves this most poignant question: “Where do I go from here?”

A Love Letter to Tel Aviv

HIP SET is a page-turning thriller set in Tel Aviv. Author Michael Fertik brings together African refugees, Israeli police, and the Russian mafia to create a cool, fast-paced detective noir.

Michael Fertik

Fertik may not be the author we’d expect. He is a serial entrepreneur and venture capital investor and a strong supporter of Israel. Maybe it is this unusual background (for a mystery writer) that enables Fertik to offer up a fast moving thriller in a city he visits often as a business destination.

Hip Set will introduce many to an unfamiliar side of Israel.  Something that makes this book exciting is that Hip Set is a reflection of what Israel is really like today. There is crime, unsavory criminals, and gritty detectives trying to stop them. At the same time, it paints an alluring portrait of the White City’s cafes and beaches that makes you want to hop on a plane and spend your summer with your feet in the sand, gazing at the beautiful people meandering down the boardwalk.

I have to admit it was really cool to have bestselling author Faye Kellerman say that Fertik’s book is “…fast paced with an original, exotic setting, HIP SET is an unstoppable read from first page to last.” I am not traditionally a mystery or thriller reader but I have to agree with Ms. Kellerman, Hip Set grabbed me.

Check out this recent online event which Michael as a guest of the Jewish Book Council and the JCC of Metro Detroit.

Prepare My Prayer a Finalist for National Jewish Book Award

I’m delighted that Prepare My Prayer by Rabbi Dov Singer is a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. I was privileged to be the publicist for this important book which is the English translation of the Hebrew bestseller “Tikon Tefilati“. Both books are published by Koren Publishers.

An invitation to fundamentally reconsider prayer and make it more personally relevant, this book speaks to so many. Just as Corona was beginning to hit, Rav Dov visited the US and the positive reactions of audiences proved how the messages and challenges of his approach to prayer fit perfectly with the needs of many Jews today.

Watching Rav Dov interact and share with an audience is something to behold and the ability to distill many of his ideas into a book was an important step helpful to Hebrew and English speakers alike. It’s worth investing time in watching Rav Dov teach online (see You Tube). Follow the Makor Chaim Facebook page here to keep up to date with online courses with Rav Dov and more.

Mr. Pollard: Write a Book

This morning, under the news radar, Jonathan Pollard arrived in Israel. Accompanied by his wife Esther, he flew in a private jet (obviously donated for the cause) to Israel. Landing in early morning darkness, he was greeted by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Jonathan and Esther Pollard arrive in Israel

For anyone who has followed and sympathized with Pollard’s long journey, watching him walk down the steps of the plane, kiss the ground and receive his Israeli identity card from the Prime Minister, it was  poignant. Despite the crime he committed, it seems to be common wisdom that he was singled out for extraordinary punishment far exceeding that of others convicted of similar crimes.

After serving close to 3 decades in American prisons, Pollard was then required under the terms of his parole to live an extremely limited life for five years in New York City.

But this is all past and he and his wife are now taking part in the uniquely 2020 ritual in which all arrivals to Israel must participate: quarantine.

Once this is all over and Jonathan settles into a more normal life, I hope that he will write a book where he shares his experiences. It will be interesting to read about his being arrested at the entrance to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC or his plea bargain which was not honored. However, I think it will be most interesting to read about how Jonathan dealt with his long prison sentence. How did he get through the daily grind in jail (what was the daily grind?)?  Did he have relationships with other prisoners or the prison staff? How did he observe Shabbat and holidays? What kept him going? What was it like to walk of the prison gates a free man? What were his first observations from being in the open world for the first time in decades? There must be scores of small and great dramas, victories and defeats which Pollard experienced.

I think many await hearing from Mr. Pollard. Let’s hope he shares his experiences in writing.

Interview with Rabbi Michael Broyde author of A Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts

 

I am pleased to have interviewed Rabbi Michael Broydeauthor of A Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts  (Urim Publications, 2017) about his new book.

Conversion is constantly in the Jewish news cycle. Does your book address the various controversies surrounding conversion to Judaism?

The current controversies are always about how people convert. My book is about what happens after people convert and become Jewish, which is an incredibly important issue.

The reason conversion is such a “hot button” topic today is because there is a huge sociological [and halachic] change taking place in our community where so many people are seeking to and actually converting to Judaism.
Modern Judaism is changing through conversion, just like 30 years ago the ba’al teshuva movement changed our community in very basic ways as so many Jews began practicing Orthodox Judaism.
We are being changed by righteous converts who are choosing to join our people. And many times we are not treating them correctly.

What is the key message of your book?

Although the focus on how to convert and the standards for conversion seems important, actually how we treat people who have already converted to Judaism in our community is much more important a measure of us as a Jewish community. 

Why did you write this book?

For a few reasons. I was astonished to discover no one else had written this book in either English or Hebrew.  Due to the increase in the number of sincere converts to Judaism, both in the US and Israel, this book is needed. Conversion is much more common now than ever before.

Another reason is because converts are the most admirable segment of our community. These are people who have a choice and they choose to be Jews.

Did anything surprise you as you wrote the book?

Yes.  Besides the fact that no one else had done this, I saw the large variety of issues and the need for categorization. So I focused the book on what I found to be six basic underlying questions which exist when approaching the topic of conversions and converts. These are things like how a convert relates to their family of origin, the obligation all Jews have to love converts, issues that arise when dealing with marriage or converts holding positions of authority and more. 

Do you think this book could have been published 150 years ago? 50 years ago?  

In pre-modern times conversion was very rare and this book would not have been needed as much as now.  It would still provide material to learn as interesting theory, but it would have been less practical.

Who did you write this book for?

There are a number of audiences for this book; intellectuals and academics. People who are considering conversion to Judaism as well as people who have already undergone conversion. An additional audience are the Rabbis and Rabbinic courts which carry out conversions.

Do you think the phenomenon of conversions to Judaism today is unique? How so?  How does it differ from other countries?

I think that the total lack of secular stigma is the unique feature of our generation.  Someone who converts to Judaism in the US can tell people at work about their conversion without losing their job or damaging their career.

How does conversion today differ from those of, say, 25 years ago? Or 50 years ago?

The growth of serious, observant Judaism has given rise to more serious converts and conversion. Conversion to Judaism is common and normal today and this is good.