When my younger brother Sruli got married, I danced and rejoiced with a light heart. I was the oldest of four sisters, and we were all delighted for our baby brother. My mother wanted someone with a good heart, my father wanted good middos, and we wanted someone who was fun and a good conversationalist. We found all these qualities in Fraidy Goldklang, now Steinhart. She was the perfect daughter-in-law, worthy of carrying on the Steinhart name.
Over the years, Fraidy proved to be everything we could have wished for in a sister-in-law. She knew her boundaries, but she was also intuitive about when they were meant to be breached. She would surprise my parents with confections, pictures of the children and small gifts, including us in her planning. She was sensible and practical, had a listening ear and offered straightforward advice. Sruli seemed to be very happy, and their children always looked well cared for. Everything was fine—until the rumors started.
From the very beginning, Sruli and Fraidy’s oldest daughter, Bruchy, had been a tough kid to raise. She’d had colic as a newborn and it lasted until her terrible twos, which stretched out and melted seamlessly into her tumultuous adolescence. Unfortunately, Bruchy proved all of the chinuch experts wrong. Warmth and compliments seemed to slide off her back like too-thin icing off a cake, and she sullenly made no effort to interact with her cousins whenever they got together.
School was one big struggle since Bruchy found it hard to obey the rules. Her cynicism kept her teachers on their toes; she straddled a fine line between chutzpah and indifference. But her infractions were usually in the realm of nuance, and she never got into any major trouble.
When Bruchy was 16, my sister Riva called me one night with some sad news. Bruchy had been asked to leave school; in fact, she had been sitting at home for the past three weeks. Sruli wasn’t answering her texts, and Fraidy wasn’t answering the house phone. Had I spoken to them lately?
I’d had a short conversation with Fraidy the week before when I’d called to ask her for a recipe, but we hadn’t really schmoozed because she was in a rush.
I felt a shiver of anxiety run down my spine. This was bad. A long-term expulsion probably meant that the school wasn’t planning to take Bruchy back. Where would she go?
Over the next few days I found myself thinking about Sruli with an aching heart, but I had little to offer in terms of practical assistance. When my mother told me that Bruchy was thinking of switching to an out of state school with a dormitory, I hoped that things would calm down.
Then I slowly became aware of something that was almost a physical sensation, as if an invisible cloud were hanging over my head. Wherever I went, people were staring at me, giving me strange looks. I wondered why. Had I done something wrong?
I assumed that it had something to do with Bruchy and that I’d probably just interrupted a juicy piece of gossip about Sruli and Fraidy, but somehow it felt more personal. It was weird.
Thinking about it a little more, I realized that I hadn’t had a conversation with Fraidy in two weeks, which was unusual. We usually spoke often; two days without a ring from me always elicited a text from her. I chalked it up to their stress and sent a quick text saying I was thinking about her, tacking on a smiley face. The text was ignored.
Now it was my turn to call Riva. And Surale. And Chana Leah. All of them had heard from the youngest Steinharts. I was being shunned. From their stilted answers and half-coughs, I heard an unspoken accusation. There was something my sisters weren’t telling me. There was something nobody was telling me. What was going on?
A midweek visit to my parents yielded no answers. I spoke to my mother about everything and anything, but when Bruchy’s predicament came up, an invisible wall sprang up between us. My mother shared the basic details: Bruchy had passed the intake interview at an out of town school and would start there next month. But there was a guardedness to her speech that made me feel as if she were blaming me. Should I have done more for my niece? Did my parents think that as the oldest daughter in the family, I should have stuck up for her?