Last year, my fifty-first birthday landed on Thanksgiving, a coincidence every five or six years that had always thrilled me, as though the entire country was celebrating when they sat down to their turkey dinners, their glasses raised to give thanks to my birth. After weeks of urging, my mother relinquished command of Thanksgiving to my sister Dana and me, the first of many torches to be passed, we would soon learn. I was Dana’s sous chef now, carrying out orders to chop and baste according to her liking. We balanced new and old traditions, brining the turkey, then stuffing it with my mother’s matzo meal recipe. Turkey balloons floated over the dining table, and a store-bought birthday cake trimmed with purple buttercream roses waited alongside the homemade pumpkin pie. My sister planned party games for me, including a turkey piñata, which I batted at with dizzy determination, landing fewer hits than misses because my cousin kept raising it out of my strike zone.
At all of my Thanksgiving-birthdays, as well as the non-birthday ones in between, my middle brother Phil was never present. Once he left home for college he rarely returned, and certainly not for a holiday. Thanksgiving—and birthdays—irked Phil. He refused to cook a turkey, opting instead for pasta or takeout Mexican, proud of his unconventional choice, perhaps even comforted by it. He also refused birthday gifts, to give or to receive, with the exception of a book (as long as it was a used copy) or a charitable donation. To Phil, tradition, like family, translates into obligation. So family holidays—especially ones that doubled up with a birthday—must have held more expectation than he could deliver.
Instead, Phil called. We spoke twice a year, on my birthday and on his, just three days before mine. But last year on his birthday, I didn’t call him or even send a card, a deliberate oversight. It wasn’t until the phone rang in my sister’s kitchen last Thanksgiving, minutes before the turkey was to be pulled from the oven, that I decided to stop speaking to my brother.
Shunning, or, in Hebrew, cherem (khay’-rem),is the highest form of censure in the Jewish community, when individuals are exiled from the tribe and cast into the Gentile world. Before the Age of Enlightenment, cherem protected the community from individuals who threatened to undermine its identity and its order, a draconian response to perceived attacks on communal values and beliefs, whether real or imagined. Without family and community, one is forever lost.
The summer before I stopped speaking to Phil, I went to a writer’s conference in Washington state. One night I went to dinner with two poets. We’d escaped the institutional meals for a night out in Port Townsend with wine and entrees of our choosing. Our table overlooked the roof of the ferry building, and beyond it, Puget Sound. We swapped stories about writing, our triumphs and disappointments, then later, when the bottle was empty and we’d moved on to coffee and dessert, we settled in and told the real stories, the ones about our families. Both of my companions had brothers they hadn’t spoken to in years, brothers with difficult wives who stirred rifts over aging parents and inheritance, brothers who, like Phil, had always resided outside the family huddle.
When it was my turn, I pointed across the Sound to Whidbey Island, where Phil lived now. Though I’d never visited him, I’d pieced together Phil’s new home from the stories following my sister’s and parents’ visits. I couldn’t imagine being comfortable in a household that demanded my shoes at the front door to spare the wood floors. Where I had to wash my hands before petting the cats, not after. Where the kitchen linoleum was waxed to such an icy sheen that the slippers I was issued turned into skates. Where the mohair sofa itched through the two sweaters needed for a thermostat set year round at 62 degrees. Of course, none of this may be accurate. Like I said, I had never been there.
I had lost Phil long before I shunned him.
There’s a photo from my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary thirteen years ago. At its center is my eldest brother Craig, his face thin, his right temple shaved and sunken where the surgeons had removed a chunk of skull to relieve the tumor’s pressure on his brain. We’re crowded around him, eyes shiny. I’m sandwiched between my mother and my sister, who is pregnant with my parents’ only grandchild. Phil stands at one end, barely inside the frame, ready to rescue the camera from the waiter’s hands once the shutter snaps, to ensure his place behind the lens for the rest of the evening, not in front of it. This is his place in most family photos, grazing the edges or, more likely, missing altogether.
After the surgery, when Craig was in ICU, Phil took the night shift at the hospital, then slept all day, insulated from our mother’s pendulum swings between anger and despair, and our father’s constant pacing the halls, ferrying cups of coffee from the cafeteria. Once Craig was safely out of ICU and settled into a private room, Phil flew home, his family duty fulfilled. I sat on the bed while he packed, our only moment together all week. He told me about his six-figure salary and how he’d paid off the mortgage on his house. I’ll never have to depend on anyone ever again, he said. I didn’t have to ask who anyone was. He couldn’t see, as he folded his t-shirts and jeans, he was packing us with him, tucking in our fears and our fury at the threat of real loss.
Craig’s tumor changed Phil and me. Not long after, I went to graduate school, and began teaching. Phil quit his job and never looked for another. His wife worked while he did the cooking and the cleaning, his afternoons free to read or go for a bike ride, rewards, perhaps, for having survived their relationship as long as he had.
For the Jews, God’s chosen people, a faith-based pride nurtures self-esteem and community through active conformity, an affiliation that guards those living inside Judaism’s circumscribed religious and social order from those who reside outside in the Gentile world. But this pride also aggrandizes the community’s moral values, its self-satisfaction and righteousness dependent upon the alienation of the “other.”
We were Reform Jews, modern observers of the faith, raised to trust family over friends, to believe in our Jewish identity and the rituals that bound us—Passover Seder and Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur eve, the cello’s sad wail beckoning our atonement. Our celebrations centered around feasts and fasts, steeped in stories of suffering—from Egypt to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust—a history of threats Jews had endured and have come to expect. Of the four kids, Phil was the only one to study Hebrew for his bar mitzvah and deliver a Torah portion at Shabbat service when he turned thirteen, marking his full-fledged membership in the Jewish community. Perhaps it was the ceremony’s rite of passage that attracted him, or his affinity for foreign languages, though more likely it was the checks he’d receive, a tidy of stack of envelopes that seeded his first savings account.
Soon, Phil put his faith in books and music, then made me his disciple. During a visit home from college, he sat me down on the sofa and put the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station album cover in my hands. Don’t get up until it’s over, he said. I learned to isolate the instruments, the guitar rifts and the thumping bass line underneath. At my first Dead concert, Phil got me stoned, then left me in the stands to wander through the crowd. I built my record collection based on his recommendations: Dire Straits, Steely Dan, Clapton, and Winwood, all great masters of the guitar.
Next, he expanded my education to books: Kerouac, Robbins, and Pynchon, novels about outsiders who rejected convention and made their own way through the world. He gave me a list of titles to read and said he would call to discuss them, but never did.
Years later, I sent him a copy of the Fugees’s The Score, certain their rendition of “Killing Me Softly” would sway his opinion of hip hop, but he gave it away after one listening. After reading my first published story, he said, In fiction, aren’t you supposed to make things up more?
That I could cut Phil off so abruptly made no sense to him. Wasn’t he the one who taught me how to make a bed, to pull the sheet tight and fold even hospital corners; to wash the dishes with water too hot for my tender hands, then wipe down the counter in short, careful strokes, gathering crumbs from under the toaster and in between the tile before scouring the sink until the stains disappeared?
I didn’t remind Phil of the string of afternoons when I was five and he was eleven, when he ordered me into his closet to remove my clothes, then emerge wrapped in a blanket and lie down on his bed so he could examine me. Or the time he discovered I’d taken an issue of National Geographic from his bookshelf to study the bare-breasted women, their earlobes stretched to their shoulders with bright beaded hoops. He banned me from his room and ordered me to never touch his things without asking first—a punishment that strikes me now as ironic.
In 1656, at the age of 23, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was expelled from the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. The religious authorities, threatened by Spinoza’s public denial of beliefs integral to Judaism—such as the soul’s immortality and the existence of one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—issued a cherem against Spinoza. Other cherems were enacted during Spinoza’s time, for days or weeks, even years, depending on the infraction, though none were as severe as the cherem leveled at Spinoza, which offered no chance for him to return to the fold.
After college, Phil moved as far from family as he could and still see the Pacific, still ride his bike on the weekend and work at a job that didn’t require him to cut his shoulder-length hair. A place with weather he complained about during our birthday phone calls: the endless rain, the occasional snow, and the rare sunny days when all of Seattle rushed outside for their vitamin D fix. Weather unimaginable to Southern California natives like us. A place far enough from family that cherem should be redundant.
When my brother married the woman he’d lived with for twenty years, none of us were present, none of us even knew. I never told Phil I didn’t like his wife, a woman companies hired to fire their employees, who drank too much red wine, then bullied people like me, too weak to walk away, who once whispered Fuck you into my father’s ear and asked my mother whether being a daughter-in-law merited inheriting her jewelry. Trespasses my parents catalogued against her, a stockpile of resentments they’d kept from Phil until one day several years ago, without warning, they unleashed them in a flood too great to take back.
Since that day, Phil has stopped speaking to my parents, a cherem he sees as justified. Though the adage suggests otherwise, we can pick our family, rejecting the one we’re assigned at birth for another we create.
We aren’t that different, Phil and I. We hold onto our anger, afraid of the pain we’d have to face if we ever let it go.
Spinoza dismissed identity as inherited. He believed we all share the same ability to determine our identity through ideas grounded in the rational world. This shared understanding replaces the faith-based pride system with a more tolerant, more inclusive secular community whose values and social order are derived from human nature over the will of God.
Years ago I waged my own cherem against my parents, a ten-month silence spanning from Passover to Hanukkah. My father had called my college apartment all weekend and left angry messages, demanding to know where I was at two in the morning. By the time I called back Sunday evening, my parents had put the pieces together: their youngest daughter was no longer a virgin, an accusation to which I proudly confessed. During that silence, I learned what Phil, even with his orbit outside our family nucleus, never understood: parents are flawed. They make mistakes, behave irrationally, and say terrible things that can never be taken back. Children don’t have the corner on this market. I had ten months to weigh the conditions to having parents who insisted they loved me unconditionally. In December, I went home and asked their forgiveness, for what I wasn’t entirely certain, but the asking is all that is necessary in my family for (most) everything to be forgotten.
In Portuguese, “Spinoza” means “thorn,” and “Baruch” the Hebrew word for “blessed.” A blessed thorn, Spinoza lived in exile from his family and his community, by trade a lens grinder, simple work that allowed him to write, a rationalist many philosophers now consider to be the first modern European secular Jew.
Daughters—more than sons—stay closer to home. They are the ones most likely to be the parents’ caregiver, most likely, when the time came, to move into the family home, to bathe and dress and feed. I’ll assume this role gladly, just as my parents did for my grandmother, to protect those who had protected me for so long.
My brother will never have to remind our mother it was the milk she wanted as she stood in front of the open refrigerator, studying its contents, or crack jokes when our father unexpectedly broke into tears, then, once he recovered, suggest some indulgence as solace from a particularly hard day—early afternoon cocktails or giant bowls of ice cream. Phil will never have to witness the parent left behind after more than sixty years of marriage sleep in an empty bed or sit alone at the kitchen table, the sun streaming in from the patio.
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Lori White earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her story, “Gambling One Ridge Away” won first place in the 2013 Press 53 Open Award for Flash Fiction. Recent work has appeared in The Journal Online, Kenyon Review Online, and Pithead Chapel. She teaches English at Los Angeles Pierce College.