Confronting In-Law’s Mean Streak

By Wendy Belzberg

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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I converted to Judaism 12 years ago when I married my husband. Still, my mother-in-law never misses an opportunity to refer to me as “the shiksa.” Enough is enough. How do I let her know that her remarks are hurtful and offensive?

— The convert’s lament

If she weren’t your mother-in-law I might suggest responding in kind with a pejorative of your own. It might not be the most mature instinct, I’ll admit, but it’s certainly a satisfying one.

Your mother-in-law leaves you no choice but to quote Exodus — Exodus 22:20 to be exact — which states, “You should love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” If that doesn’t silence her, follow up by citing Gemara Baba Metzia 4:10. Loosely paraphrased, this Mishna states that a convert should never be reminded of his or her past behavior.

A convert to Judaism is no different than someone born to a Jewish mother and should never be reprimanded for his or her past. If your mother-in-law is not convinced, I suggest you call her down from her bima and onto the mat. If your grasp of Jewish law doesn’t do the trick, tell her that the next time she refers to you as a shiksa, she will no longer be welcome in your home. Your husband might remind her of the same. That should silence her.

* * *

My son is 12 years old and going through a difficult stage. He is sullen, angry and defiant. I routinely check his sent e-mails just to make sure there is nothing going on in his life that I should know about. When I told my friend that I was doing this, she looked at me with horror. I just want to make sure I’m there for my son if he needs me.

Private concerns

In a different era we would be talking about your son’s diary. And 10 years from now we will be discussing some kind of mechanism that records your son’s thoughts directly onto a hard drive without passing the keyboard. No matter the medium, we are still discussing the same question: Is it okay to read the private thoughts and words of one’s child?

The answer is a resounding no. Spying on your child is no way to gain his or her trust. Do you have confidence in your powers of observation and in your parenting skills and instincts? If something were wrong, don’t you think you would sense it? His behavior sounds like routine 12-year-old fare — no justification for snooping through his e-mail. You have violated his privacy and are in breach of his trust. If your son knew as much, I expect that he would delete his e-mail after sending it. If you communicate to your son that you trust him, he should reward you in kind with his confidences and trust. I fully understand the temptation to spy, but I am disturbed by your complete failure to recognize or admit that you are treading on landfill.

* * *

What is the protocol on turnaround time for thank-you notes from b’nai mitzvot? I gave gifts to two girls for their bat mitzvahs around two months ago and have not received a thank-you note from either one. What would you recommend if I never receive a thank-you note?

— Empty mailbox

It is nice to extend some slack to 12- and 13-year-olds. They may have arrived at the age of manhood and womanhood according to Jewish law, but they are still very much children in their habits and manners. And plenty of adults could be tarred with the delinquent-thank-you brush.

That said, you should have received two thank-you notes within weeks of sending off the gifts. But kids today — and the parents who raise them — appear to be less than well-versed in proper etiquette. As for what to do if a note never comes? Consider my dilemma: I recently received a bat mitzvah thank-you note that said: Thank you for the necklace. Period. Is it better to receive no note at all or to receive one so utterly devoid of substance or style that you think even worse of the bat mitzvah girl and her family? My recommendation: Leave your expectations at the door when you go out to collect the mail.

Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at

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