"Don't Tell Ima", a novel about domestic abuse in the Jewish family

This story is not about a strident, self-confident feminist, but about a brave, mature Jewish mother who simply loves her children, wants to do what is right for them and is torn by choices, until...

Rochel Sylvetsky

OpEds Don't Tell Ima cover
Don't Tell Ima cover
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

The at-first-glance seemingly innocuous title of this book by Lisa Barness (Don't Tell Ima, Jewishselfpublishing) gave me the impression that it is about childrearing, perhaps about how to gain children's trust so they are not afraid to admit the truth and about teaching them to be honest.  After all, the phrase is most often used by children when asking other siblings not to "tell on" them to mother after they do something they shouldn't.

The dilemmas children face in this regard are real - sometimes a child's not revealing the name of whoever did something wrong can lead to continued criminality, sometimes it can mean the child will be punished for someone else's misdemeanors, and there are times where it is a noble thing to do – except that none of the above is the subject of this book and the writer is using a fictitious name.

This book is a story in which the children involved could have been maimed for life.

That is because, unfortunately, the person instructing them not to tell Ima is an adult – at least legally – and is the children's narcissistic, control freak, two-timing and dissembling, "model" of a religious father. Trust, honesty, possible negative consequences on their lives never even enter his mind.

The book actually does teach a good deal about raising children, albeit not intentionally. The lessons are taught through observing the way the mother writing the story deals with the unbearable, abusive situation in which she finds herself. She comes across as a selfless woman who elicits respect and sincere admiration, lovingly caring for her children and protecting them as she gradually discovers the shocking truth about her husband.

Telling her story is Shifra, raised in a dysfunctional family, who becomes Orthodox and falls in love with charismatic Ephraim, whose lectures on Judaism mesmerize audiences and whose sees these efforts to bring people back "into the fold" as his mission in life. Despite the warning signs regarding his personality which a good friend tries to bring to her attention, Shifra is in his thrall and the two are married and begin a life idealistically dedicated to bringing young, lost Jews back to their roots. The couple eventually decides to move to Israel where they feel their lives will be blessed and their children grow up in the best possible environment for becoming ethical, involved members of the Jewish people.

All goes well at first. In a small, Galilee village filled with families like theirs, the couple continues hosting droves of young travelers for Shabbat, with Shifra spending hours in the kitchen happily preparing the meals and finding fulfillment raising her children in Israel.

Things begin to unravel when Ephraim, a promising architect, loses his job – she doesn't really know why, then begins disappearing with no explanation, doesn't even show up when she has to go to the hospital to give birth, is not there to take his sons to synagogue on Shabbat – a basic responsibility of Orthodox Jewish fathers.  When he does show up, always with an excuse having to do with his selfless mission, he bribes the children with gifts, drinks and snacks, takes them out to experiences that contradict their observant upbringing (and that is where Don't Tell Ima comes in with a bang), all the while continuing to bring home Shabbat guests. His reactions to Shifra's questions are cutting insults and his anger is always just below the surface, frightening her into silence.

As she writes: "I lived alone, raised the kids alone, gave birth alone, he was never home and there was never money." Shifra continues desperately doing whatever she feels she must do to keep her family functioning as normally as possible, while all through this insanity, others still see Ephraim as this magnetic speaker and wonderful person who has immense positive influence on young people.

The situation comes to a head when the children, who realize how much she loves and  sacrifices for them, cannot live with the lies anymore and finally "tell Ima."  Readers will cheer Shifra on as she is now forced to make tough decisions and as friends and special people, including a wise rabbi and his understanding wife, lend their support to help her get through the ensuing crises.

This is the story of a woman who is not a self-confident feminist seeking her own fulfillment. She is a brave, mature mother who simply loves her children, wants to do what is right for them, sincerely believes in the religious life she chose to lead, and has to manage to survive with no family to come to her aid.

Don't Tell Ima is a relevant, important exposure of marital abuse and the lives of women trapped in a cycle of non-physical domestic violence. As therapist Dr. Miriam Adahan writes: I hope this book will bring a bit of comfort to the many victims, who are usually doubly victimized by not having their pain validated and are chastised for even speaking out and "complaining" and not being able to "suffer silently" or "fix" the abuser.

Family therapist Rabbi Chaim Tabasky adds: Therapists, rabbis, communal leaders and educators will all learn from the story…All readers will gain greater appreciation of the terrible price we pay for allowing criminal behavior in the name of religious values to be conducted in an atmosphere of deceit and secrecy.

And the writer herself wrote me: It is my  hope that this book has the power to assist religious women in emotionally abusive marriages to recognize early signs of abuse, let them know they are not alone, or crazy, and offer encouragement that it is possible to survive, and thrive. 

On the other hand,  Don't Tell Ima is also a most readable book, its unsophisticated style reminding me a bit of Chaim Potok's books,  and the plot keeping me awake until I reached the end.

Especially worrying to me, with our period's heightened consciousness of psychological damage,  was whether the children have been maimed for life by a childhood with a father whose egotism (sickness?) left him no room to consider what he was doing to their delicate psyches by having them lead a double life. Shifra herself expresses that worry and it is perhaps the reason she courageously takes her life into her own hands. The book, in fact, begins with an episode about now marriage-age Ariella that raises the frightening question of whether the pattern is going to continue in the choices the children make as adults, but before the question is answered, the narrative goes back to the beginning of Ephraim and Shifra's relationship and the story of their marriage.

I, then, will take my cue from the writer and leave Ariella's decision for readers to find out on their own upon reaching the end of the book. Highly reccommended.

The book is available at Pomerantz in Jerusalem as well as on Amazon..