The meeting room at the Shelter for Help in Emergency was crowded and messy. I sat at a shaky conference table, next to a junior attorney from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society, when a thin woman in a cotton sundress and drug-store flip flops came into the room and took a seat opposite us. She looked tired, timeworn, but according to her paperwork she was just a few years older than I was. I was a first-year law student, 22.
The Legal Aid attorney introduced me as being there mostly to observe. Then he asked our client, my first, to tell us how we could help. And although I didn’t detect any bruises, I braced myself for violence.
“My husband,” the woman began; “He was so sweet when we first met. He called me every day, all the time, and he brought me flowers. No one ever gave me flowers before. It was so romantic.”
A romance was not the kind of story I expected to hear.
The woman went on to share how her husband, the man from whom she now wanted a divorce, started to act jealous whenever she wanted to spend time with her friends. He said he loved her so much that he wanted to be with her, all the time. No one had ever needed her like that before. She felt special. They got married. Soon, he started yelling at her. A lot. She was so confused. He said the house was always dirty, dinner was either gross or bland, and she was disgusting, worthless and dumb. His insults got worse and happened more often after her daughter was born, and she thought of leaving but who else would have her, where else would she go. Her husband told her she would have nothing, and be nothing without him. She believed him.
I am 10 years old and we’ve just arrived at the free apartment the Jewish Agency gives to new immigrants to Israel. The space is dreadfully sparse, furnished only with a futon-like couch, rickety wooden table and chairs, and five narrow cots. My mother gasps when she walks into the galley kitchen. “Tommy, there’s no stove,” she cries pointing at the hot plate on which she’s apparently expected to prepare our meals. Despite our many hours of travel from Virginia and the intensity of the Middle East summer heat, my mother’s dark brown bob flips out perfectly from underneath a colorful scarf.
With her oversized sunglasses perched on top of her head, my mother looks glamorously grief-stricken when she comes out of our new bathroom. I go in. When I come out, my mother is crying. She doesn’t yet know that showering will lead the bathroom floor to flood or that the mop will allow her to swish our dirty water through the living room, out the apartment and into the humid hallway, but already my mother, who was the editor of her high school newspaper and an honors student before she got married, weeps as she dutifully unpacks our suitcases—and my father heads out to explore.
My client was still speaking, and my attention was drawn back to her voice. “And then he slapped me so hard across the face that I fell down the steps,” she said.
She had reached the hitting and kicking part of her story. I focused on her words.
“On my daughter’s third birthday, that’s when I knew I had to leave. He made her watch that night while he let loose on me. She was crying so hard and I couldn’t do anything to help her. I didn’t know how I’d find a job, if anyone would help us, but then someone told me about this place, I can’t tell you who, is that okay? [Lawyer nods.] Yeah, so, I knew I had to leave. I can’t let my baby keep watching him treat me like that, hitting me, and calling me stupid bitch all the time. No. I won’t have her grow up thinking it’s okay when a man curses at you and pushes you around.”
“Real life isn’t like Oprah. You’ll see when you get married. Someone is the taker, it’s usually the man, and someone gives. There’s no such thing as an equal relationship. One person has to be in charge.” This is what my mother said when I asked why, regardless of how hard I saw she tried to please him, my father criticized what she cooked, the way she did the laundry and how she cleaned the house. Why she simply stopped talking when he mocked her and so easily obeyed when just as soon as she’d completed one chore, my father barked at her to perform the next. Or berated her and told her to redo it, but better, right, like someone smarter, thinner, saner, the way he would do it if he wasn’t above such menial tasks.
Mr. Legal Aid caught my eye and made a scribbling gesture over his yellow legal pad. I nodded yes, and pretended to write something down.
Why was I thinking about the absorption center in Israel, and my mother? I was at a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was there so I could help someone sad and poor, someone else, someone who had been abused. I was on my way to insuring that nothing like what had happened to the woman sitting in front of me would ever happen to me. I was becoming sovereign and strong, a lawyer.
A lawyer did not have a man always telling her exactly what to do, determining every aspect of her life. A lawyer was savvy and smart. She sometimes needed guidance, but ultimately, a lawyer figured things out on her own. A lawyer did what she wanted, when she wanted, where she wanted. A lawyer said what she thought, and other people listened to her ideas without putting her down. A lawyer did important work.
A lawyer was nothing like my mother.
When, in addition to my legal work for the Shelter for Help in Emergency, I wanted to sign on as a general volunteer, I had to complete a six-week training
course on domestic violence prevention. I was just going to be doing simple household chores and playing games with the residents’ children for a few hours every week. My interactions with the residents would be minimal, but the shelter director said that with women in such sensitive situations, it was important that I know how to use the most supportive kind of talk.
My first training was held on a Saturday morning in a small church in Charlottesville. As I walked under an enormous gold cross painted over the doors to the white, wooden building, it struck me as ironic that in order to perform what by most societal standards would be considered a good deed, I had to violate the Sabbath. Plus, I was engaging in another big Orthodox no-no, a violation of the Avodah Zara’s prohibition against entering any non-Jewish house of worship. The tractate of the Talmud that deals with Jews living with non-Jews forbids me from stepping into that church, even if just to admire the architecture or artwork, lest I be tempted. I found the social hall where a group of about ten women were sitting cross-legged on beige vinyl tile. No one spoke but I received several smiles. And the women made room for me on the floor.
A middle-aged woman with dreadlocks introduced herself as the group’s leader. She reached into a canvas bag and pulled out a bundle of multi-colored yarn. Holding the wool up, she invited us to join her in the “journey to help women realize their worth.” I stifled a nervous giggle. It was what my mother would have dismissed as “touchy feely” talk. The group leader unraveled a bit of yarn, and then, still clutching the loose string, threw the rest of the skein across the circle.
The woman who caught it had straight blonde hair and wore a light pink sweater set. She looked down at the material in her hands and said, “Well, I was in an abusive relationship in college. All four years. He called me horrible names. Told me I was trash. Worthless.” I felt a twitch move up the top of my spine, but kept my gaze straight, my head lifted. The woman raised her head too. Our eyes met. “Finally, I told my sister. Got help. And now I want to use my voice to give back,” she finished. I didn’t have time to process my surprise at her admission because she then proceeded to throw the yarn straight into my lap.
I reached instinctively for the wool. It felt scratchy but flexible. I squeezed it in between my palms. Worthless… Trash…Crazy… Pig… These are some of the words my father used to describe me when I questioned his Orthodox Jewish religion or disagreed with his right-wing conservative politics. These names are what he called me when I asserted an opinion that differed from his own. My father maintained that no one wanted to hear my voice. Had he used his voice for abuse?
In Criminal Law class, I’d learned that to be held guilty for a crime, a person must have possessed the requisite mens rea or intent. “The act is not guilty unless the mind is guilty.” If the act to be assessed was the utterance of a man’s words to his daughter, then, yes, my father was liable. But if he needed to intend the deep hurt that resulted when he spoke, well, then I wasn’t sure.
I thought about trying to talk to my father when I was 14 about Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, a far-right religious-political organization on the FBI terrorist list. Rabbi Kahane also led a Jewish nationalist political party called Kach that the Israeli government banned in 1989 on the basis that it was anti-democratic and incited racism. My father was already seated in his high-back synthetic oak chair at the head of the dining room table when he asked if I wanted to go with him to hear Kahane speak again at shul. I set his tarnished silver kiddush cup and a bottle of Kedem grape juice next to his plate.
“I don’t think Kahane’s my thing,” I said.
“Not your thing?” my father mimicked.
I looked through breakfront glass. There it was, a single framed picture of my father, grinning, one arm slung over the shoulder of a stern-faced Rabbi Kahane. There were no other family photographs on display in the light tan cabinet that matched our table and chairs, just my father and his hero. A sweet waft of freshly baked challah mingled with the savory aroma of my mother’s chicken soup. If only that scent could have fulfilled its promise of comfort.
“What kind of liberal crap have you been reading?”
“The Washington Post?”
“Watch it,” my father warned. The two lines between his eyebrows grew deep and taut.
“I’m just trying to tell you what I think.”
My father stood up abruptly. He opened his prayer book, and muttered, “No one wants to hear what you think.”
After my father said the kiddush, washed his hands, and praised God for our bread, I nonetheless tried again to help him understand how I felt about Rabbi Kahane.
“Dad, wasn’t there a country club in Newport News when you were growing up that didn’t allow Jews? And didn’t you get into a fight when you were my age because another kid called you a kike? What Kahane’s trying to do, it’s like the same thing.” My father put his left index finger in his mouth and bit down. It was a warning sign. Still, I went on.
“Mistreating other people, that’s not what makes you strong. When I went to hear him with you the last time, Kahane said he doesn’t hate Arabs; he loves Jews. But it didn’t sound like he loved anybody. He just sounded angry.”
“Of course he’s angry. Any good Jew is angry. Those sand monkeys are trying to blow us off the map.”
“Ohmygod, that’s what I mean! How can you even say such a terrible name for people?” I cried.
“What’s wrong with you? You don’t tell me what to say.”
My stomach churned. “What? I didn’t tell you, I meant,” I tried to explain, but my father interrupted. “You’re confused all right,” he said. “Liberals, think they know, think they can just talk-it-out. Jesus! Now you’re interrupting and screaming at me? Allene, do you hear this? What kind of girl talks like this to her father?”
“I didn’t scream.”
“Enough. I’m your father. You don’t question me. You don’t tell me what is. You listen to me. You do what I say.”
“This isn’t about doing anything. I’m just trying to talk to you.”
“Enough,” he said.
“You’re not being fair.”
My father slammed his fist on the table. “I said enough!” he shouted. Then he softened to his normal tone, and continued, “Fair? Jesus. This is the kind of girl you want to be, talking about fair, after all I’ve done. What kind of worthless…” Here, my father paused. He gritted his teeth. He didn’t complete his question. Instead, he barked at my mother; “Allene for Christ’s sake what are you doing in there? Isn’t the soup ready yet?”
My father most certainly lashed out with the aim to control. He believed dominance was his due. But I can’t imagine that my father thought his words could do anything to me but cause me to act according to his will. I don’t think that he intended the deep durable pain that the names he called me inevitably brought about. In fact, I don’t believe he had the sense of self-worth necessary to anticipate such a powerful effect. One can’t share with others what he himself does not possess. A man can’t speak to his children or his wife in a loving manner when every exchange in which he participates is a contest of his authority, and every outcome is a measure of his aptitude for conquest.
To my shock, just weeks before I started law school, I learned that my father’s doubts about his self worth had manifested in considerable financial debt. By that time, my father owed more than two hundred thousand dollars to banks and credit card companies. To a large extent, the comforts that my family had enjoyed throughout my adolescence had been deceits. Upon our return to Newport News from Israel, my father had started to craft a life for us that he simply could not afford. And just before I received my law degree, my father would file for bankruptcy. For a man whose worldview required that the family’s patriarch be its provider, this was a devastating act. For all of his declarations about being in charge, in the role critical to his definition of manhood, my father had spent my teenage years worrying that he was a failure.
In the church in Charlottesville, Virginia, I finally said, “Hi, I’m Evelyn.” Then I stalled again by clearing my throat. “I’m a first year law student at UVA, and I’m here because I want to help.” Then I unraveled the yarn just enough to allow myself a short piece of string to hold onto, and threw the yarn across the circle. “I want to help other women,” I added.
Despite my exoneration of my father under standards of American criminal law, it was when I considered Judaism’s take on how he spoke to me that the idea of a trial in the soul got interesting. There are specific guidelines in Orthodox Judaism for how parents and others in positions of authority are to speak to children. According to the twelfth century Jewish sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides, one can rebuke a child who is lazy with his study of Torah, but he must first decide whether the criticism stems from a sincere desire to improve the child’s behavior or whether it is a result of a need to release his own tension and anxiety. Moreover, the Jewish legal concept of onat devarim prohibits causing harm with one’s words when speaking directly to any other person. The Hassidic sages specified that this wrongdoing included verbal abuse, which they defined as name-calling, ridiculing and shaming language.
Judaism’s emphasis on the importance of speech can be seen in many other aspects of Jewish literature and lore. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Chet confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are committed through speech. And in Jeremiah 9:8, speech is compared to an arrow. “Why not another weapon—a sword, for example?” a rabbi asks. “Because,” he is told, “if a man unsheathes his sword to kill his friend, and his friend pleads with him and begs for mercy, the man may be mollified and return the sword to its scabbard. But an arrow, once it is shot, cannot be returned.”
And in Proverbs 18:21, King Solomon shares his similar, famous wisdom: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Even the Torah’s story about creation of the world happens through speech. “Vayomer Elohim yihi or, vayahi or, And God said, let there be light, and there was light.” It follows, the ancient rabbis said, that human beings who were created in God’s image also have the power to make and destroy—to build up or tear down other human beings—through speech.
Words mattered. They could hurt. A lot. But words could also heal. The words I used could create demands for freedom and cases for justice.
A tug on the colorful string between my fingers snapped me back to 1994, and a church in Charlottesville, Virginia. My domestic violence prevention trainer was gathering her ball of yarn. I let go. A moment later, she took out a large cardboard wheel, with a spinner attached to its middle. It looked like a Wheel of Fortune, but the words written in each of the three segments of the circle made it clear that it was not a game. They read, in order, clockwise: 1) tension building, 2) explosive incident, and 3) reconciliation. These were the three stages in the cycle of violence. In the middle of the wheel was a smaller circle in which the word “denial” appeared in bold, capital letters underneath the spinner. Our leader explained that minimizing the abuse or denying that it ever happened is what kept the cycle going, and that the same cycle applied to psychological, emotional, and verbal abuse as did to physical abuse.
Tension. That was my father marching around the house, barking criticism and orders, biting his knuckles and snapping at me to be quiet when I challenged one of his proclamations about the world at large. Explosive incidents. Those were when my father slammed his hands onto the dining room table and screamed at me that I was nasty, worthless or a pig and held up his fist, slammed doors and punched holes into walls as warning signs of what might still be yet to come. Reconciliation. That was when my father pretended that I was confused or had twisted his words when I shared that he’d said something that hurt my feelings—and when he claimed that I was crazy and had completely imagined he’s said anything at all. And denial? That was the way my father maintained his power.
The group broke up, and I walked out of the church. As I got back into my car, I made myself a promise: My mother could continue to claim responsibility—hers and mine—for the harsh things my father said that caused us pain. But I would no longer deny my father’s inexcusable use of abusive words.
Evelyn Becker is a writer and activist in Denver, Colorado. Her upcoming book, Jewess: a memoir, is about who decides what it means to be a Jewish woman.