Thursday, March 25, 2010

Just Say No

An interesting letter appears in this week's Yated. A writer from Lakewood writes to complain how every time a cousin or someone else makes a simcha in Brooklyn, that the Lakewood residents are expected to travel the two to three hours (and incur the costs) that it takes to get to Brooklyn.

Dear Editor,

Since when did Lakewood become one of the five boroughs of New York City?

“Huh?” you want to ask me. “Who said it is?

Well, I’ll tell you who said it is. It seems, based on current custom, that for every event - wedding, bar mitzvah, bris, sheva brachos, etc. - held in Brooklyn or anywhere else in New York for that matter, those who live in Lakewood - young couples and older families as well - are expected to commute. I find that ridiculous.

Who decided that people should be traveling for at least 2-1/2 hours to attend every simcha of every cousin?

Besides for the shlep, how about the impossibility of getting a babysitter? Does anyone know how hard it is to find a babysitter?

And of course, the babysitter will take good money for her services, which she deserves.
Add the cost of gas and tolls, and basically, you have young couples, who live on shoestring budgets in the fi rst place, shlepping to New York at a cost of at least $65-70, to say mazel tov to their disinterested uncle and aunt at their cousin’s wedding, and barely get to eat a cold piece of halfbaked chicken if they even make it for the main course.

I am sorry, but this is not normal.

I know a yungerman who he has limited income. He is smart and careful about how he spends his money, and he and his wife get by okay, boruch Hashem. Recently, however, he told me that he had to travel in to New York for three simchos of cousins, at a cost - all in one month - of a total of over $300, which he cannot afford. (He learns in a paying night kollel and had to give up the money he receives as well.) And for what?

“At one simcha,” he told me, “the baal simcha (his relative) barely gave me the time of day as I wished him mazel tov. I imagine he realized who I am, but I wondered why I even came. But the reason why I traveled,” he said, “was because if we wouldn’t come, my parents, and especially grandparents, would be upset.

It has to stop. Couples who have young children, or even older children, cannot be expected to travel in to New York - or anywhere else that requires multiple hours of driving - for every simcha. It is not fair to the young couples, and it can potentially affect their wellbeing and their shalom bayis, not to mention their finances.

I would add that, similarly, those living in Brooklyn or anywhere else should likewise not be expected to travel for over an hour to Lakewood or any other place for a simcha of a non-immediate relative.

It is time we bring back sanity into our lives and put a stop to the unreasonable expectations and demands that we have allowed to become part of our culture.


Y. Gordon

Here's my response:

Dear Y,

Thank you for your letter. I can certainly understand why you would be upset. Traveling a long distance to go to a simcha can be an arduous and sometimes expensive proposition. And, in this day and age when everyone's watching the purse strings, I definitely understand why you would be upset at having to shell out major money for what might turn out to be a mediocre night at best.

But there was one thing about your letter that left me a bit confused. Is there a police force in Lakewood that forces you go to affairs in Brooklyn and other far away places? I don't mean to be facetious, but I'm wondering why you simply cannot just say no.

I know that I love to go to family affairs. I go just about every opportunity that I can. But I also know that there are times that I simply cannot go. Sometimes it interferes with my work or school schedules. Other times it is just costs too much (financially) to go. And sometimes, it's just not practical -- maybe it's a work night and I know that I'm not going to be up to four hours of round-trip travel time. When this happens, I send the ba'alei simcha my heartiest mazal tov and tell them that while I would love to attend, I have to give my deepest regrets that I simply cannot make it.

Believe it or not, people can and will understand if you cannot make it to a particular simcha for one of the above reasons. People understand that sometimes costs cannot be borne (whether they be financial or logistical costs). And, truth to tell, if the ba'alei simcha are stubborn enough not to understand, then perhaps it's their attitude that needs to be adjusted. If they are selfish enough to "guilt-trip" you into spending money, time or effort that you cannot afford, then perhaps you might want to reconsider how much you want to associate with them. Personally, I would prefer to spend my time with people who are more empathic to my needs and abilities, rather than be so self-centered to demand that everyone attend to them whether they have the means to do so or not.

You write that the yungerman in your town goes to please his parents and grandparents. I can certainly understand that. But even parents and grandparents can be made to understand the fact that you simply don't have the funds or the ability to travel to every family simcha. They may not be happy about the situation, but they can understand.

There is one additional point I would like to address in your letter. You write about going to a wedding "to say mazel tov to their disinterested uncle and aunt at their cousin’s wedding, and barely get to eat a cold piece of halfbaked chicken if they even make it for the main course."

Personally, when I go to a simcha, I don't care if I get a half-baked piece of chicken or not. When I attend a family member's or friend's simcha, my main goal in going is to be m'sameach (make happy) the participants. (I also have a secondary goal, as an amateur shutterbug, of taking as many family pictures as possible -- but that's just my personal mishugass.) I also understand that at a large affair with many people, the ba'al simcha may not have more than a few seconds to give me a quick "Mazal Tov, I'm so glad you could come." In short, I've learned that the wedding or bar mitzvah or whatever is not about me -- it's about the ba'alei simcha. Would it be nice if they could spend a whole ten minutes with me? Sure -- but when there are over fifty guests, it just becomes impractical, if not impossible.

In short, I don't go to a simcha with the idea of "what am I going to get out of the simcha?" My goal is "how can I contribute to the simcha?" If I get nothing out of it (or even just a half-baked piece of chicken and only two seconds with the ba'alei simcha) so be it.

The Wolf


Aaron S. said...

The good part of this discussion is that the Yated letter writer and Wolf got to vent and let some steam off their chests. :-)

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

I live about 1 hour's drive from the nearby very large Jewish community where most of the wife's family lives. I learned long ago to say no to simchas on motzei Shabbos in the spring and summer and how to gracefully (okay, maybe not so much) leave weddings early because of the long drive back.
And if someone complains, I have no hesitation to remind them that they wouldn't make the drive out to us in the first place.

Letter Writer 2 said...

I could be the letter writer, with one exception - I did say no, as Wolf suggests. Here's how that worked out, which may reflect on whether the advice is good:

My wife has a very large family - half live in Lakewood and half in Baltimore. We live in NY. In the first 1 1/2 years after we got married, 10 of my wife's cousins got married, 8 became bar mitzvah, and I don't know how many babies were born. More often than not, we were invited to the lechayim, vort, aufruf, wedding, and shaboos sheva brochos for a wedding; the birthday party (during the week) and the Shabbos leining for a bar mitzvah; the kiddush or the bris for every baby born. Each event involved driving 2-4 hours in each direction, 4-8 roundtrip (not including traffic), and each Shabbos involved being "put up" with people we don't know.

We went to the first few. I noticed a few things: a) no one seemed to care very much that I was present and b) it was heavily taxing on my time (main concern) and monetary resources (secondary) and c) certain members of the family could be counted on to make snide comments in lieu of conversation and would make loud snarky comments whenever we would have to leave before the absolute end of the event.

Then I skipped one. It was a bar mitzvah, and I had another obligation, so my wife went without me. THAT got a rise. Everyone was all over her the entire time, asking where I was, why I didn't come, and whether I didn't like the family. Talk about tactless - there are so many reasons why I might have not been there that they would have no right to ask about.

The next event, we both went. This time they were all over ME, saying things like "How nice of you to come", "Long time no see", "Didn't know you still liked us", "I'm not sure I remember who you are", etc. Wonderful people. I decided there and then that I would avoid these people as much as possible, as diplomatically as possible.

So my wife went to a few events without me (I keep using the word "event" rather than "simcha" for reasons that should now be obvious). The amount of verbal abuse she received from her own family on my account was unbelievable. Eventually she decided not to go to any event that I had to miss.

So, bereft of a direct object for their criticism, they started on my wife's parents. This went on for the year and a half until finally, thank G-d, there was a lull in simchas in the family.

By the next one, we already had a kid at home and things were different. Our kids were a little difficult in the beginning (they've more than made up for it since then) and staying in a stranger's home overnight was not pleasant. We skipped a lot of events, including Shabbos ones, which was like missing family reunions. I don't know at what point it happened, but they eventually reconciled themselves to our position (they meaning my wife's parents, as well as her aunts and uncles) and we have peace - but also distance.

Sorry that my story is a bit long-winded, but it is very personal, and if you read the whole thing you may understand why I am "defending" the letter writer's inability to "say no".

You may say that my wife's family is unusually hypercritical, and you would be right, and you may say that my inability to address the issues directly was at fault - and you would also be right. But when it comes down to it, I was simply too young, too busy, and too ill-equipped to deal with this hostility, and the result has been strained relations. I was just as tactless in my dealings with them as they were unable to deal with me tactfully. So - "saying no" is NOT necessarily good advice.

Dave said...

LW2: The comment you made of "thank G-d, there was a lull in simchas in the family" is a very poor and dangerous way to put it.

Letter Writer 2 said...


I'm pleased you noticed. The experience had a negative effect on me in that respect as well.

Dave said...

Al Tiftach Peh El HaSatan. Praising "a lull in simchas" is a terible ayin hora, Chas V'Shalom, for the opposite of simchas.

Hence my strong suggestion you withdraw that particular sentence.

LW2 said...

Is there any way to edit comments? I don't think there is - or I would make the change for the reason you mention. Believe me, I wouldn't enjoy schlepping down to attend funerals either :-)

Jewish Atheist said...

It can be a hardship out in the secular world too, where people are more spread out. My wife and I have about 5 weddings to attend this year, several of which will require airfare. (Not to mention the costs we will incur for the weddings in which my wife is part of the bridal party -- boy does that add up!)

At least we are appreciated when we go. The secular (or religious but not Jewish) weddings we go to don't feel as formulaic and certainly are nowhere near as large. I get the writer's point that in so many cases in the Orthodox world, the people having the simcha don't seem to actually care if you are there and only invited you out of obligation. When my wife and I go to a non-Orthodox wedding, the couple always, always finds a few minutes over the course of the evening to spend some time with us.

Maybe the real problem is just that the simchas are too big in the Orthodox world. It's not that there are too many of them, it's that they invite too many people. Not only does it mean that the couple (or their parents) cannot possibly be as close to all those people, but it means that everybody ends up going to way too many simchas!

On the other hand, I have gotten to know some cousins I wouldn't have otherwise spent much time with by being invited to their simchas, so I think with close family, it's a good thing.

I agree with you too that nobody should ever be made to feel guilty for not coming to a simcha if they cannot afford it either financially or logistically.

Dave said...

LW2: I think Wolfish can edit out that sentence. Wolf?

Dave said...

(btw, edit out my follow up quoting it as well.)

Anonymous said...

"uninterested," not "disinterested"

Anonymous Sunday Morning said...

Al Tiftach Peh El HaSatan. Praising "a lull in simchas" is a terible ayin hora, Chas V'Shalom, for the opposite of simchas.

Do you really think Hashem is going to punish the writer for the way he expressed a legitimate emotion in a blog comment? How sad. I think Hashem understands just as well what the writer meant(obviously better) than any of the readers and commenters here.

aml said...

As usual, Mr. Wolf is right: learn to say no... and learn to stop caring what other people think. Once you have these two things down, you'll be OK. Send a nice (hand written) card and a small gift, if you can afford it. Pick the simchot you really want to attend- for people with whom you are truly close with- and skip the rest. Life is too short.

Anonymous said...

Here's a radical idea: do what's right under the circumstances instead of always bowing to "social expectations". These expectations have taken on lives of their own, seemingly resistant to all efforts by rabbonim and laypeople to restore Torah-based sanity. These expectations are typically based on an assumption that time and money are unlimited. Maybe they work for the really wealthy---and maybe not for them, either.

As for those who insist on imposing wrong expectations on others, they need to hear the voice of Torah that can overcome their egotism.

Dovy said...

I've always hated attending my chasidishe cousins affairs in Brooklyn and their sickening snobbery. One day I just decided that we weren't going anymore and I never looked back. What a relief!