The Best Is Yet to Be: Women Share Their Midlife Challenges and Triumphs

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The Best Is Yet to Be: Women Share Their Midlife Challenges and Triumphs
Edited By Miriam Lieberman

Targum Press
Brooklyn, 2011
447 pages

Reviewed by Sarah Shapiro

It has often been said that people read in order not to feel alone, and I found myself initially skimming through this book’s chapters in search of situations similar to mine, in the same way that one looks first for one’s own face in a group photograph. Indeed, some of the autobiographical life stories gathered together in this anthology are so similar to my own that they occasionally elicited not only feelings of reassurance and companionship, but also a certain ego-deflating bemusement: Could it be that we Jewish women are so much more—so vastly more—alike than different, like leaves on a branch, each one imagining that none of the others can possibly understand what it’s like to be a leaf?

The Best Is Yet To Be: Women Share Their Midlife Challenges and Triumphs fills a vacuum in the world of Jewish publishing. If there’s anything out there that’s comparable, I am not aware of it.

A multitude of lines throughout the book produced little shocks of recognition, especially when the author was speaking of something I had somehow managed to remain only half-conscious of until reading it here, articulated by someone else.

Dr. Miriam Adahan writes: “It seems that what people fear more than anything is not crime, illness, or even death. The greatest fear is of their own feelings, especially the big three: loneliness, helplessness, and insignificance.” And: “Among the thoughts that can harm your spirit are . . .  ‘This is an unfair punishment. What have I done to deserve this?’ ‘I’m a failure [if I’m unable] to fully accept this nisayon.’ ‘G-d doesn’t love me.’”

A book needn’t perfectly replicate one’s own outer experience to strike a profoundly familiar and resonant chord within.

In a chapter entitled “The Correspondence,” one woman, who chose to remain anonymous, describes her disabling, persistent sorrow upon sending off her youngest to Eretz Yisrael. She sought out the companionship of other women in comparable situations, and started to keep a journal. With the passage of time, she writes, she realized that “this is a new life stage, a rite of passage just like every new phase we go through. It’s a time of contemplation and serious soul-searching [from which] we can emerge stronger and better . . . And of course, I sometimes get sidetracked and forget why we were placed on this earth to begin with.”

Rebbetzin Baila Susholz solves one of life’s minor, persistent mysteries in a poem:

At a gathering, I met an old acquaintance.
I kissed her.
My mind wondered, “She is not necessarily your good friend. Why are you kissing her?”
My heart answered, “When you kiss an old acquaintance, it is as if
You are kissing
All the years
That went by.” 

Mimi Frank speaks of one of the perks of getting older: the willingness and ability to act as if:  I was determined to break the cycle . . . I would become the mother I never had. I would heal by giving and being generous . . .  positive, optimistic, uncritical. I would heal by being elevated . . . by treating my mother with sensitivity and respect despite it all . . . And when she came to live in our home after my father’s death, I would treat her with love, as if I loved her. I would become someone I could respect. Maybe it was revenge, but whatever it was, it worked.

Paula Weinberg writes about accepting the changes that inevitably come:

This year . . . I finally made peace with my gray hair, which [after years of being dyed] is now a lovely white. It was a hard decision . . . When I looked in the mirror, it didn’t seem like me—maybe my mother, but certainly not me. [But] Hashem gives us a certain amount of pigment [and] like everything else in the physical world, there is a limit. So, too, my days of having medium-ash-brown hair have come to an end . . . I am not my gray hair . . . Who am I? Who do I want to become?

Then she happily adds: “I wear my sheitel in the tint that Hashem originally gave me.”

Varda Branfman tells of having been ecstatic whenever she got pregnant. “At the age of forty, I wasn’t ready to forfeit that blessing, [so a friend] reminded me that there was more to having children than giving birth to them. ‘Now you can dedicate yourself to raising them.’”

As one who finds herself in midlife without a spouse, I would have liked more chapters about the experience of loneliness—whether by virtue of death, a late-life divorce, childlessness, singlehood, or any of the other circumstances that can land a woman at this stage not in one or more of her anticipated midlife roles as wife, grandmother, or mother-in-law—but rather, in one or another version of solitude. I would therefore welcome another volume by Miriam Lieberman that would explore these other regions of the soul, but a book needn’t perfectly replicate one’s own outer experience to strike a profoundly familiar and resonant chord within. For while our external circumstances are infinitely varied, marvelously complex, and intricately designed to suit each neshamah’s unique requirements—often giving us an illusory impression of being “the only one who’s gone through this” —the basic program for emotional and spiritual growth is as standardized as if we’d all been made in the same factory.

No matter how individualized our life stories may be, we’re all being put through necessary educational paces as our lives unfold purposefully from within. We’re propelled forward relentlessly, one way or another, whether we like it or not—as Miriam Lieberman’s anthology makes clear—toward the wholeness of our higher selves.

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are Wish I Were Here and All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches writing in Israel and the U.S. Her book Growing With My Children: A Mother’s Diary is available at www.Jewish-e-books.com.

 

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2012.

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