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I Survived, and Loved, a Road Trip with My Strictly Religious Sister

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It was a dream—and a challenge. Could my two siblings and I–now with full calendars and spread across the country–relive the road trips of our youth that exist only in sepia-toned photos?

After talking about it for years, we finally made it happen in summer 2016: A ten day itinerary, including San Francisco, Carmel and Yosemite National Park. But while we were excited, we also needed to acknowledge that a lot had changed since we last shared the back seat of a Ford station wagon, blissfully content with our Etch-a-Sketch, Archie comic books and a hefty bag of Oreos.

For starters, two of us had spouses, whose interests and physical abilities had to be considered–along with their tolerance for our endless singing of Broadway show tunes. (After our 10th rendition of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” my husband might be reaching for a weapon of his own).

But the biggest issue was that my sister is Orthodox, a path she started exploring in college–in Iowa, no less. What started as an occasional Friday night dinner at the Chabad House, eventually turned into a sheitel-wearing, mikveh-going, three-times-a day davening baal tshuva–someone who has returned to a Torah-observant life.

What did that mean for our getaway? My sister and brother-in-law keep strictly kosher. Without the proper rabbinic seal of approval, even vegetarian restaurants were off-limits. My brother and I–who would get out of a warm bed in mid-blizzard for good barbecue–worried about how this might alter the dynamics. If the whole point was to be together, could we leave them to their cans of sardines while we indulged in four-star restaurants?

A related concern was Shabbat, which fell during the Yosemite leg of our vacation. From sundown Friday to Saturday evening, turning on lights, taking a hot shower–even tearing toilet paper–is forbidden. We knew that our cabin-mates would not impose these restrictions upon us, but we were unsure if we’d feel obligated to keep them company, squandering a precious day of hiking.

Yet all this turned out to be a non-issue, with my sister encouraging us to both savor every morsel and hit the trails with gusto.

That still left our biggest potential landmine: Politics. Not just Donald Trump–but Netanyahu, the two-state solution, Obamacare, the Kushners, the list was endless–and this was before the election.

In many families, the relationship between more liberal-minded Jews and Orthodox mishpochah, has frayed beyond repair. So to ensure harmony, I declared the trip a “politics-free” zone–and for most of the time, everyone complied. However, following Trump’s disparaging remarks about the family of a fallen Muslim soldier, I couldn’t help expressing my outrage, thus violating my own edict (my outburst was well worth the $20 fine).

Of course, it’s wise to have a candid discussion on rules and expectations before traveling with any group–regardless of political views or religion. Travelnig as a group calls for flexibility, especially about developments beyond anyone’s control. So, when brush fires closed a wide swath of the California coast, we quickly had to pivot and come up with Plan B. (After some negotiating, we spent extra time in Carmel.)

Because no matter how carefully you plan or how well-acquainted you are with your traveling companions, surprises happen. I may have shared a bedroom with my sister for 18 years, but who knew she couldn’t resist bellowing “Mooo” out the window every time she spotted livestock?

Despite all my qualms, we reaped lots of benefits. For starters, there were practical advantages of splitting expenses three ways–from our rental car to lodging. We also divided driving and other chores, such as shopping for groceries.

But the biggest upside was the sublime pleasure of climbing into the time machine alongside my siblings. Because of this rare opportunity, we were able to relive childhood stories that could never be unearthed in a more frenzied weekend visit.

When parents have died and all you have is each other, no minutia  is too trivial to hold up to the light. We reminisced about our meanest teachers, the Good Humor truck, odd neighbors and TV Westerns. (Five decades later, the theme song from “Bonanza”–a Sunday night staple–could still trigger a panic attack over unfinished homework). The discovery that our slightly buttoned-up mother’s heartthrobs–Raymond Burr, Jim Nabors and Rock Hudson–were all gay sent us roaring with laughter.

We also discussed more sobering topics that would have been unthinkable a half-century ago: The pros and cons of nursing home insurance, Botox (reasonable response or selling out?) end-of-life care (we’re stockpiling meds) and where to be buried, since we live in different cities.

When we returned home, many friends admitted that they would never attempt such an outing. It’s difficult enough, they said, to endure the obligatory holiday with their siblings, much less spend 10 days together voluntarily. Others just shrugged, saying they didn’t have much contact with their brothers and sisters–not an estrangement as much as a fading away.

Their negative reactions spurred me to dig deeper into adult sibling relationships Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco-based psychologist and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, told me that friction is common: “Families are places of finite resources–both financial and emotional,” he explained. “Children must often compete for those resources, which can create an inherent conflict.”

With the death of a parent, the bonds may loosen even more. No longer is there a need to put issues aside for Mom and Dad; no filial duty to return to the family homestead for the High Holidays or Seder. “Everybody’s busy, so it just gets easier to drift off into separate lives,” Coleman said.

We were determined to not let that happen. Who else will remember our Dad’s long-gone deli? The time Mom dredged chicken with Ajax instead of flour? The blizzard that closed school for a week. or the fire that started in the laundry room?

I know that many families have split over religion—that not everyone is lucky enough to have a sibling who has found peace, clarity and a spiritual anchor in her life, but never judges yours.

But we didn’t start here. In the early frum years, there were plenty of misunderstandings and bruised feelings.. But, somehow, we managed to keep our eye on the prize–to be close, connected and mutually respectful of each other. And, after all this time, what used to be cringe-inducing–say, her swimming in a turtleneck and skirt–doesn’t even register anymore.

Acceptance, it turns out, has been our greatest gift to each other.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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