By Chava Dumas
Shira was a vivacious, dynamic go-getter, a shining star in her class. Donny was a quiet underachiever, living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his withdrawn, recently widowed father. Donny didn’t know what he had done to deserve fantastic young woman from such a well-connected, wealthy family. He considered it a tremendous honor to have found favor in her eyes.
Innocent Deceptions takes us into the very heart and soul of some of the most challenging issues facing the frum world today.
The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation recently sponsored a powerful event called, “When Someone’s Life is In Your Hands: Giving Information for Shidduchim.” Highly respected Rebbeim, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, and Rabbi Noach Orlowek, addressed the halachos of how, when, and what to reveal. One point, stressed many times over, was the utmost need for honesty in the shidduch process.
In her book, Innocent Deceptions, Naomi Hirsch tells a compelling story about betrayal and the far-reaching ramifications of this self-inflicted tragedy on our society and our children within it.
“I heard of someone who was not told, before she married, that her husband had a mental illness,” Naomi told me. “The young woman was, understandably, very upset. Her family felt betrayed and deceived, and they were very involved in the decision for the couple to get divorced-which was not easy to make as she had already grown to care for her husband. But because there is such a stigma to mental illness, people keep it quiet. They don’t want their child to be single, but then they end up single and divorced.”
Naomi did not anticipate the overwhelming response her book would get, but in the time since it was published a few months ago, she and her family have been inundated with far too many true tales of intentional deception during shidduchim, resulting in the agonizing chaos of disrupted lives that her fiction illustrates.
The main character in Innocent Deceptions, Shira Kaufman, is suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. She is the victim of mood swings that make her feel out of control, confused, and depressed, or in complete contrast, euphorically energized, enthusiastically able to work on a project, without sleeping for a week. It is a frightening, isolating ordeal, made worse by her parents’ refusal to see and deal with her bizarre behavior. Only at the insistence of a concerned cousin, a psychiatrist who suspects the true nature of her condition, do Shira’s parents finally bring her in for an evaluation.
The Kaufman’s response to the doctor’s conclusion is not unusual. They try to downplay its significance by saying, “It’s just typical teenage moodiness.” They feel the utmost urgency to keep the matter completely secret. Their cousin tries to convince them of the necessity of speaking with Shira’s chassan, and offers to do so, but they refuse. They are terrified that should word get out that “something’s wrong with the Kaufman’s daughter,” Shira’s chassan will break off the engagement, their family would be stigmatized, and Shira will be destined never to marry.
Naomi Hirsch’s animated characters are who we all are: emotionally frail, fragile, vulnerable human beings. She vividly and sensitively describes the true trials and difficult dilemmas that affect many individuals and their families. Their responses, whether right or wrong, show the complexity of issues that plague people and cause them to act in what certainly can be viewed as unethical ways.
“I wanted readers to gain the ability to better understand the people wrestling with these challenges,” said Naomi. “I hoped that we would become more tolerant and accepting, more forgiving of others by getting a glimpse of what it’s like to be in their shoes.”
She feels very strongly that relevant disclosure, as guided by halacha, be given before the chuppah, so the potential chassan or kallah can make an informed choice about whether or not they wish to proceed with the shidduch.
“Let each individual choose if they can deal with this situation,” Naomi said. “Let each person decide if they are up to the test of being married to a person with a mental illness. If a person isn’t given this essential choice that will affect the rest of their life, the spouse may be advised to opt out quickly, before there are children involved. Well-meaning parents, who, with good intentions, want to save their child from what is seen as the terrible fate of singlehood, end up not saving anyone.”
We, the readers who are exposed to the heart-wrenching scenarios in this book, are left to make our own conclusions. There is no preaching here: to communicate a powerful message, traditional Judaism has always heavily relied on the medium of storytelling, and Naomi Hirsch has masterfully crafted a harrowing depiction that demands a compassionate, informed response from the entire spectrum of our community. The author provides a vital service by opening up a window of light in a dark, confusing subject. We can’t possibly fathom the depth of the hidden elements in a person’s background that influence their visible behavior. This is one of the crucial messages subtly woven into the vivid tapestry of Naomi Hirsch’s work.
“The story I wrote takes place more than a decade ago,” said Naomi. “A lot has changed since then. Medical diagnosis and management of mental illnesses has significantly improved. Great strides have been made in proper treatment. Not everyone has to end up in a facility away from her family, like Shira Haberman. Bipolar disorder does not necessarily manifest itself the same way with all those who are stricken with it.
“And in the realm of foster care, if a family in distress calls and voluntarily asks for their children to be placed in foster care, because they are humble enough to admit that they aren’t managing-nowadays voluntary placement isn’t done. Instead, an investigative team is sent in to set up support sessions to help a family care for their children themselves, teaching, for example, appropriate parenting techniques and coping skills.
“Though I was primarily motivated to write a story about foster care, I was always horrified that parents hide or lie about their children’s illness in order to get them married. But when I wrote the story, I tried to paint the real and most challenging reality that Jeffrey Kaufman found himself in. His daughter was sick, but he deluded himself into thinking that she could be okay, and that he didn’t have to broadcast her illness and risk her being shunned by all prospective matches. That’s why the title is Innocent Deceptions. Okay, you can argue that he really wasn’t innocent, but I wanted people to see why he rationalized to himself that he was doing the right thing.
“I hope that the deception described in my book, will happen less. I hope people will learn to appreciate the benefits of honesty and the terrible toll of damage caused by keeping secrets. And if this kind of information isn’t going to be offered, people have to learn to ask the right questions beforehand: Is she taking medication for any illness? Does she take any medicine regularly? Why? Is he seeing a mental health specialist? Has he ever had psychiatric care? People can not lie when they are asked directly.
In addition, she hopes that her book will help Jews internalize the Torah concept of “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
“A fancy house doesn’t mean a great life,” she says passionately. “That can be seen in the contrast between the extremely wealthy, but highly dysfunctional Kaufman family, versus the loving supportive parental presence found in the simple Torah home of Rabbi and Mrs. Kraus, who offer shelter to Shira’s brother Naftali, during a pivotal crisis episode.
“Very often people go into debt to fill up their lives with material objects,” Naomi continues, “When something is lacking internally, materialism will never satisfy these deep inner needs. We can never achieve meaning by owning mere things.”
Innocent Deceptions describes real personalities that are products of genetic and environmental factors, of nature and nurture. It is easy to enter into and understand the conflicts that motivate Shira’s father’s mindset, as he tries to navigate through the murky waters-barely grasping the seriousness of his daughter’s condition and the pressing need for quality care and timely intervention. At the same time, he is under the enormous strain of striving to uphold the facade of being the perfect, model family.
“One of my main objectives,” Naomi said, “was to explain where people are coming from, and why they end up the way that they do, to try to show that there is a very real, complex person behind every one of Hashem’s creations. Jeffrey Kaufman was wrong, but you see why he did what he did. Donny Haberman was negligent with his child, but given the dynamics in his life and his personal background, you can understand why. I am currently working on my second book, which is connected to the first. That same current flows through the next book. I want to help people to accept one another, so that we can become more kind, less judgmental, and really consider where someone could be coming from.”
In contrast to the fictional characters that Naomi Hirsch created, I spoke to Rina, a woman whose real-life script was played out differently. On her sixth date with Tzvi Krugerman, he began their meeting by saying, “My Rebbeim instructed me that when a person has an illness, he is obligated to tell his shidduch about it. So, I am telling you that I have an illness. It’s called bipolar disorder. If you want to find out more about it, here is a list of people you can call.”
He was very nervous, Rina recalls, clearly highly agitated about being rejected, yet Tzvi then bravely handed Rina a list of phone numbers included those of his Rabbi, his psychiatrist, and a support group referral center.
Rina says, “I was totally shocked. It was the last thing I expected him to say!”
But she cared enough to do her homework. She spoke to his Rabbis, his doctor, and other medical professionals. She spoke to her parents, her siblings, her Rav.
“The universal message I got from everyone, including my parents, was that it is a very difficult life circumstance, but it doesn’t automatically mean “no.”
“I saw that Tzvi was willing to take responsibility for his life. I saw his potential. I did a lot of research. I spoke to a lot of people. My Rabbi said he’s not posul, he said it can be OK, and that each case was different. It can be a person’s life journey, to be married to someone with this particular challenge,” says Rina, who comes from a stable and loving family background with no history of mental illness.
“I’m not saying living with bipolar is easy, and don’t think I haven’t asked myself, during difficult times, when my husband was in a down mode, why would any emotionally stable woman choose this kind of life for herself? But I see now that Hashem arranged that we would get married. Hashem orchestrated a number of events in my younger life that changed my view of the world. For example, I had a close friend who was a survivor of a horrifically abusive childhood. Her courage and determination to heal the scars and live a normal adult life were my inspiration. I learned from her that the greatest people are those whose achievements are imperceptible to the eyes of society. Maybe, in a way, I wanted a share in that kind of greatness. So when I met Tzvi, it didn’t terrify me that he was struggling courageously with a huge life challenge-on the contrary, I knew that this was the kind of person I wanted to share my life with. I feel it’s a privilege to be married to someone who is so seriously striving to work on himself.
“Even though I still found it extremely hard to adjust to my husband’s situation in the early years of my marriage, we always had a lot of trust between us, and we faced the challenges together. We still do. It’s usually not the actual hardships in life that mess us up, but a failure to deal with them in a sincere and compassionate way.
“My husband and I were straight with each other from the start and we are still open and honest every day, and we have a happy marriage. It is not easy, but Hashem gives me the tools I need, just as He gives my friends the tools they need to cope with their ‘normal’ marital problems. In that sense, I am no different than any other Yiddishe wife.
“My husband, though he came from a frum home, suffered a lot of traumatic events as a child. I spoke to a medical expert who told me that even if a person has a genetic predisposition to a mental disorder, it is often an environmental trigger that makes one become ill. So, for our own children, and b’ezras Hashem, we are expecting our fourth child now… we are making efforts to provide a warm, loving, stable home for them to grown and thrive, and hopefully, G-d willing, they won’t be affected.
“I truly believe that when we lie to ourselves and others to supposedly help or protect a mentally ill person, we are doing them a terrible injustice, hurting them so cruelly. We are keeping that person locked up in a cage of lifelong denial and torment. The biggest chessed that you can do for your mentally ill child, spouse, friend or relative, is allow them to face up to the reality of their situation and take responsibility for themselves. This is their only chance for healing.
“And healing can happen. My husband and I davened for good shelichim and we have benefited from high quality therapy. I have seen the tremendous growth my husband has made, and it’s an amazing thing to witness. Even though his prognosis wasn’t so good, he’s gone from being a sick person with some good qualities, to a normal person, with good qualities and some issues. I am very grateful to Hashem to be able to watch the emerging of my husband’s potential.”
Rina continues, “I think mental illness is the last frontier of Chareidi society. If we can get past it, so that people aren’t terrified to talk about it, than people can get the support they need. Right now, I can’t just sit in the park, chatting with other mothers and say, ‘Oh yes, my husbands medication needed adjustment.’ By plain statistics, I know there are other people in my community who are dealing with mental health issues affecting their family dynamics, and it’s a pity we can’t be more openly supportive of each other.”
Building a Jewish home begins with Truth and Trust. Hiding important information is considered a form of genevas da’as-it’s stealing. When there is deception, it undermines the very foundation upon which to build. No one marries a perfect person. The Jewish way of behavior embraces yashrus-being straight.
The frail and vulnerable human beings that Mrs. Hirsch creates beg for a just response. Can we learn to judge one another more favorably, with greater kindness, consideration and compassion as a result of reading this book? I hope so.
Can change within our frum society come as a result of reading a novel? Again, I hope so.
Based on the amount of people who have already contacted Naomi Hirsch, it certainly seems that these challenges are more common in our community than many would like to admit. We can only hope that a more open attitude will mean that self-inflicted tragedies like Shira Haberman’s will in the future remain in the realm of fiction.