Growing up, I always felt like I was living in the shadow of my older brother Yitzie. Our personalities were quite different, and we didn’t look alike back then. But that didn’t change the fact that I was “Staum’s brother.” I was two grades behind him and often had rebbeim and teachers that he had.
When I was a freshman in high school, he was a junior. When I came to yeshivah on my first day with an attaché case, he wanted to disown me. Nevertheless, he did take care of me, showing me the ropes, and protecting me from “freshie bantering” of older classmen. I can’t say I totally minded being in his shadow. He was well-liked and appreciated for his sense of humor and gregariousness. I was far more reserved and shy, and it was helpful that people knew that I was Staum’s brother. But at times it was hard living in his shadow.
After high school, Yitzie went to learn in Eretz Yisrael. Before Pesach of his second year there, he returned home so he could plan where he would go after the summer. For the final few months of that year, he returned to Shaarei Torah, where I was then a senior. I’ll never forget the day I overheard one person ask who the new guy is, and someone else replied, “That’s Staum’s brother!” It was my moment of vindication. For a brief period, I was Staum, and Yitzie was my brother.
This past Shabbos, I had the privilege to serve as a scholar-in-residence in the U-City community in St. Louis, Missouri. My older brother – now known affectionately as Rav Yitz – and his wife, Mrs. Racheli Staum, the menaheles of a Girl’s elementary school, and their family live in Chesterfield, a suburb of St. Louis.
They graciously joined me in U-city and I was able to spend Shabbos with them. I noted in one of my speeches the irony that now, over two decades later, I felt it was a genuine privilege to be “Staum’s brother,” or rather, “Rabbi Staum’s brother.” In the last few years, we also have been told that we look alike.
I have noted in this column that it’s a beautiful feeling to have nachas from one’s parents. I should add that the same is true about having nachas from one’s siblings. I was proud to be associated with my brother and sister-in-law, master educators who are so involved, committed, and respected in their community.
On the flight home, I was thinking about it. Even years ago, when I was proud of my older brother, I didn’t like always living in his shadow. What changed?
The most obvious difference is that now we both live in our own communities and made our mark individually.
But more significantly, I think it’s because I have a far more secure sense of who I am, and I have forged my own identity. Although I hope I am still growing as a person and still have far more to accomplish, I have a much better sense of my strengths and weaknesses and what my capabilities are.
As parents, we want our homes to be emotionally and spiritually embracing places for each of our children. But that is no easy feat. It is amazing how different siblings in the same family are. To make each child feel comfortable requires constant thought and analyzation.
The Diary of Anne Frank has been read by millions of people throughout the world. It is her private reflections about her own life and maturation while living with her family in a hidden annex in her father’s factory to evade Nazi persecution.
The family members were eventually caught and were sent to concentration camps. The only survivor from the family was Otto, Anne’s father. When he returned, he was given Anne’s diary, which he then read for the first time.
The following are his reflections:
“I knew that Anne wrote a diary. She spoke about her diary. She left her diary with me at night in a briefcase next to my bed. I had promised her never to look in. I never did.
“When I returned, and after I had the news that my children would not come back, Miep gave me the diary, which had been saved by, I should say, a miracle. It took me a very long time to read it, and I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts Anne had, her seriousness – especially her self-criticism.
“It was quite a different Anne [than] I had known as my daughter. She never really showed this kind of inner feeling. She talked about many things, we criticized many things, but what really her feelings were, I only could see from the diary.
“And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”
I found his reflection to be jarring and somewhat concerning. The only way we, as parents, can try to meet the emotional needs of each of our children is by knowing them individually. We need to understand what motivates them, what excites them, and what their attributes and struggles are. But all those things require that we really know our children, who sometimes don’t know themselves; other times, they are very guarded, even from their own parents. As they reach adolescence, the challenge only magnifies.
We need to daven for divine assistance constantly, to have energy and patience despite living in a fast-paced, merry-go-round-like life, and that we have the insight necessary to provide our children with what they need.
I hope and pray that my children will always be proud to be Staum brothers and sisters, a feeling that stems from confidence in who they are and appreciation for the differences and abilities of their siblings.