Bookmark: ‘You can’t hug a jpeg’

Based on her own experiences with her son and his family in Israel, Rochel Berman has some advice for long-distance families.

Oceans Apart book (photo credit: Courtesy)
Oceans Apart book
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rochel Berman wrote this book from a personal point of view as an American mother and grandmother of children living in Israel, and from a professional point of view as a social worker. Perhaps that explains why Oceans Apart successfully strikes a balance as neither too academic nor too folksy. Berman offers ethnically varied and well-organized first-person accounts, analytical commentary and practical advice for any reader with loved ones living far away.
When her son, Rabbi Joshua Berman, made aliya, she and her husband generally were supportive of his decision. However, with the first grandchild on the way, negative feelings intensified. “The distance between us became my personal enemy,” Berman writes. She has discovered that, despite the many ways technology has eased communication between far-flung family members, “you can’t hug a jpeg.”
Although she highlights her own family’s experiences, Berman adds narratives shared by 70 individuals from 25 different countries about the difficulties presented by long-distance familial relationships. She found most of these contributors in her own South Florida backyard: “neighbors from Sweden and India, a young Romanian woman who worked in our local pharmacy, a Colombian physician’s assistant in my doctor’s office, a Venezuelan personal trainer at the gym, a Brazilian massage therapist at the beauty salon and a Bangladeshi family I met in a doctor’s waiting room.”
First, Berman examines what makes people move far from the lands of their birth. She identifies and expands upon five motivators: looking for a better life, forced migration, educational and career opportunities, changes in marital status and pursuing an ideology – the latter, of course, covering those who make aliya out of choice but also missionaries such as Patricia McGregor, who serves with the Episcopal World Service in Madagascar.
Berman then gives examples of how people living far apart have kept in touch, particularly before the age of electronic communication.
Rajan, who left India for the US in 1984, relates that his mother sent him preprinted post cards with a choice of three options: “I’m fine,” “I’m not fine” and “I’m very busy.” He never used them.
The middle chapters are devoted to grandparenting at a distance, dealing with illness and crisis from thousands of miles away and maintaining spousal, sibling, niece/nephew and in-law relationships despite being oceans apart. The final chapters deal with cultural and language disconnects and with employing technological advances to enhance longdistance communication. Each chapter ends with a synopsis of main points as well as helpful tips, a feature that may strike some readers as schoolbookish but that I found appealing.
The chapter on grandparenting includes a description of the homemade memory books the Bermans composed in three-ring binders following visits with their grandchildren.
“Amichai in America... included captioned photos of the places we went, books we read and foods he ate during his visit. The next volume, Bubbe in Beit Shemesh, chronicled craft projects we did together...and the celebration of his third birthday at nursery school.”
Berman guides the narrative in a reassuring and solution-oriented manner. Though her analysis of others’ personal testimonies may seem gratuitous at first blush, it becomes clear that her commentary is meant to demonstrate lessons readers can take from the experiences of others and utilize to better their own situations. For example, after quoting a grandfather who felt “offended and saddened” by his grown children’s slovenly habits during a visit, Berman points out that his disapproving attitude “engenders anger and resentment” and goes on to suggest healthier ways to approach the prospect of messy visitors.
In her synopsis of strategies for getting through times of long-distance illness and grieving, Berman offers useful ideas (“establish your own relationships with doctors and caregivers, so you don’t have to rely on second-hand information”) and encouragement: “It’s possible to be an important part of the support system, even at a distance.
Feel positive about what you can do, rather than guilty about what you can’t do.”
Berman’s husband, George, penned the final chapter on creative uses of technology.
The danger of writing on this topic is that it changes so quickly. While most of the information remains valid, one item is incorrect – he writes that “your computer must be running to use VOIP.” Fortunately, this is not the case for thousands of people dependent on voice-over-Internet-protocol telephones with area codes in their countries of origin. What is true, though he does not mention it, is that VOIP is useless if the Internet connection is down.
Oceans Apart is prefaced with a foreword by Joy Epstein, clinical supervisor for the department of social services for Nefesh B’Nefesh. Epstein observes that although people often fail to consider “the ramifications of distance on their family relationships when they choose to move far away,” there will come a time when “they will be awakened to the effect of their decision on their bonds with the entire network of family members.”
I would echo Epstein’s endorsement of Berman’s ideas “for making the most of relationships and for dealing with difficult situations that arise.”