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A sibling rivalry bonded in love

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This time, I dispensed with the wheatgrass.

Two years ago, I wrote about my daughter's bat mitzvah, the ceremony marking a Jewish child's transition to adulthood. I have a self-imposed rule that personal columns must contain a broader message, and the theme of that column was about the ridiculous lengths to which parents go to celebrate their children.

"Despite my determination to resist, I found myself caught in the iron grip of bat mitzvah mania," I wrote. "And I began to understand how ordinarily sane parents get carried away and how the resulting excesses reflect not only conspicuous consumption but also abundant love."

Hence, the wheatgrass that I grew for the centerpieces -- and was frantically snipping the night before the big event.

My younger daughter's bat mitzvah took place last weekend. I wish I could tell you I was more sane this time. Like childbirth, bat mitzvahs, it turns out, are just as painful the second time around -- and just as joyous.

It also turns out that if Emma got a column for her bat mitzvah, Julia wants -- make that, Julia is entitled to -- one for hers. So this is a column about Julia's bat mitzvah, but also about the inescapable nature of sibling rivalry. And, although this part is as much prayer as fact, about the unbreakable bond between sisters.

Sibling rivalry is an apt topic for a bat mitzvah column because it is a subject as old as the Bible. Cain fought with Abel. Jacob cheated Esau. Leah and Rachel competed to bear Jacob's sons. Joseph's jealous brothers sold him into slavery.

This abundance of biblical instances is not surprising because sibling rivalry is such a primal emotion. The oldest child suffers the irreparable injury of being shunted aside as the sole focus of parental love -- and the secondary insult of being expected to enjoy it. One parenting book I read likened the experience to that of a wife whose husband arrives home with the terrific news that he has brought another wife to keep her company.

Meanwhile, the younger child is like a plant forced to grow in constant shade. "All I started out to do was show up my brothers," Saul Bellow said after winning the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature. Energy Secretary Steven Chu describes being the "academic black sheep" of his family, forever falling short of his superstar older brother. When Chu called his mother to say he had won the 1997 Nobel in physics, she thought he was joking.

Parents cannot erase sibling rivalry, but they can exacerbate it. King Lear's troubles, after all, begin when he sets his daughters to compete with each other in expressing their love for him. Comparing a child to his sibling, Samuel Johnson advised, is worse than physical punishment: "A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's an end . . . whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other."

There are times when mine seem to need no help on that front. I was unprepared for the fierce rivalry of sisters, especially adolescent sisters. I have two younger brothers. So I am ill-equipped to referee the nuclear battles over who wore whose sweater, boots, scarf or any of the infinite number of other possessions about which it is possible to bicker.

When you have two teenage daughters, two years apart, you don't have to make comparisons. They do it themselves. On the poster that guests signed when they arrived at Julia's party, Emma wrote, kidding (mostly), and reprinted here with her permission: "Hey. You did OK, not as good as me. You kinda look nice, but not really." But Emma's best friend -- a younger sister herself -- knew just what to write alongside: "You are better than Emma." Followed by a heart.

Then there are the moments of fierce loyalty and support that only a sister can provide. The hair that you think is a disaster looks fine. This friend who's treating you badly is a jerk. You can't say that to my sister.

Watching my girls in the synagogue, standing side by side, I had a hopeful glimpse of a future friendship less fraught with exquisite awareness of allegedly unequal parental portions. Just in case, though, I covered myself against accusations that I did more for one daughter than the other. I dispensed with the wheatgrass, yes. For Julia's centerpieces, I grew paperwhites instead.

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