Tonight we begin the commemoration of our Uncle Menachem’s Second Yahrzeit.
Last year, as we stood on Har Hamenuchos at the Hakamas Matzeiva (unveiling) of my mother’s brother, Menachem, I had an awesome thought. In this world, Menachem was severely impaired and was never able to speak or care for himself. While in life, Menachem never quite fit in, now he has a final resting place among his people, with great Jewish leaders lying all around him. His headstone shares the same physical dimensions as those surrounding him and the format and epitaph on his matzeiva are so similar to his neighbors in The World to Come. While in life, he could not modulate himself to the cadence of others, now it does not matter.
He is buried next to my father, who was a Torah masmid(diligent Torah scholar) and returned his soul to The Creator six weeks after Menachem. He is buried in the section right above our beloved Rav, Rabbi Shlomo Weinberger, who was a pedigreed yet modest Talmid Chocham (Torah scholar). He is in the same section as Dr. David and Nava Applebaum, who were murdered on the eve of Nava’s wedding. David was the paradigm of a caring ER doctor, treating victims and perpetrators of terror with extraordinary heart and exemplary skill. Nava represented the pure and unlimited potential of the Jewish bride. In גוש ל״ו חלקה א׳, we have leaders of our great nation who inspired us in their lifetime and beyond.
This thought made me contemplate. If Menachem is lying among leaders now, how do we make sense of his limited life lived outside “the camp”? How do we understand a life that was filled with pain and inability, lived away from the mainstream? If we are all part of G-d’s orchestra, what piece did wordless and disabled Menachem play? Can it be that he was a dispensable part of the orchestra, a mistakenly chosen member asked to silence his instrument?
If we understand that there are no mistakes in this world, we must believe that difficulties are designed to test us and strengthen us, even as we fear that they will break us. While Menachem endured gawking, he was chosen to be a part of the world in the time and place where he was born. Why he suffered we will never know in this world, as we are limited in our understanding of the finite world, believing that only G-d transcends time and space
What we do know is that Menachem’s out-of-sync music was chosen for the world into which we were born. I was chosen to be a musician in the same orchestra as Menachem, born about ten years after him. Because every player’s contribution is vital to the composition, The Composer must have had a vision for Menachem’s silent music, entrusting us to play our own piece, while enhancing the unique music of our cohorts.
A rare flaw often adds value to a diamond, a stamp or a top model. The inclusion of another gem or material in a diamond can increase its market price exponentially. A watermark on a stamp that is applied sideways creates rarity and increases value. A model who has a broad forehead or vitiligo of the skin can flaunt the flaw to become a top model, precisely because of the defect. Their flaw makes them unique, relatable and recognizable. Even in the world of the living, our generation has learned to include and celebrate those who are different. Perhaps, Menachem’s dissonance was precisely his contribution to our music, adding a unique depth and making our music relatable and recognizable to others.
Menachem’s music was one of purity and goodness. He was a gentle soul who was incapable of harming another. While he was out of step with his world, he was a modulator, slowing down our frenzied rhythm to notice and care for his needs. While his instrumental was silent and awkward, he made ours more divine and nuanced.
Beautiful music touches our souls and inspires others to deep spiritual connection. Menachem’s music brought the instrumentalists in our family together to create our own unique melody. In his lifetime, we came together to share, visit and care for his needs. For this yarzheit, our family has undertaken to recite the entire sefer (book) of tehillim (psalms)on his behalf. We now realize that together our music can be more exquisite than that of any one individual within our group. Menachem is our catalyst for growth and increased sensitivity, for leaving our own comfort zones in his service.
In life, Menachem was rarely understood by others, gesturing and hitting himself. As we see his matzeiva among those around him, we finally see him at peace surrounded by our family, our leaders and our great nation. Here, there is no dissonance or impairment. He is at home.
Today is the thirteenth Yarzheit of Devorah bas Yitzchok Aaron, my mother-in-law. It is hard to believe that so many years have passed since her petira (death). While in her life I did not always appreciate her rebuke, as the years go by, I appreciate and hope to internalize the lessons she taught me. Many of those life lessons are intrinsic in the root and the very letters of her name, Devorah, as this name encapsulates her past and future essence.
The Hebrew word Devorah shares the same root as the word dibur (speech) and the word davar (thing), both themes befitting for this Devorah. We are endowed with koach hadibur (power of speech) and it is an awesome responsibility to use speech in a positive way. There are many halachos (Jewish Laws) surrounding speech and we are cautioned against even the slightest misuse of speech. My mother-in-law was endowed with an unusual koach hadibur as she was known for her gift of gab. She made friends easily and used this power to include others that would be forgotten. She spent many hours each day on the telephone in friendship and kindness, bringing people together and offering help to those in need. She was not afraid to instruct us and guide us with words, even chastising us when we erred.
My mother in law would admonish me if the leaves were not swept in front of the house or if the chairs were not scrubbed down before any outdoor event. She spared no words to tell me if she didn’t like the way I dressed my children or myself. Although the criticism stung, I appreciate my mother-in-law’s direct rebuke. It allowed me to correct the things that I did wrong and I can now thank her for telling me what I needed to hear directly and not through someone else.
Mom was the master of little things. She would show up with all the missing things that she had noticed on the last visit. She would bring dollar store items, giveaways from the last simcha and safety pins.
The root of the Hebrew word Devorah also forms the word davar, meaning a thing. Mom was the master of little things. She would show up with all the missing things that she had noticed on the last visit. She would bring dollar store items, giveaways from the last simcha and safety pins. In her lifetime, I did not really appreciate those little things. Now, I realize that she was paying attention and it was a gesture of love.
I have been repeating these two quotes that encapsulate this idea: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may realize that they were the big things” and “Little things make the big things happen”. Mom really was the master of these little things, finding inexpensive ways to express her love and concern for us.
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may realize that they were the big things”
Much as the root of Devorah captures my mother-in-law’s life, the letters in her name are formed in a way that appear to have been created just for her. When parsed into the distinct letters, the Hebrew word דבורה (Devorah) contains the letters ד-ב-ו-ר-ה . The first four letters ד-ב-ו-ר all have vertical lines that are grounded on the right side as they reach backward toward the letter before them and they are open on the left side as they move forward toward the next letter. The last letter ה represents Hashem (G-d) and is similar to the dalet or the raish, but with another leg.
The idea of these letters connecting staunchly to the past while being open to the future represent Mom’s ability to take her upbringing and create a future with her own openness and character. Mom’s kindness and caring nature was imprinted by her parents. Sora and Yitzchok Aaron Kramer a’H were masters of chesed (kindness) who took care of refugees in Williamsburg after World War II. My own Opa z’l was the beneficiary of their kindness and charity in those difficult years and we owe much to the chesed of the Kramers. Mom had the unique ability to open her door, her home and her heart to others and to offer them the ability to move forward into the future, too.
The ד (dalet) is the first letter of her name and it represents a door. It is formed as a vertical line, representing the doorpost with a horizontal line above, formed as a lintel.
The ד (dalet) is the first letter of her name and it represents a door. It is formed as a vertical line, representing the doorpost with a horizontal line above, formed as a lintel. Mom’s door was always open to those who needed her. As one of thirteen children and the youngest daughter, she was the one who opened her home to her own mother after her father died. I vividly recall her running to the door happily when we arrived with the family for a visit. She always greeted us warmly. Her door was a welcome entrance to her warm home.
The ב (bais) is the second letter of her name and it represents a home. Like the other letters in her name, it has a vertical line that is grounded and is open to the left. Like the dalet before it, it has a roof over the line. Unlike the others, it appears to be seated with a roof over it. To me, it looks like someone being served by Mom. No matter what time we arrived, she insisted on feeding us. Her home was always open to her neighbors and friends, who enjoyed many Shabbos and Yom Tov (holiday) meals at her table, drawing inspiration from these visits.
The ו (vav) is the third letter of her name and it represents a hook. Like the other letters in her name, it has a vertical line that is grounded and is open to the left. It is a letter of connection; when added to the beginning of a word, it means “and”. Mom’s gregarious nature helped her form bonds with people of all ages and from all walks of life. While my good natured father-in-law was often credited with connecting the family, Mom was the vav that engineered the connection and initiated relationships.
The ר (raish) is the third letter of Mom’s name and it represents a head. Like the other letters in her name, it has a vertical line that is grounded and is open to the left. It is a letter of leadership, representing the forward-thinking nature of my mother-in-law as she engineered and implemented ideas that brought people together. Perhaps, the most memorable was her fiftieth wedding anniversary trip to Israel. It was a well-planned and unforgettable trip for the children and grandchildren.
The ה (hey) is the last letter of Mom’s name and it represents G-d. Like the other letters in her name, it has a vertical line that is grounded and is open to the left, but it has the addition of a short vertical leg that takes the word into the future. It is a letter that transforms the material aspects of Mom’s hospitality, connection and leadership into the eternal spiritual realm.
The word Devorah and the letters within create the framework for Mom and her legacy. It is a lasting tradition of kindness created by her parents that she built upon to form her unique brand of hospitality and connection. May her memory be blessed.
Today is the first yahrzeit for my Uncle, my mother’s brother, Alter Menachem Mendel ben (R’) Chaim Dovid. It is a time for reflection upon a life, both tragic and beautiful. It is an opportunity for us to look back upon the life and soul of someone who without a single word offered us a glimpse into the darkest and holiest part of ourselves.
Menachem a’H was the youngest of my mother’s siblings, born into an era and into a world that could not understand or appreciate the beauty and holiness of his neshoma (soul). While the greatest of our leaders would stand up with the utmost of respect when Menachem and others like him entered the room, his neighbors stared and shunned him.
Menachem was a strong but silent child. My mother would describe how she would take Menachem by the hand as she ran errands for her family and how she would be haunted by the unfriendly glares of her neighbors. Painfully, my mother recalls taking Menachem to the fruit store as he ran into the street amid the stares and angry screams of the other shoppers. Although the Rebbeim whom the family consulted saw greatness in Menachem’s soul, my mother cannot recall any neighborhood compassion and empathy for Menachem and her family’s struggle to raise him. The stigma of birthing and raising a child with pervasive developmental issues was too much for my mother and her family to bear.
Menachem loved gefilte fish and Shabbos, yet could not modulate himself to his neighborhood’s cadence.
My grandparents were unequipped to continue raising Menachem in their neighborhood. It was too difficult for their family to continue daily living within their community with a child that could not be accepted. His neighbors saw tragic deformity and impairment, never glimpsing long enough to see Menachem’s gentle purity. People gawked at him being led around the neighborhood, but none appreciated the holiness hidden beneath the surface of a body and mind that was different from their own. Every Friday night as Opa z’l returned from shul (synagogue), Menachem would put his fingers into Opa’s mouth, begging him to sing Shalom Aleichem (a welcome hymn) to the malachim (angels). Menachem loved gefilte fish and Shabbos, yet could not modulate himself to his neighborhood’s cadence.
It was an era with no resources to help Menachem and his family cope and adjust to these extraordinary challenges. Menachem became a burden to his family and to the world into which he was born. Oma and Opa felt the sunshine leave their life.
With the encouragement of their Rabbeim, Oma and Opa moved Menachem to an institution they felt would be more equipped to raise him. Letchworth Village was an institution of grey stone buildings set in a beautifully forested part of New York State. Menachem moved to Letchworth, where he went to school and became part of this austere campus.
Letchworth was a place that labeled and matched their residents by their mental disability, never by any of their abilities. It was a forbidding place with no laughter and no heart. It was a soulless place that cared for Menachem physically with no regard to his heart or his neshoma. Although it was quite a distance from their home, Oma and Opa visited Menachem weekly at Letchworth.
The outward beauty of the Letchworth grounds belied the hideous indifference of its culture.
I remember visiting Letchworth as a child. We visited New York for Pesach and Sukkos and the Letchworth grounds were beautiful in spring and autumn. There was colorful fall foliage and freshly cut grass, yet the clean grey barracks were unpleasantly grim with the staff’s demeanor even grimmer. The outward beauty of the Letchworth grounds belied the hideous indifference of its culture.
Letchworth was a cold institution in a camp-like setting, serviced by an apathetic and somber group of attendants. Menachem’s companions were non-verbal like him, yet they were far more aggressive than him. Gentle Menachem often was “injured” by his bunkmates. I remember my mother advocating for Menachem, but it was an era where advocacy fell on deaf ears. Despite the abuse from his co-residents, Menachem never lashed out at anyone else, only at himself. It was so painful to see Menachem hitting himself when he was frustrated or upset.
When we visited, we always brought lunch. Menachem always appreciated the gefilte fish, applesauce and chocolate that we brought, sporting his goofy smile. As a young child, I was always amazed at the volume of food consumed by Menachem and always found it adorable that he went searching our bags for more when he finished what we brought.
We would sing Sholem Aleichem to Opa’s tune and kiss Menachem before we left back to Cleveland. I remember him patting his forehead in the spot where we had kissed him. Many visits ended with Menachem running away and the staff forcibly returning him to his bunk. They were painful memories for me, yet I cannot even imagine the pain that Menachem endured in Letchworth.
As the decades went by and patient advocacy improved, Letchworth closed. I was already a mother of my own children when Menachem was moved to a group home in Rockland County, New York. On weekdays, Menachem went to school. On the rare weekend when we visited him, he would be sitting in the same spot on a light blue vinyl wing chair.in the corner of the living room. When we would enter, he would raise his eyebrows in anticipation and would follow us happily to the kitchen for his gefilte fish lunch and chocolate dessert, still searching our bags to make sure that we did not waste a morsel of food.
Menachem’s mobility was becoming more compromised and he began suffering a variety of health issues. After one of his hospitalizations, it became clear that the group home could no longer support him and that he would be moved to a nursing home in the Monsey, New York area. That became the beginning of our family coming together to nourish his body and his soul.
We formed a Whatsapp group dedicated to visiting Menachem and sharing issues, insights and pictures relative to Menachem. He became the icon of this group and we would share funny, heartwarming vignettes of our visits along with advice for the next day’s visitor. This group helped us procure almost daily visits, feeding and advocacy for someone whose soul had been neglected for decades. My Tante Sari and Uncle Gershon and their family were the most faithful visitors. My cousin Devorie, my mother, my brothers, their wives, my children and grandchildren and so many others shared the almost daily visits.
We encouraged others to see the humanity in Menachem’s impairment and together, we brought sunshine and laughter to his final years. Thursdays were my day to visit and I looked forward weekly to bringing him Shabbos delicacies. Often I played Uncle Duda’s recording of Opa’s Shalom Aleichemtune as Menachem listened with concentration and contentment.
We befriended his nursing home friends and loved to hear uproarious stories about Menachem swiping chocolate and soda from his neighbors.
We advocated that he be dressed and fed in a dignified manner. Don monitored his health and we vigilantly watched his mood for any changes. We befriended his friends and loved to hear uproarious stories about Menachem swiping chocolate and soda from his neighbors. He was well-liked by his co-residents as people in the nursing home finally caught a glimpse of his precious and holy soul. If Menachem was hitting himself, we knew that something had gone wrong and often, his friends would tell us exactly what had occurred even as the staff members were tight-lipped.
Lenore, the social worker, Zena, the physical therapist, and Tops, the recreation specialist, became our friends as they took special care of Menachem. We identified issues and brought gifts to those who cared for him. While there was still much apathy, Menachem had finally found a home where he could be surrounded by caring people.
One of our pet peeves became his unruly nails. SInce Menachem loved to feed himself, his long nails were often dirty. We would advocate at every care plan meeting that they be trimmed and cleaned regularly. As nail care was not on Menachem’s list of favorite activities, it became an ongoing struggle. On one visit, the nurse suggested that I cut his nails.
I realized right away why this was a constant struggle. Menachem did not want me cutting his nails as he struggled wordlessly. I asked one of the assistants to help hold his hand while I cut his nails, one by one. As I got to the second hand, I cut one nail a bit too short and Menachem pulled his hand away as his finger began bleeding. I apologized to Menachem, as tears streamed down my cheek. Menachem reached out to me, stroking my hand, showing me that he forgave the injury. That was his pure neshoma speaking loud and clear.
In December of 2019, it became apparent that Menachem would need a tracheotomy and that we needed to find a home equipped to service his new needs. We advocated that he move to a nursing home administered by my cousin, Ephraim. Little did we realize how vital it was that we make this move as COVID was just beyond the horizon.
With sadness, we moved Menachem to Ephraim’s nursing home, understanding that it would be the end of a long and arduous journey. There, Menachem was treated like a VIP and it helped that Menachem shared the same last name as the nursing home administrator. Ephraim visited him often and treated him to music and much affection. Ephraim visited daily and despite the excellent loving care, Menachem endured many hospitalizations. As COVID became rampant, it was miraculous that Menachem never tested positive for COVID. At a time when hospitals and nursing homes were closed to visitors, G-d had made certain that Menachem was visited almost daily by Ephraim.
The family that had finally helped uncover his soul eulogized him as we said goodbye at JFK Airport on a cold Motzei Shabbos
Menachem returned his precious soul to The Creator last Thanksgiving night, י׳א כסלו תשפ׳א. The family that had finally helped uncover his soul eulogized him as we said goodbye at JFK Airport on a cold Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night). . The plain wooden casket housing Menachem’s body was loaded onto the plane for his burial in Jerusalem.
On Zoom the next night, we lovingly watched as his body wrapped in a tallis (prayer shawl) was lowered into his grave. The Jerusalem night sky was the perfect backdrop to a silent soul who had endured much pain and yet remained pristine. That divine moment was not lost on us as we saw the holy ground embrace our dear holy Menachem. Menachem’s imperfect body and his perfect soul had finally come home.
Today was one of the happiest days of my life. It was also one of the most difficult days of my life. Today, my newest grandson was named for my father zt’l. The experience of attending the bris and hearing my holy father’s name ascribed to a child of eight days was a bittersweet moment. It was one of desperately trying to merge the memories of the past with the hopeful potential of the future. This tiny child was given the big name, Refoel Yisroel Yaakov ben Yitzchok Aaron. This appellation depicts struggle, consistency, humility and triumph, all attributes that both represent our forefather, Yaakov and my father, who was named at his bris, Yisroel Yaakov.
We are offered much insight in Tanach about the original name Yisroel and Yaakov, both names given to Yaakov Aveinu (our forefather Yaakov). Describing the birth of the twins of Yitzchok and Esau in Bereishis 25:25-26, we read:
Then his brother emerged, grasping the heel of Esau; and He named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.
The Medrash teaches us that of the two twins, Yaakov was actually conceived first, which would entitle him to the bechora (eldest birthright). At birth, Yaakov fought to emerge first, proving in this natural world that he was entitled to the bechora. Describing the birth, it emphasizes that Esau emerged as a redhead and they called him Esau whereas Yaakov was born holding the heel of Esau and He called him Yaakov. This passage begs several questions: who was He and why would Yaakov be named for his failed struggle, grasping the heel of his twin and future adversary Esau?
My father taught me to first explore the simple peshat (understanding) of תַּרְגּוּם אֻנְקְלוֹס (an Aramaic translation by the convert Unkelos),for his terse translation can be illuminating. Unkelos translates וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ as וְידיה אֹחידה meaning Baby Yaakov was united or linked with the heel of Esau. As I tried to understand this passage, I contemplated, what is a heel?
A heel is the body part that touches the ground, it is the first part of a footstep. A heel is what connects a person to the material part of the world and sets one’s direction. Perhaps, Yaakov’s struggle was to be united with Esau. Perhaps, he fought to prove that it was possible to incorporate the material world of Esau within the spiritual world of Torah. That union could begin a holy trajectory.
The word Yaakov described my father’s essence so completely. As a young boy, my father was a gifted athlete. As he would dig his heels into home plate to bolster his swing and as he would slide into base to score a close run, his heels would meet the ground. Once my father settled into a life of learning Torah, he transferred that gevurah (strength) from the baseball field to the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall) . In fact, my father’s favorite learning posture was with his hands clenched behind his head, reaching upward to the heavens with only the tips of his heels rooted in the ground. It was the posture of someone so grounded and yet so heavenly.
In the Torah, the word עֲקֵ֣ב is used in two other ways. It can depict something circuitous or even devious and my father employed every type of reasoning to elucidate Torah . עֲקֵ֣ב can also be used as the answer to a question, the “because” to the “why”. Legendary were my fathers creative and relatable metaphors to explain the conundrums in Torah. My father would unearth and improve upon scores of answers to a single famous question. He would use out-of-the-box methods to simplify the most complex issues and then explore every facet of the solution until it was so clear that he could teach it even to me.
Perhaps Yaakov’s grasping of Esau’s heel was the ultimate metaphor. The imagery of the holy twin infant desperately trying to hold back his materialistic brother so that the spiritual world would prevail is so compelling. Or, as Unkelos translates, perhaps, Yaakov was grasping Esua’s heel so that they could be connected in the best type of partnership with the material world benefitting the spiritual one. Or, perhaps, Yaakov was asserting the spiritual “because” to Esau’s earthly “why”? Either way, it was certainly a struggle between holy and mundane, the ultimate attempt to unify discipline and growth with physical prowess. We now understand why the earthly beings named Esau, yet The Divine One named Yaakov.
As the Torah continues, it describes the emerging personalities of Esau and Yaakov:
When the boys grew up, Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the fields; and Jacob, a simple man who dwells in tents.
While Esau is described as an אִ֛ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה (a man of the fields), Yaakov is described as an אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים (a man who dwells in the tents) That was my father, a “simple” Talmid chocham (man of Torah) who made every space in his life his tent of learning Torah, his Beis Medrash (Torah study hall). And, simple is not simple. There is a profundity in the ability to take something complex and make it simple. There is holiness in the consistency of a simple single-minded focus. Our forefather, Yaakov, isolated time and space for Torah within the rigors of daily living and so did my father.
Yet, Unkulos offers another explanation of אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם. He translates אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם as גְבר שְׁלִ֖ים , a complete man. Completeness describes my father’s single minded dedication to the study and teaching of Torah. Completeness explains how my father broke a difficult concept down to its most basic parts and then repacked it into a clear and cohesive Torah idea. That was the union between תָּ֔ם (simple) and שְׁלִ֖ם (complete).
Like our forefather Yaakov, my father was a יֹשֵׁ֖ב (dweller), one who never rushed his Torah. He reviewed hundreds of times, never tiring of the review and always finding relaxation and joy in his learning. I remember as a child hearing the beautiful hum of his learning and sometimes going downstairs in the wee hours of the morning trying to find a time that my father wasn’t learning.
The formation of the Hebrew letters in Yaakov depict a masmid. The letter yud is the perfected yid, the paradigm of Jew detached from the mundane floating in the heavens while all the other letters in Yaakov look like a Talmid chacham seated in beis medrash with the ayin most closely resembling my father’s posture.
He said, Yaakov shall no longer be said, but rather Yisroel, for you have been a prince among G-d and among people and you have prevailed
Yisroel became the name of Yaakov after he struggled with the Angel of Esau. While Yaakov represents the sitting, Yisroel represents the dueling and even the dancing. So too, this posture represents my father and his gained confidence in the Torah he learned and renewed. A shy person, my father would spar with the gedolei hador (greatest scholars of our generation), never for his own ego but to distill the ultimate truth in Torah. With a twinkle in his eye and a modest but confident pose, I was told that he would spar in Torah with Rav Gifter ztL and yebadel lechaim Rav Kanievsky.
The formation of the letters in Yisroel depict the posture of the dueling and dancing Jew, beginning with the perfected yud reaching heavenward and ending with the dancing lamid, the joyful Talmid chachum.
The name Yisroel comes from כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל with the word וַתּוּכָֽל most commonly translated as “prevailed”. I would like to suggest another explanation. Perhaps וַתּוּכָֽל comes from the root י-כ-ל, of being able. Yaakov was alone and frightened as he struggled with Esau’s angel. And, through the struggle, he discovered new strength and ability. So too, my father who was the quintessential יֹשֵׁ֖ב discovered a new confidence and fortitude to stand up to other luminaries. My father often challenged others to find their own chidushim (new ideas) and to find confidence in their Torah. During shiva, we were delighted to discover that when uncovering a new chiddush, he would grab his chavrusa’s hand to dance in the Telshe Beis Medrash. That is the posture of Yisroel.
While the name Yisroel is described by the word שָׂרִ֧יתָ,(becoming a prince), it also represents the compound word ישר אֵ-ל, meaning straight to G-d. It is taking the circuitous path to the Divine and straightening it out. The name Yisroel is Yaakov’s name of the future, the name given to the Nation and to the Land of Israel. It is the designation of an entity with purpose, a paradigm of purity and purpose that can be recalled and summoned for eternity.
If we say that tכשמו כן הוא (a person is described by his name), then there is something that troubles me Why wouldn’t my father’s name be Yaakov Yisroel? Chronologically, both Yaakov Aveinu and my father were Yaakov before they became Yisroel. After all, my father was noted for his hasmada (diligence in learning) more than his sparring in learning.
Like Yaakov Aveinu, my father’s name certainly was divinely bestowed by Hakosh Baruch Hu, perhaps in the order that shamayim (Heaven) viewed my father’s life. We witnessed my father’s posture with heels on the ground, the masmid in the Beis Medrash spending over a hundred hours a week learning, reviewing and reveling in Hashem’s Torah. Perhaps, Haadosh Baruch Hu saw my father first as the saar (prince) and a yashar (straight-minded) and then as the masmid with Yisroel connoting the eternity in his name, the future generation who will summon that image of the dancing masmid.
When a baby boy is born, we learn that Hakadosh Baruch Hu adjusts his posture from Din (judgement) to Rachamim (mercy) and for that we have tremendous appreciation to Hashem. Our Bracha to Refoel Yisroel Yaakov ben Yitzchok Aaron is that he grows up to follow the path of his namesake. זה הקטן גדול יהיה (may this little one become great). May he enlighten the world with the light of Torah and may he be an אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים who embodies the straight path to shamayim.
because You are the Almighty King, faithful and compassionate Healer. Blessed are You, Hashem, Healer of the sick of His nation Israel.
Compassion comes in all shapes and sizes, from places least expected. In my father’s journey through his illness, we found sympathy from all creations big and small, many times with the benefactor never even recognizing the magnitude of the kindness.
There were people who davened and those who learned for my father’s merit, others who tended to Aba’s medical needs, some who ran errands and others who were the messengers of the All Compassionate One without ever knowing it.
The days after my father’s diagnosis were some of the most difficult ones. We were frozen and in a state of disbelief. How could my vigorous father be dying? I traveled to Cleveland to help devise a plan and my imagination kept formulating the scene in Heaven as the diagnosis sentencing took place on earth. Was G-d in His posture of Judgement? Or, was He in His Compassionate Stance?
I arrived at snowy Severn Road in Cleveland Heights, not quite knowing what to say and what to do. I could barely hug my parents. My father was composed and my mother was desperately trying to stay calm. We did not even know where to begin. My mother relayed the kindness of their Gastroenterologist as he dealt the blow of the frightening diagnosis. She described Dr. Eric Shapiro bowing his head and feeling their pain. It was therapeutic to her that the man who had shared the terrible news was compassionate as she rewound the reel of those moments over and over again, always stressing Dr. Shapiro’s empathy.
We scheduled the biopsy, hoping for a miracle. We encountered kindness as our dear friend, Dr. Gabe Levi, spoke to us and the pathologists at University Hospitals. While the biopsy confirmed our worst fears, my phone rang, beeped and buzzed with calls and messages of support. Within a few hours, we had the assistance of top oncologists, pathologists and radiologists. In our sadness, we felt others cushioning our pain.
The night after the biopsy, I had a difficult time sleeping. My childhood room had been converted into my father’s study. How does a daughter rest in her father’s personal Beis Medrash (Torah study), with his Torah binders and tapes surrounding the bed? To counter the brutally cold Cleveland night and still remain respectfully dressed inside my father’s Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) , I wore my daytime clothing with a warm pair of fuzzy pajamas underneath.
I couldn’t sleep. I checked my phone for the messages coming in from Israel. I read and responded to the texts and checked my calls from the day. I couldn’t believe my eyes. On my list of calls, there was a call with the name “Hashem”. I had been so sleep-deprived that I thought I was hallucinating. I forced myself to put the phone away and fall asleep.
I fell asleep for a few hours. I woke up after 3 AM. I remembered the astonishing call list and rechecked. The “Hashem” call was still there.
Now I was intrigued. What was Hashem’s number? I checked my contacts and Hashem was there. His number was a single number One. Of course!
I took a screen shot of the phone and posted it on my family’s WhatsApp, hoping someone could explain this.
A few hours later, Leah responded to my Whatsapp message. Many years ago, she had attended a shiur (Torah lecture) and the Rav suggested that the attendees put Hashem on speed dial. Leah had accepted the suggestion and programmed Hashem into her phone with a phone number of One. The contacts were uploaded to the cloud and that was why Hashem had appeared on my phone.
It made sense. I must have dialed a single digit of One the day of the biopsy and then hung up. The number One was paired with Hashem, so that was how it appeared on my call list.
Coincidental? Certainly not.
I do not recall ever seeing Hashem on my phone in the many years since Leah had programmed it to the Heavenly iCloud. I took it as a compassionate hug from Above.
As we scrambled to figure out what to do with the short window of prognosis time, many had suggested that we call an expert from my parents’ community. Certain that this doctor would be gentle and kind, we were shocked by his brusque manner as he reminded us to be realistic with the weighty prognosis. While we understood that doctors have different temperaments and styles, we hoped to find hope and empathy elsewhere. And, we did.
As we sat down in my mother’s office to discuss a plan moving forward, G-d sent a furry creature to distract us. The law office is a room with a circular desk and a round conference table with chairs amid an impressive jungle of plants tickling the walls and two-story ceiling. Every time we would try to discuss a treatment plan during that trip, a chipmunk would jump out from one of the plants. We would be distracted, and try to trap the chipmunk, but would be unsuccessful every time. Once we would reconvene, the chipmunk would reappear.
We called a pest specialist and he set traps to no avail. He opened all the doors in the house and followed the chipmunk, feeling certain that the chipmunk had exited the house.
But the chipmunk had been sent to distract us from our hopelessness and it was not ready to leave. I couldn’t help but imagine the chaos in Heaven as we chased this chipmunk round and round the house for the next few days. I felt like The Creator was telling us not to worry. There was an order to His chaos. Perhaps, He was in his Merciful Posture.
We called a dear friend of the family, a top specialist at The Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Rothner empathized with our sadness and calmly explained the options that were available. He guided us with kindness and expertise, encouraging us. We saw Dr. Davendra Sohol at The Clinic. Before speaking to us, this oncologist kept going back to the CT scan, hoping but unable to find even a glimmer of encouragement on the screen. Finally, he bowed his head and spoke with the saddest voice.
He explained that Aba had “few months” but with treatment may live for “more months”. I asked him what he would do if this was his father. Dr. Sohol answered, “either do nothing or do everything.” I asked my father what he would want and he confirmed that we should find the best treatment route. He wanted to live to study Torah. It was simple and that was his wish.
My sister-in-law, Rena, was privy to a new treatment, CPI-613 that was being sponsored by her boss. It was developed in Israel by Raphael Pharmaceuticals and was showing promise for stage IV pancreatic cancer. We marveled that a drug with this name had been developed for our 613 (number of Torah commandments) role-model We mentioned CPI-613 to Drs. Sohol and Rothner who sympathetically agreed to do whatever they could to help us.
We started planning. The chipmunk kept emerging, reminding us of the order and kindness to the Heavenly chaos. The exterminator came and was unsuccessful once again. We discovered a suitable trial of CPI-613 in New Jersey and decided to take our journey there. I watched my father pack for his final journey. A few personal items. More than a few seforim.
I opened the front window where I thought I had seen the chipmunk. I thought that I saw the chipmunk leave, but I couldn’t be sure. I left it up to The Creator of ordered chaos.
We were on our way.
Chaos and winter followed us from Cleveland to New Jersey. The first few days and weeks were snowy and frigid. We were greeted by a fox, a major sewage backup, a damaged heating system, a car accident and many other unusual events. My brother, Moshe kept remarking “Let Hashem take it all out on Eitzim Ve’avanim(sticks and stones) as long as Aba is okay”.
Aba started a rigorous chemo regimen with the addition of the CPI-613 drug coursing through his veins. Aba learned and taught Torah with his 11 AM Friday shiur moved to a phone connection between Teaneck, New Jersey and Cleveland, Ohio. My friends took upon themselves to say Modeh Ani with Kavana. My aunt, Tante Sari, split up Sefer Tehilim (Book of Psalms) and enlisted family members to recite the entire Sefer Tehilim every single day. We were trying to maintain order through the chaos and we were lifted by the outpouring of love and support by family, friends, talmidim (students), our communities and even perfect strangers. People I barely know would stop me and tell me that they were praying, learning or doing acts of chesed to keep my father alive.
My mother travelled to Cleveland once every few weeks to manage her court cases. On the first trip, I dropped my mother off at Newark airport. I ran back and forth between my car and the window to the ticket counter. I was anxious for my mother to be properly escorted to her gate. After a few minutes, one of the United counter agents came to the door and told me not to worry, that my mother would be safe. As tears streamed down my face, she said, “I know. I’ll be praying for your Dad and your family.” What kindness from a total stranger!
And, those kindnesses continued. My father insisted on being referred to as “Jerry” at Morristown Hospital. The doctors and nurses marveled at the warm camaraderie between Rebbe and talmid. One of the receptionists once heard a talmid referring to him as Reb Yankel and then insisted on calling him Rabbi thereafter.
His talmidim visited and learned with him, some traveling from quite a distance. They visited to share a few minutes of Bikur Cholim time and ended up with a lengthy chavrusa (one-on-one leraning) time, instead. They begged for Brochos (blessings) from Aba to which he replied, “I’m no Rebbe but I am a Cohen. I’ll give you a birchas Cohen”
His chaveirim (friends) visited and learned with my father. One of his dear chaveirim, Baruch (Burton) Morris would visit regularly from Harrisburg, PA, making the long drive with a driver. He even brought some of the letters from the 1960’s that my father had written to him. My father remarked, “who knew I could write English back then!” These visits brought great comfort to us and great delight to my father.
Elevators waited for me when I was in a hurry. I remember one grueling Friday when I needed to pick up a CT scan and deliver it to New York City for review. I had very little time to spare and a houseful of future Shabbos guests. Just about every elevator and traffic light on that three-hour trip waited for me. In my father’s merit, chaos was becoming orderly.
During the first few months of the COVID pandemic, we needed to find a private setting for Aba’s chemotherapy infusions, as COVID was gaining traction in Morristown Medical Center. My brother, Mordy contacted Dr. Azriel Hirschfeld, who took great pains to create a safe environment for Aba’s infusions. Dr. Hirschfeld’s grandfather, Rabbi Naiman had been my father’s Rebbe in Chicago and had been first to suggest that my father attend Telshe Yeshiva. My father brought Dr. Hirschfeld a copy of his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov where he thanked Rabbi Naiman in the hakdama(introduction) for setting the trajectory of his life.
Another coincidence? Certainly not!
In the early days of COVID, I was terrified for my father. He seemed to be in the most at-risk immune-compromised patient group. I begged my father to move his learning from the Bnai Yeshurun Beis Medrash to our home. He adamantly disagreed. With trepidation, I drove him daily to the Beis Medrash with Purell and instructions to be careful. A short few months later, without any COVID symptoms at all, my father test positive for antibodies to the dreaded COVID virus. Once again, The Heavenly Court was exacting judgement with compassion.
As I ventured out in those early days of COVID to pick up groceries and toiletries for my father, I was frightened. Often, I would be called upon to divert to a side register or a secluded area to check out. It was certainly G-d’s Compassion protecting me as I shopped for my father’s needs. I would hear other shoppers protest “why her?” The cashiers didn’t quite know why they chose me from the long lines of shoppers, but I knew why.
We were handed a diverse team of specialists collaborating on my father’s care. They were confounded and delighted by the miraculous response to the chemo regimen. Dr. Allister would tell my father that he made them look good. We knew that He made them look good. Looking back, the Healer kept my father well for eighteen months after the CPI-613 regimen was terminated. The doctors were astounded but The Healer was in His compassionate pose.
We were embraced by the tehillim, chesed and Torah that family members, friends, talmidim and people from all places and stages added to their busy schedules. Our darkest hours were illuminated by tehillim chats, new learning sedarim (set times),chesed initiatives and those who combined to recite the entire Sefer Tehillim(Book of Psalms) every day for two years. It brought light to dispel the night and it brought order to the chaos of disease.
I never saw my father’s acknowledgment and appreciation of kindness more than during the two years of his illness. My father would remark, “my talmidim really love me” and “I am so lucky to have so many people who really care about me.” The compassion of The Healer was evident and my father really felt the embrace. The Healer allowed my father to learn his beloved Torah day and night, almost to the last day of his life. And, to me that was compassion in the most important place.
I recognize that through the difficult Judgement, there was Mercy. With Mercy came real, palpable goodness. And, goodness streamed from this world and from the World Above. The empathy of friends, family and near strangers really can transform a dark era into a light-filled one. And, G-d in His infinite Wisdom and Mercy can contort Himself into a Judgement posture with Compassion. His emissaries may be people we know and messengers of all forms. All we have to do is to look in all the right places.
One of the most powerful lessons that I learned from my father was restraint. Holding back can be so much more powerful and effective than brute force. And, learning when to exercise restraint can be one of the most difficult and important lessons in life.
My father had an unmatched way of listening to things that he deemed fruitless. When he decided that there was too much negative energy or that the discussion was no longer productive, he would just say “enough” or “Genug” in Yiddish, he would walk away or he would change the subject. That was it. No disrespect. No harsh words. Just, that we needed to move on. That was his unique way to halt the pointless and divert to the meaningful. We learned to accept and even appreciate it.
That was Aba’s shortcut to restraint. He employed it as a young bachur (Yeshiva student) when others approached his shtender (lectern) in the Beis Medrash (Study Hall) to talk baseball. He used it when we complained incessantly about someone or something. He used it recently when a family member was too verbose about her negative childhood experiences.
While the shortcut “Genug” was his mainstay restraint mechanism, there were memorable times that called for a more creative and deliberated approach to restraint. I will share two stories that illustrate this type of premeditated restraint, a personal recollection from the seventies and one that occurred last winter. I just heard a third story this week about Aba’s restraint in the Beis Medrash that has served as a restraint paradigm for those who witnessed this event.
When I was growing up on the Telshe Yeshiva campus, my friends and I used to ride our bicycles to the library, a distance of about one mile. The library was at the bottom of a steep hill. We would ride down to the library at full throttle, while we would painstakingly walk our bicycles back up the hill with our baskets full of borrowed books.
One week, I took out a book with content that was unsuitable to my upbringing. I found the book compelling as I read it over Shabbos. While I recognized that it was inappropriate, it was captivating. Sometime during the afternoon, I decided to take a break from my reading. I placed the book face down over the back of the sofa and headed to visit one of my friends.
When I returned, the book was gone.
I knew that my father had taken the book. At first, I was furious. How dare my father read my library book? As my initial anger subsided, I considered my punishment. Would Aba scream at me? Would he take away privileges? As time passed, I became less worried about the punishment and more and more ashamed. As much as I tried, I could not block out the image of my father reading the impure words of this book. A flood of embarrassment overtook me. The more I thought about it, the more shame and worry I felt.
What would my father say or do to me? How could I respond? How would I even have this type of conversation with someone whose eyes and heart were so pure?
I waited for my father to return from Shul (Synagogue) after Shabbos. I could barely breathe. My heart was pumping so quickly that I could not even concentrate.
My father finally returned home from Maariv (evening prayer) to recite Havdolah (End of Shabbos Ceremony). He said nothing. Not a word.
He made Havdolah. He enjoyed a short Melave Malka (end of Shabbos meal) with my mother. Still nothing.
My mother left the room and my father called me to a private space. My chest was pounding and I could barely meet his eyes.
My father was calm.
I saw the anguish in his eyes and he saw the fear in my shame.
He said something like, “Please return the book to the library without reading another word. It is not a book befitting someone as dignified as you.” No yelling. No punishment. Just a simple suggestion.
In that moment, I felt relief wash over me. I could redeem myself. I could fix what I had done wrong. And, that was it.
In that brief and touching encounter, I felt Aba’s embrace in his disappointment, his trust in his only daughter overwhelming the anguish.
That evening, I learned about standards. In that encounter, I also earned a lifelong lesson about restraint.
Had Aba admonished me right away, the reprimand would not have been as effective. Had my father yelled at me or punished me, it probably would not have achieved what his calm trust in me accomplished. My father didn’t embarrass me in front of anyone, although he let my conscience do all the work. This type of restraint may have come naturally to him, because he worked on patience and restraint. Looking back, this was a brilliant and effective lesson in life, one that will probably take my entire life to achieve.
The second story is one that I recently heard and it speaks to my father’s restraint in a public scenario. The story is about my ill father’s restraint as he defended an anguished student against his bullies and a system that unknowingly sheltered these tormentors.
My father was invited to speak at an esteemed Yeshiva. It was shortly before Chanukah and he was excited to share his Torah on Shemen Neis (Miracle Oil). It was a topic that Aba had already prepared and edited for his new sefer and it was one of his favorite lectures. The yeshiva had arranged for him to be driven there to present the forty-minute speech.
On the way, the driver who had great respect for the yeshiva shared an unfortunate incident with my father. It seems that one of his friends had recently sent his son to this elite yeshiva and that the new student was being teased and bullied by some of the older Bocherim. The menacing was so upsetting that the driver’s friend was considering switching his son to another yeshiva.
My father was livid. How could Torah students bully another bachur? How could an Institute of Torah learning support this type of behavior? How is it possible to learn and teach Torah in an environment that is hostile even to one student?
My father verified the bullying claim and once he confirmed its truth, he took matters into his own hands. He asked the driver to detour. Aba needed to pick up notes on a different sugya (topic) called Talmid she’eino hagun (Inappropriate student). It was a topic that he was just completing for his sefer and it was being readied for his chapter on Shavuos and Torah learning. He felt that it would be a more suitable topic for this yeshiva and he was ready to switch gears to teach these boys an unexpected lesson.
The driver desperately tried to dissuade my father from this new diversion. My father refused to be deterred. He was adamant about picking up the new study materials. As much as the driver pleaded with my father, Aba remained firm. He would need the notes on Talmid She’eino Hagun, and that was it. As my father and the driver traveled to pick up the new notes, Aba shared his precise and clear lecture on Talmid She’eino Hagun, elucidating this difficult topic and emphatically proving that a bully is the prime example of an inappropriate student.
The Yeshiva boys were eagerly awaiting my father’s arrival. Using his rollator, my father marched right up to the podium, dismissing all introductions and accolades. Despite the rigors of his chemo and his weakened state, my father calmly and patiently presented the forty-minute lecture. Aba explained all the possibilities of understanding the difficult sugya. He questioned and prodded the students, forcing them to examine the topic in an entirely new way. He included their ideas and built upon the Torah piece, brick by brick.
They were spellbound. The difficult topic with a myriad of different approaches had been presented to them in the clearest way. They had developed the sugya brilliantly and it all seemed so simple. Together, my father and these talmidim (students) had explored Shemen Neis as never before.
The topic illuminated the miracle of Chanukah so dazzlingly. They had discovered brand new insights into the way the oil miraculously burned for the full eight days, while there was only enough oil naturally to burn for one day. Did they pour all the oil into the menorah the first night or did they only use 1/8 of the oil each night? Was the miracle oil actually olive oil? After all, does olive oil need to be from an olive tree or is it possible for a miraculous oil to have the chemical composition of olive oil while not being from a tree at all? Is Shemen Neis olive oil or is it a new substance similar to olive oil? Using a unique combination of sources, my father had mesmerized them with Shemen Neis.
After the long lecture, the students relaxed. They were satiated by the Torah that they had learned. They were enamored with the lecture and the lecturer.
But, my father was only beginning his lesson.
He called the bullied boy to the podium and gently told him that he heard beautiful things about him and his father. A hush overtook the room as the boy left the podium.
“Now fellas. Let me tell you what is more important than the Shemen Neis,” he roared. “Torah may only be learned by someone who is a mentsch, or else your Torah can be a dreadful poison,” he bellowed. “Your Torah and the Torah of your teacher is worth nothing if you boys don’t act properly to one another.”
The students were shocked. Gone was the calm demeanor of the talmid chochom who had just taught them Shemen Neis. Here was the fierce determination of a talmid chochom who was disappointed in their behavior and was defending kovod Ha’Torah (Honor of Torah).
My father now addressed the Rosh Yeshiva, “Here is my sugya on Talmid She’eino Hagun.“ Aba handed the heavy wad of paper to the shocked Rosh Yeshiva and boomed, “Here is the shtickel (piece of) Torah on what I just mentioned. If you have any questions, please call me. ”
That was it. My father had made his point in precisely the way he had planned it. No one could dissuade him from staying true to his principles. He had delivered an entire 40-minute lecture on another topic to whet these boys’ appetites. Aba had earned their respect before he dropped the bomb. He had done it calmly but with conviction. These yeshiva students would never forget this lesson. They were shocked but they accepted the rebuke of my father, dancing him out of the room.
This story was told to me at the shiva. I was enamored by the brilliance and restraint implicit in this story. Once he heard about the bullying incident, I would have thought that my father would choose to first lecture these students on Talmid She’eino Hagun . I can only imagine the restraint that it took for him to complete a long lecture on another topic in his weakened state when he was enraged by the despicable behavior of some of these students. He had clearly done it in precisely this way because he understood the psyche of these students. They needed to respect the Chanukah Torah that they were expecting before they could internalize the more important surprise lesson about their errant behavior.
The third story is one that I just heard a few days ago and it offers a glimpse into Aba’s beautiful conduct in the Telshe Beis Medrash. These stories from the Beis Medrash fill me with great joy and contentment because I was not privy to this part of my father’s life. It helps me depict my father in his favorite spot in this world and catch a glimpse of his interactions and lessons to the current and future Talmidei Chachamim of Telshe Yeshiva.
Aba was a force to be reckoned with in the Beis Medrash. He sat in one of the back rows for over fifty years, never wanting honor, yet disseminating kavod haTorah (honor of Torah) wherever and whenever possible. When he would discover a chiddush (new aspect of Torah), he would run around the massive Beis Medrash, sharing his new dimension in Torah. He was loud, boisterous and unapologetic in his favorite domain.
My father took his responsibility as mashgiach(Spiritual Guide) of the Yeshiva very seriously. While Aba never expected his talmidim to maintain his own rigorous schedule, he expected them to be on time for davening and to invest seriously in their Torah. When a talmid came late regularly or shirked the responsibility for learning Torah, they knew Reb Yankel would hold them accountable.
One day, a talmid was tardy once again to the Beis Medrash and my father confronted him. After davening, my father reprimanded him and explained that it was unbefitting of a serious talmid chochum to be perpetually late to the Beis Medrash. My father was famous for saying “shape up or ship out” and perhaps, he used that expression in this context.
The student was not willing to be chastised by Reb Yankel and escalated the tone and decibel level of this discussion in the back of the Beis Medrash. As the discussion became heated, unbeknownst to my father, the other talmidim started to pay attention. My father stood his ground, explaining why this talmid‘s behavior was unacceptable. The fiery discussion continued and became louder and louder.
In a demeaning voice using inappropriate words that the walls of this Beis Medrash have never heard, the talmid affronted my father personally. He called my father an insulting name that the listeners were shocked to hear, especially in this holy place.
The Beis Medrash walls were holding their breath, waiting for the shoe to drop. Reb Yankel had been personally insulted in the most vulgar way in front of the entire Beis Medrash. Everyone knew that my father had the power and the confidence to throw this talmid out of the Beis Medrash. How would he react?
Aba took his time. He took a few breaths. And, then, in his distinctive voice, he responded. Calmly.
My father simply said something like “I can see that now is not the time to finish this conversation. When you can speak using the right words, we will finish this discussion.” That was it. Aba turned on his heels and went back to learning as if nothing had happened.
This story was told to my brother, Moshe, by a talmid chochom of massive proportion who was a young boy at the time this story took place. He was present that fateful morning and he was deeply affected by the scenario and my father’s amazing self-control in a situation where Aba possessed all the power. He intimated that my father’s self-control has become his paradigm of patience, balance and restraint. Whenever he personally has been tested by someone else in this type of way, he conjures an image of this encounter. He replays the holy reel of my father debating this talmid and then calmly retreating to his holy place of Torah.
Restraint comes in different forms. I watched as my father exercised restraint in precisely the correct way for each circumstance. It is a difficult attribute to master and it takes herculean strength and self-control to assert. For my father, it seemed effortless as he dedicated a lifetime to the development of restraint and self-discipline. He employed it in child-rearing, in teaching his students and as a paradigm for others to follow. For me, the “genuk” shortcut may just have to suffice for right now.
Games are a subtle, yet imaginative way to teach and to inspire. The happiest memories of my elementary school education at The Hebrew Academy of Cleveland are the games that my favorite teachers employed to teach or review information. I recall playing Chutes and Ladders with Chumash (Pentateuch) questions and Jeopardy with science facts. While I was a shy student, these games challenged my competitive side and gave voice to my knowledge and originality.
During my college years, I was hired as a long-term substitute teacher in my alma mater. I taught various classes and ages, sometimes for weeks on end if a particular teacher was out for an extended leave of absence. This opportunity offered me enough time to get to know my students while allowing me to try my hand at different subjects and age groups.
I discovered that only two-thirds of the students answered questions without coaxing. The other one-third of the students needed encouragement or creativity to activate their interest, confidence and voice. Students yearn to catch a glimpse of their teacher’s personal side, so I began sharing some of the activities I enjoyed. We baked challah together, we crafted and we played games. And, what I found was that the shiest students were empowered by these enjoyable activities. The class looked forward to this respite from learning, while unbeknownst to them, they were learning more during these activities than ever before.
The concept of designing a game can be daunting. At first, I prepared elaborate game boards and typed my information cards. Over time, I found that the simplicity of the game’s design did not in any way diminish from the fun and lesson of the game. For Jeopardy, I would write topics on the blackboard and handwrite the dollar amounts and answers on index cards that I taped to the blackboard. Some of the best games that I played were so simple. I would ask my students to jot down their original inspirations and experiences about a particular Torah topic on a notecard and then I would share their awesome ideas with the class. I began selecting student game show hosts to assist me and offer leadership to those whose voice I was eager to hear.
A few decades passed. I graduated from college and from long-term substituting. I started to accelerate my game of life as I married and began a family. I sent my own children to school to acquire knowledge and inspiration, hoping that they would find their own voices among their peers. Some possessed cautious voices and others owned assertive voices. I planned and hosted family get-togethers and parties, but stopped playing games.
One Chanukah, my niece Sorala prepared a game for our family Chanukah party. It was a Jeopardy-style game with cards taped to my sister-in-law’s breakfront It activated our competitive nature in an effort to correctly answer questions about Bubby and Zaidy who had recently departed from this world. It was entertaining and wonderful. And, it made me remember how significant and empowering games can be.
I took a lesson from Sorala and started developing my own games. I started with intricate Family Feud boards and Jeopardy boards. Whatever games our family had discovered and enjoyed over the past months, I converted into inspirational games suitable for the event. The games became less and less elaborate, but were just as memorable. I played Human Bingo in an effort to get our guests to reveal and acknowledge new facts about each other. For Sheva Brochos, I would play Malarky with facts about the new couple. For Purim, I played Chameleon with topics related to Purim. When I didn’t have much time or energy to prepare an original game, I just took out pens and notecards and asked my guests to reveal a thought about the event. When we read these out loud, we discovered hilarious and interesting inspirations and facts about each other.
Just over two years ago, I created a game based upon Idiomaddict. It is a game where common phrases are stated using different words and the audience has to guess the original idiom. For example, “one cent exchanged for your opinions” would be the remake of the common expression, “a penny for your thoughts.”
I played that game with the Cohen family at our Chanukah 2018 party, just a few months before my father was diagnosed with his dreadful illness. I converted my parents’ favorite expressions into different words and the audience members tried to guess the original sayings. It was an original and interactive game and I saved a copy of the family idioms on my computer.
This weekend, we commemorated the shloshim (thirrty days) of my father’s petirah (passing). My mother asked me to speak to the family at the Shabbos lunch. I recalled my father’s interactive Divrei Torah(words of Torah) and tried to picture the weekend in Cleveland through the eyes of my nieces and nephews. Long speeches about their grandfather may be inspiring or laborious. So, I decided to retool and create an interactive and unforgettable experience, instead. After all, that would be Aba’s preference, fun inspiration through humor for the next generation to ponder and remember.
I selected my favorite game show host, Lazer, and with his assistance I replayed the 2018 Chanukah game with some of my father’s favorite sayings. I added an important twist. This time, in addition to guessing the original saying, Lazer would choose someone to explain the saying and describe why it is a memorable adage.
I will share some of these sayings and inspirations. In each quoted block, The first expression is my father’s remade expression using different and cumbersome words for the game, Idiomaddict. The second expression is my father’s actual saying followed by the inspiration and reason behind Aba’s idiom. I hope that you enjoy our unique family dialogue using the language and idioms of my father:
Absent even a bit of Lazy Mirth:
When Aba would want to wake us up or inspire us to learn, he would say “no laytzanus!” It was his way of making sure that we understood the importance of davening and learning and the futility of laziness. He had a great sense of humor but it was never used to depricate anyone or anything
Partake in an enjoyable diurnal course:
“Have a nice day”.
While Aba was not much of a conversationalist, he really cared. His wishing everyone to have a nice day expressed his affection succinctly.
Subjects that are exceptionally wonderous :
“Devarim Niflaim Ad Me’od!”
When Aba would come up with a chiddush (new insight in Torah), he would be so excited. This phrase demonstrate his excitement for the freshness of his Torah. During shiva, he was referred to as “an eighty-year-old teenager” in his youthful enthusiasm for learning.
Query your resident scholar:
“Ask your local Rabbi.”
Although Aba knew the answer to our halachic questions, he would very often answer our questions in this way. He wanted us to get used to finding our own local rabbinic authority. It reveals his humility and his trust in each of us finding our own way with our own Torah guide.
Containing pB and Missing pB: “
“Leaded or Unleaded”.
Aba took pride in not caring about material things and hoped to influence us to focus on internals rather than externals. Aba began using this expression in the seventies when unleaded gasoline was first introduced. It was his way of reminding us that material things shouldn’t take over our lives. Aba was a practical and thrifty person and preferred generic brands. Walmart was his favorite store.
Absolutely my sugary chest organ:
This was Aba’s go-to expression when we asked or said something ridiculous. Rather than debate us or upset us, he would use this expression to signal that the conversation was over. To continue the discussion, we would need to divert to something more meaningful.
In an elevated voice, sluggishly as well as in pure tone:
“Loud Slow and Clear.”
Aba was adamant that if we expressed ourselves, we must speak in the proper voice so that we could be heard and understood. He always made sure to enunciate everything loudly and clearly, albeit in his distinctive gravelly voice.
“Rabbinically andUtterly Amazing”:
“Meiradig” (Yiddish for astounding).
When my father was excited about a new understanding or development in Torah, he would use this word. I can picture his blue eyes shining as he used the word Meiradig. He once addressed Rabbi Shlomo Weinberger and declared. “I want to share with you something meiradig!” In the true tradition of Halachic arguments, Rabbi Weinberger challenged, “Let’s hear it and then we’ll see if it is meiradig.” Amazingly, my father was not insulted or deterred. In fact, he loved Rabbi Weinberger’s bold retort!
“Representatives that belong to me”:
This was my father’s way of avoiding an answer about someone, probably to avoid loshon Hara (hurtful language) or Rechilus (gossip). For instance, if we asked my father who he had been speaking to and he didn’t want us to know, he would simply answer, “my agents”. We would just laugh.
“Pertaining to your enormous broad knowledge:”
“In your vast bekiyus. “
When my father would challenge us with a Torah question, he would preface it with the phrase, “in your vast bekiyus” . It would ready us for the challenge that he was about to present and we would love it!
“an original measurement in the Old Testament”:
“A new dimension in Torah.”
This expression was spoken about at the funeral by those who learned with him in the Beis Medrash. My father was excited about discovering new dimensions in Torah and empowered those around him to find their own Chidushim (new ideas). One of his talmidim shared with us that he and my father were the only ones in the Telshe Beis Medrash one Friday afternoon. My father had just discovered a new understanding of something that they were learning. He was so excited that he grabbed his student’s arm and started dancing in the Beis Medrash.
By way of mysticism:
“Al Pi Kaballa”
This was my father’s retort when he didn’t want to give us the real answer for a silly question. When I would ask him, “why do you only button every other button on your shirt,” he would answer “al pi kabbalah”. I surmise that the real answer was that Aba wanted to save the buttoning time for learning.
My father rarely played games, but he made learning memorable and interactive. For me, games have been an effective and creative tool for retaining knowledge. They can be simple and effective. They can empower and guide. They can give voice and leadership. And, they put entertainment into inspired learning. My father, through his memorable idioms, put humor and fun into our upbringing, while remaining true to his pure nature. These expressions helped us witness my father’s playful, honest and personal side. I hope they offer you a glimpse, too
After my father’s diagnosis, I asked Aba to recommend something that I could undertake as a special merit for his recovery. My father asked me to recite Modeh Ani every morning with kavana (concentration), paying attention to each one of the twelve words of this first prayer of the day.
My father’s Modeh Ani request was so characteristic of what he expected of me and others. It was simple. It was practical and feasible. And, it was divine.
I shared my father’s request with my friends and many of them took upon themselves to say Modeh Ani every morning slowly and carefully, concentrating on every word. My childhood friend, Chavi, even placed a post-it note on her light switch, reminding her to do this every morning. For me and those closest to me, being given a tangible and holy mission made us feel like partners in my father’s refuah (recovery).
For the nearly two-year roller-coaster ride of my father’s illness, every morning, I tried to savor the words of modeh ani as I washed my hands to greet the new day. I began my morning routine with the words מודה אני and ended this holy routine with the word אמונתך. I tried to be careful to enunciate every word and to concentrate on its meaning.
The two years of mornings took me through hopeful times, stressful times and everything in between. The modeh aniwith kavana responsibility empowered me to start each day with the humility to thank G-d for another twenty-four hours, opening my eyes wide to His many kindnesses. The first word מודה challenged me to begin my day with gratitude as I pondered the possibilities of the day ahead. The last word of אמונתך, written in the second person, reminded me of the faith that the Creator had in me.
The modeh ani responsibility became routine, as most repetitive things do. I tried to stand still while enunciating the words. I was careful to think about the meaning of every word. I was proud of this small thing that I was doing for my father and for myself. But I really didn’t gain new inspiration after the first few weeks of saying modeh aniwith kavana.
Until after my father left this world.
On one of the mornings of shiva, I stood and recited Modeh Ani and tears streamed down my face. Every word of Modeh Ani evoked powerful images of my father, specifically in his simple and dedicated service to The Almighty.
מודה is defined as showing gratitude and deference, while taking responsibility. My father was the paradigm of humility and appreciation. He taught me not to apologize for someone else’s behavior but to take responsibility for my mistakes and make them right.
My father could easily have used his illness as an excuse for less davening, learning or physical exercise. We all marveled at the stamina that he summoned when he was suffering terribly to daven, to learn with concentration and to take care of his body when it was so difficult and painful.
He showed deference to others, especially in his learning and was comfortable asking others for favors, asserting that people naturally wanted to perform chesed (kindness), especially if thanked by the recipient. I cannot remember a single time that my father forgot to thank me for something that I had done for him.
My father showed deference by being humble. My father would often tell me that he didn’t know the answer to something in Torah. Most times, I thought that he really knew the answer. I suppose that he wanted to teach us by example that it is okay to admit that there are things that we don’t know.
אני is defined as “I”. In modeh ani, this is the only word that does not apply to my father. His Torah and Tefilla (prayer) prowess were not motivated by ego . He never dressed or acted in a way to receive respect. The only honor he expected was Kavod shamayim (Honor for The One Above).
My father helped one of his talmidim (students) write a sefer (book) on the Keilim of the Mishkan (artifacts of the Temple). He invested about 1000 hours of his time over 28 years. When the author remarked to my father that it should be his sefer, my father humbly retorted. “Torah is Torah. What difference does it make whose name is on the cover?”
Aba once shared with me that one of his Roshei Yeshiva (Deans) was bothered by his shuckeling (swaying) side-to-side during davening (prayer). My father desperately tried to stop swaying, but just couldn’t. So as not to disturb or disappoint his Rosh Yeshiva, my father moved his seat so that he would not be in sight of the Rosh Yeshiva during davening. He didn’t want to create an issue by asserting his preference so he solved the issue in a non-confrontational manner.
לפניך is defined as “before You”. My father understood that every act was in the presence of The Almighty. He recognized that everyday activities like vacuuming and doing laundry can be elevated in the presence of G-d. His davening and his learning were sights to behold, because the shechina (spirit of G-d) that accompanied those heavenly activities was palpable. It was clear in my father’s tefilla that he was speaking to G-d, while in Aba’s Torah learning, G-d was undoubtedly speaking to him.
מלך is defined as “king”. My family and I visited Telshe Yeshiva for Rosh Hashanah almost every year. At the Yom Tov (holiday) table every year, my father would ask us what the purpose of Rosh Hashanah is. The right answer was, “to anoint G-d as King”. To us, it was a good question with the correct answer. To my father, the vision of the anointing of The King on Rosh Hashanah came to life right before his very eyes. On Rosh Hashanah, I could almost visualize my father holding The King’s crown.
חי is defined as “living”. My father’s Torah was alive and so was his relationship with The Creator. On the few occasions that I saw my father sparring in Torah, I was awe-struck. It was like seeing lions clashing, with each Torah lion demonstrating great respect for the dexterity and prowess of the other. I can visualize my father’s blue eyes twinkling as he learned and taught Torah, dissecting a sugya (Torah portion) into its most basic parts.
וקיים is defined as “enduring”. My father’s Torah was served in a way that was lasting. My father had so many ways to understand a single piece of Torah. I was always so embarrassed that I couldn’t remember many of the facets, even if not much time had elapsed since the last time Aba had discussed a particular topic with me. My father never acted disappointed, but explained it again and again with more and more enthusiasm each time. He reviewed and explained until he felt I could master and internalize the piece. He wanted to make his Torah memorable and enduring.
My father was noted for his unusual metaphors that help make his Torah lasting. During shiva, people treated us to many of these creative metaphors that made a sugya learned with my father animated and memorable, even years or decades later.
שהחזרת is defined as “returned”. This word is from the same Hebrew root as the word chazora (review) because review implies a return to something that was already studied. No one that I know performed chazora like my father. Aba would ask for his students to review something 101 times but he expected many times that level of chazora from himself.
When he was writing his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov(Delights of Yaakov), I asked my father if each one of his binders of his Torah writings was unique or if many of his writings built upon his past works. He explained that each time he came back to something about which he had already learned and written, he reviewed it first and then added a new dimension to his Torah. He really felt that Torah needed to be built brick by brick and that chazora strengthened the foundation for new Torah ideas to emerge.
My father rarely squandered an opportunity to learn and perform chazora. It was breathtaking to watch my father perform review in the most unusual times and places. Many couples have pictures of my father at their wedding sitting in a corner learning from a sefer after energetically dancing before the new couple. While waiting for my son and daughter-in-law’s sheva brochos meal to begin, my father used his cellphone to review one of his own shiurim on Kol Lashon in preparation for a Shashuai Yaakov topic. To me, it was just natural, but our guests marveled at my father’s concentration and attention to review.
בי is defined as “within me”. My father’s religious growth was internal with almost no external manifestations. He never grew a long beard; he never donned a kaputa (frock) that would represent an external manifestation of the magnitude of his Torah and he shunned sitting on the Mizrach (Eastern) Wall of the Beis Medrash.
Aba saw no need to wear designer clothing and preferred most things that were purchased at Walmart. He wore the same glasses frames for nearly fifty years. When someone remarked that his frames were back in style, they were mysteriously replaced by a pair that was only thirty years behind the fashion trend.
My father only buttoned every other button. When anyone asked why, his blue eyes would twinkle and he would say “al pi kaballah” (based upon mysticism), but we knew the truth. There was no reason to waste the time buttoning unnecessary buttons! My father embodied all that was good about Torah with none of the outer trappings.
נשמתי is defined as “my soul”. Aba devoted his life to the development of his soul. Every hour spent learning, every prayer and every deed was dedicated to the honor of The Creator. People saw him as “the real deal”. There was nothing false or pretentious about him. During shiva, we heard that so many had confided in my father, sharing their problems and their religious doubts with him, knowing that his soul was pure and that he would deal with their problems with true integrity. They were never disappointed with his profound understanding of their issue and his simple advice.
בחמלה is defined as “with compassion”. Most of the kindness that we inherited is from my mother, who dedicated herself to helping people in need. During shiva, we heard stories about my father’s compassion that took our breath away. He cared about people who were lonely or in crisis in a way that was so normal. Many of these people barely realized who my father was or what he had done for them until years later. My father expected no gratitude for anything he did. Individuals confided that my father elicited Torah advice from them and then gave them public honor for their contribution to his Torah, insightfully offering them the self-respect and honor that they desperately craved.
One of his students told me that my father was learning a difficult sugya and there was one expert who could offer information that would help Aba understand a problematic part of that Torah topic. His student suggested that my father contact that person. My father adamantly refused. That person had a personal difficulty that would be recalled by the mention of that topic. Aba was willing to forego a clearer understanding of that sugya rather than upset someone else.
רבה is defined as “great”. At my father’s levaya, he was repeatedly called a gavra raba (great Torah scholar) and the following Gemara (Makos 21b) was mentioned:
כמה טפשאי שאר אינשי דקיימי מקמי ספר תורה ולא קיימי מקמי גברא רבה:
Rava said: How foolish are people who stand for a Torah but do not stand for a great man
At the time that Rabbi Mordechai Gifter zt’l offered my father the position of mashgiach (spiritual guide) of Telshe Yeshiva, he referred to my father as a leibadig sefer torah (lively Torah scroll). My father’s greatness was in his ability to embody seemingly paradoxical qualities in the service of G-d. My father was “hidden” in the Bais Medrash, but was careful that his Torah not be shuttered to others. He was confident in Torah, yet humble. He was fierce in his self-discipline, yet gentle with others’ feelings. He learned Torah at the highest level, yet made it accessible to the masses. The harmonious combination of these ostensibly conflicting qualities was what made my father great.
אמונתך is defined as “your faithfulness”. While my father’s faith was exceptional, here I would like to thank G-d for His faithfulness during my father’s illness. We are not only allowed to refer to G-d in the second person, but we are mandated to do so to recall the love and devotion between Hashem and us. We call The Creator a rofei ne’eman v’rachaman (faithful and compassionate Healer).
During the course of my father’s journey through Pancreatic Cancer, we were so cognizant of the Hand of The Healer. It was clear to us that the experimental drug CPI-613 had been developed by Rafael Pharmaceuticals in Israel with my father’s illness in mind. The doctors and nurses were taken by my father’s calm demeanor and positive response to their experimental drug. They kept telling us that “he made them look good”, when in fact He, The Faithful Healer, made them look good. We owe gratitude to The Creator for His devotion to my father’s Torah mind, allowing him to learn and to teach until his final days.
As I enter a new reality without my father’s physical presence, I must renew my commitment to the words of modeh ani as I begin each new day. It is essential that I start with the gratitude of מודה אני and end with the faithful embrace of אמונתך. The phrase רבה אמונתך is from Eicha (3:23), a holy text of loneliness, devastation and pain. Perhaps, the reference to Eicha(lamintations) is to challenge us to trust in Him through good and difficult times just as He trusts us with each new day, even before the day’s events occur. Maybe, these twelve words of gratitude and faith parallel the twelve months of aveilus (mourning). And, if I ever doubt the possibility of embodying every word of the modeh ani, I must remember that He has shown me that it has already been achieved. Because, I carry with me the image of someone who did just that. That person was my father.
Chavi’s Modeh Ani with kavana post-it reminder on her light switch
On one of the first days of shiva for my father, Meyer Muschel, a friend of my brother Mordy shared a beautiful reason for saying kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer). He quoted a beautiful metaphor in the name of his father, הרב נחום מושל ז”ל, a world renowned מחנך of the prior generation, who explained that Hashem is the maestro of the world’s orchestra. Every one of us is charged with playing a unique instrument and that G-d himself can discern when one his instruments is out of tune or is G-d forbid missing. When one of The Creator’s instruments has been silenced through death, the ones closest to the deceased say Kaddish to sanctify G-d’s name, substituting for the missing instrument that is so vital to Hashem’s composition. Not only do the mourners fill in for the quieted instrument, but they also elicit sanctification from the other musicians.
I thought about the beautiful kaddish metaphor. Metaphors remind me of my father as they bring an idea to life through a concrete example. The metaphor was one of Aba’s favorite and most powerful tools in Torah. My father was fond of using examples that we could all picture in order to illustrate an idea. Bulldozers. Washing machines. Sleeping pills. A punctured tire. A bald tire. There were many metaphors that he employed and Aba expected us to give numerous examples of how the Torah idea was exemplified by the metaphor. He expected us to show where the metaphor excelled and at times, where it failed.
So, I turned this metaphor around in my head, engaging with every facet, as my father would expect of me.
If every person in the orchestra is playing an instrument, then which one was my father asked to play? Which instrument demanded 18+ hours a day of rehearsal? Which shy instrument asserted itself only for the benefit of the composition? Which instrument was enjoyed mostly because of its humility and creative melody? Which one possessed no ego for its own musical majesty, but owned the confidence to respectfully challenge the melodies of other musicians? Which instrument could distill a complex melody to its essence?
Perhaps my father played one of the lead instruments. A violin? A clarinet? The solo instrument that highlighted the melody while the others accompanied? The instrument with a wide musical range? The instrument that required the most intense rehearsal? Or, was my father asked to play an unusual instrument whose gravelly voice complemented and enhanced the smooth sound of other instruments?
As much as I tried to picture the instrument that my father had played, I couldn’t settle on one. So, I retooled the metaphor.
After all, there are those who play an instrument and those who conduct the orchestra, guiding other instrumentalists. For one composition, there are countless ways to uniquely express the arrangement using the ability, creativity and interest of the players with the singular vision of its conductor.
It is the conductor who waves his baton, making certain that others follow his example and musical perspective, joining forces to produce a majestic symphony. It is the meticulous and hard-working maestro who persuades the musicians to achieve their best. It is through the conductor’s creativity and vision that others can find their own voice, blending in the service of the orchestra. For a single composition, each conductor can interpret the music in a way that fulfills the vision of the composer, while staying true to the unique blended expression of the orchestra.
So, I believe that my father was the maestro of a symphony of his unique time and place, summoning confidence and creativity as he coaxed others to play the music of Torah through a melodious conversation with The Creator. His concert hall was the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall) and every space that he converted into his own Beis medrash. In my father’s inimitable, shy and no-nonsense way, his baton was raised for others to follow.
However, if my father was the maestro, then the metaphor remains flawed. There are two important pieces that are missing.
First, if my father was the conductor, does that imply that his role was only to lead? As the maestro, was my father silent during the symphony? What about his own music? Did our metaphor’s maestro still play his own music once he began handling a baton? And, how does our maestro maintain humility while leading the orchestra?
The maestro must play his own music, as my father never stopped developing his own chidushim (new aspects of Torah) once he began teaching Torah. He never expected his instrumentalists to practice their music, while he stopped rehearsing and advancing his own. Our maestro listened, but was rarely silent during the symphony, while he allowed others’ music to shine. Even from the podium, our great maestro remained humble as he wrote, taught and recorded Torah.
Second, if my father was a maestro with his own musical instrument, then where is G-d in this metaphor? If He is not the conductor, then where and what is He?
G-d is, of course, The Composer. The Composer is the One who developed, develops and will continue to develop the music that the maestro and the orchestra perform. The Composer defers to the maestro and the orchestra to infuse the symphony with creativity and vision. He expects the maestro to be versed and vigilant so that the integrity of the composition is true to the composer’s original intent. The maestro is expected to express his unique perspective and style.
My father was indeed both a maestro and an instrumentalist, teaching Torah to himself and to everyone in the orchestra. Aba’s orchestra was melodious and grand, not because of its exclusivity but precisely because it included all our voices. Aba’s style and mastery of the Composer’s music was always true to G-d’s original intent, but was infused with the memorable metaphors and insightful chakiros (explorations) that were his own.
I hope that through the recitation and response to kaddish for my father, we stay true to his Torah vision while sanctifying the Composer. My prayer is that even after the completion of kaddish, the musicians of our world will continue to look to our maestro’s musical instrument and to his baton. May my father’s inclusive, inimitable, yet humble leadership guide our majestic music in the service of our Composer eternally.
When my father was diagnosed with end stage pancreatic cancer, I was devastated. My father was the healthiest and holiest person I knew. He learned Torah all day and into the night. He watched his diet. He employed humor and creativity to dispel tension and teach Torah. He was careful about exercise and he had generations of longevity genes. I just couldn’t understand how my father could be so sick.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t think.
My father was as relaxed as ever. In fact, he was funnier than I’ve ever seen him. I just couldn’t comprehend how he seemed totally unaffected by his grim diagnosis.
On the way to the biopsy at University Hospital in Cleveland, my father asked me to research how many miles there were between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He was giving shiur (lecture) to me in the car and my hands couldn’t stop shaking. He was completely unfazed by his terrifying prognosis and I just couldn’t concentrate. When I managed to muddle through a Google search on the rivers and their distance, my father explained that in the end of days, Hashem would flatten out the land between those rivers and then give an equal portion to all inheritors. Each inheritance would include a flat portion and a mountainous portion (Yechezkel 47:13-19).
In those moments of anguish, I couldn’t process Torah, inheritance and rivers. My head was just pounding with the fact that my father was gravely ill. Aba’s head and heart were pulsating with the beauty and majesty of Torah and the future. While my father was picturing the Torah’s positive and equitable reward, I was weighed down by his foreboding prognosis.
That day was one of the most challenging days of my life. The miracle for which we had prayed did not reveal itself in the way we imagined. The biopsy confirmed our worst fears. I tried to remain calm as the nurse wheeled my father to the biopsy. I asked her to please take care of my holy father. With a twinkle in his eye, Aba retorted, “I seem to be getting holier and holier each time I am being stuck with needles!”
I asked my father, “How does a talmid chochom(wise Torah student) process this type of diagnosis and still be so composed?” He answered, “It is simple and it is in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b).
אמר רבה בר בר חנה כשחלה ר’ אליעזר נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו אמר להן חמה עזה יש בעולם התחילו הן בוכין ורבי עקיבא משחק אמרו לו למה אתה משחק אמר להן וכי מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו אפשר ספר תורה שרוי בצער ולא נבכה
Rabba bar bar Ḥana says: When Rabbi Eliezer became sick, his students visited. Rabbi Eliezer said, “There is intense anger in the world.” The students started to cry because of their teacher’s suffering. Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?“ Rabbi Akiva said to them, “And why do you cry?” They replied, “Is it possible that (Rabbi Eliezer who is) a Torah scroll is suffering in pain and we do not cry? “
אמר להן לכך אני משחק כל זמן שאני רואה רבי שאין יינו מחמיץ ואין פשתנו לוקה ואין שמנו מבאיש ואין דובשנו מדביש אמרתי שמא חס ושלום קיבל רבי עולמו ועכשיו שאני רואה רבי בצער אני שמח אמר לו עקיבא כלום חיסרתי מן התורה כולה אמר לו לימדתנו רבינו (קהלת ז, כ) כי אדם אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא
Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I laugh. As long as I see that for my teacher, his wine never spoils, his flax is not disturbed, his oil never ruins, and his honey never turns rancid, I would say, ‘Perhaps, G-d forbid, my teacher has already received his share in this world (and may not receive a reward in the Next World). But now that I see my teacher suffering (for the few sins he may have transgressed), I am happy.’” Rabbi Eliezer said, “Akiva, have I failed to fulfill any portion of the entire Torah?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “you taught us, our teacher: ‘For there is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and sins not’“ Ecclesiastes 7:20).
Through this powerful Gemara, my father explained to me that the simple truth is that suffering is good. Difficulties purify the soul to ensure merit in the Next World. Aba’s mantra had always been that everything G-d does is for the good. Calmly, he clarified and role-modeled that positive message, explaining that he needed no ingenuity for the Gemara elucidated it all so beautifully.
I was still reeling from the pain and grief of the diagnosis, but my father had now framed the experience through the words and world view of Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist. I was determined to see hope and optimism, but I am no Reb Yankel Cohen and I am certainly no Rabbi Akiva. It was difficult and almost impossible for me to be optimistic.
Hopefulness and laughter were Rabbi Akiva’s distinctive traits. While everyone cried, Rabbi Akiva could discern optimism within tragedy, the silver lining in every cloud. The most famous story of this indefatigable hopefulness is in Gemara Makos 24B.
שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים כיון שהגיעו להר הצופים קרעו בגדיהם כיון שהגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל שיצא מבית קדשי הקדשים התחילו הן בוכין ור”ע מצחק אמרו לו מפני מה אתה מצחק אמר להם מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו מקום שכתוב בו (במדבר א, נא) והזר הקרב יומת ועכשיו שועלים הלכו בו ולא נבכה
Another time, they (Rav Gamliel, Rav Elazar ben Azarya, Rav Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva ) were going up to Jerusalem. When they reached Har Hatzofim and saw the Temple site, they tore their garments in mourning. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox leaving the site of the Holy of Holies. They began crying, while Rabbi Akiva laughed. They said to him, “Why are you laughing? “Rabbi Akiva said, “Why are you crying?” They answered, “This is the place for which it is written: ‘And the non-priest who approaches shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes walk there; and shall we not cry? “
אמר להן לכך אני מצחק דכתיב (ישעיהו ח, ב) ואעידה לי עדים נאמנים את אוריה הכהן ואת זכריה בן יברכיהו וכי מה ענין אוריה אצל זכריה אוריה במקדש ראשון וזכריה במקדש שני אלא תלה הכתוב נבואתו של זכריה בנבואתו של אוריה
Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I laugh, when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah, it is written ‘And I will attest to Me with the faithful witnesses, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Yevarchihu’ (Isaiah 8:2). What links the prophecies of Uriah and Zechariah? After all, Uriah prophesied during the First Temple era, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple. The connection is that Zechariah’s prophecy is dependent on the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy.”
באוריה כתיב (מיכה ג, יב) לכן בגללכם ציון שדה תחרש [וגו’] בזכריה כתיב (זכריה ח, ד) עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות ירושלם עד שלא נתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה הייתי מתיירא שלא תתקיים נבואתו של זכריה עכשיו שנתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה בידוע שנבואתו של זכריה מתקיימת בלשון הזה אמרו לו עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתנו:
“In Uriah’s prophecy, it is written, ‘Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field’ (Micah 3:12), where foxes may roam. In Zechariah’s prophecy, it is written, ‘There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the (dark) prophecy of Uriah comes to fruition, I feared that the (hopeful) prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that Uriah’s was fulfilled, it is clear that the Zechariah’s prophecy will happen.” The sages said, “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us”.
This type of eternal optimism based upon Hashem’s word was modeled by my father using the lessons of Rabbi Akiva. My father became the American paradigm of a self-made masmid (continuous Torah scholar) just as Rabbi Akiva had advanced himself from a stable boy into a talmid chachom. My father taught us to look at events and challenges through the rose-colored glasses of Rabbi Akiva. He taught us that all The Creator does is positive and that with a grounding in Torah, we may even catch a glimpse of the good in what seems bad. My mother dedicated her life to funding my father’s learning in much the same way that Rachel, Rabbi Akiva’s wife, had championed Rabbi Akiva’s learning. And, most of all, these two great men taught us to view every experience and challenge through the pure and positive prism of Torah learning and a connection to The One Above.
Once armed with Rabbi Akiva’s optimism, we began to see G-d’s miracles and hugs in the treatment of my father’s dreadful disease. Within a few days, expert oncologists and pathologists reviewed my father’s case and guided us. A new experimental drug named CPI-613 produced by Rafael Pharmaceuticals showed promise for this type of cancer. My father packed a few essential belongings and his favorite seforim (Holy books) and we began the hopeful journey through his illness, moving my parents from Ohio to New Jersey.
My father was the oldest member of the experimental group and was one of the last to be admitted into this non-randomized drug trial. The drug trial had recently moved from North Carolina to Morristown, NJ, a forty-five-minute drive from my own home. The doctors and nurses at Morristown were taken by my father’s optimism and calm compliance to the rigid framework of their drug trial.
Miraculously, in those frightening early days of treatment, a red fox would visit our backyard. I named the fox Akiva, feeling a hug from Above and the optimism represented by Rabbi Akiva through this fox. Once we settled into a chemo routine, the fox stopped visiting and we did not see him again for quite a while. Akiva, the fox, reappeared the Shabbos after my brother-in-law tragically died of COVID in March 2020. As we sat broken-hearted at our Shabbos table after burying Mordechai on Friday, the fox reappeared, staying in our backyard for a good portion of that difficult Shabbos.
That seemed to be all that we needed and we did not see a fox again. My father b’H survived for nearly two years, far outliving the original three-month prognosis. My father, in his great optimism and calm demeanor, managed the rigors of chemotherapy and the cancer that had invaded his abdomen. He published his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov(delights of Yaakov) during that time, savoring his study of Torah.
My father implanted his legacy of laughter and learning in all who knew him. For the two additional years that he was with us, he strengthened that lively legacy in us, creating a Beis medrash (Torah study hall) space within the confines of a new geographical area, chemo treatments and an aggressive illness. He taught us that joyfulness is not a destination. It is a means of travel, suitable for all times and all places, always with an understanding that all The Creator does is good.
Rabbi Akiva and my father had an additional surprise for me. Early one morning, enroute to shiva for my father, I saw an animal running in front of my car. As I trained my eyes on its movement, I saw its pointy nose and bushy red tail. The fox had returned to bring good tidings with another hug from the Creator. Rabbi Akiva once again had taught us to glimpse the silver lining in the cloud of sadness and loss.
This month, we lost a Talmid Chochom(wise Torah student) of massive proportion who learned Torah with tireless strength and courage. He was addressed as a living Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and the paradigm of an American masmid (Torah scholar). He was fearlessly honest. He had an amazing sense of humor. He was confident in his Torah and yet, he was the humblest person I knew.
He was my father.
As a young girl, I knew where I could always find my father, in the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall). While he spent endless hours in the Telshe Cleveland Beis Medrash, he converted every other space in his life into his personal Beis Medrash. Torah was his first love and I never tried to compete with that love.
His learning was melodic, even in my father’s gruff and gravelly voice. The words were sweet. The tune of his Torah played over and over with his deep concentration and the sweet hum of Torah emanating from his study. I remember the sour lemon drops that he would enjoy as he learned Torah deep into the night. I can picture his relaxed pose, hands behind his head, feet outstretched with his brow furrowed in deep concentration.
I remember him buying reams and reams of composition paper at Gold Circle, especially when the paper was on sale before the school year. And, I would watch him fill binder after binder with papers full of his Torah, so neatly written with his dominant left hand. His study wasn’t aesthetically beautiful, but it was his haven. The bookshelves were dusty and old, the chair was mended but sturdy, and the holy seforim(books) were his prized possessions.
Day after Day. Week after Week. Year after Year. Decade after Decade.
Aba’s Torah never grew stale. It became more and more vibrant and each time he reviewed or he taught the same sugya (portion of Torah), it was with even more passion than the time before.
My father was a gibor (of heroic strength). He was a born athlete and was known in his hometown of Chicago as an aspiring and outstanding ball player. He summoned amazing stamina and agility and channeled raw power into his beautiful rhythm of Torah. In the same way that my father as a youngster had developed a powerful swing in baseball, my father perfected his service to the Creator through his learning.
He never tired of review. He always found new and exciting topics to ponder. The source of fire on Shabbos. The Anenai Hakavod(Clouds of Glory). The Klai Mishkan (Utensils of the Holy Temple). Cloning. And, so many others.
My father poked and prodded, researched and challenged. He looked at every question in Torah through many different angles, rotating and scrutinizing so that he could view and understand every facet of the issue. He discussed it with anyone who was available, piquing their interest and incorporating their contributions to his clarification of the Torah piece. He employed real-world metaphors that brought the topic to life. He asked for additional information from NASA scientists, school children, geniuses in Torah and even from me.
My father never dumbed anything down for me. He always made me feel like his chavrusa (study partner), not his talmida (student). He omitted nothing with me, happy to teach me any subject as long as it could be viewed and internalized through the pure prism of Torah. He would tell me often how proud he was of me and that I was his best daughter (I am his only daughter).
I never felt that I was second best to his Torah, probably because he shared his love and enthusiasm for his learning with me. He made me a part of the breathtaking magnitude of his Torah and he filled my childhood with simple, yet memorable moments of fatherhood.
My father once shared how excited and awe-struck he was when he beheld me for the first time after I was born. I remember my father vacuuming and changing diapers. I loved the way he did those tasks in a way that was uniquely his. I remember him swiveling his tie to the back of his shirt when he changed a diaper. I can picture how my father wrapped the cord of the vacuum. I can smell and taste his cholent recipe which he happily shared with me after my marriage.
I remember him showing me how to use his first shoe-box sized calculator as he prepared the family tax return. Every birthday, I would eagerly await as he took down his camera and we watched as exactly one Polaroid photo came to life before our eyes. My father gave me few presents, but they were gifts of thoughtfulness and affection. He bought me leather-bound machzorim(holiday prayer books) on his first visit to Israel. He presented me with a red potato peeler when he saw that I was missing my Pesach peeler. I needed nothing more from my father.
When I was unhappy, my father wiped my tears. My father was never really sad, so I think of the greatness it took for him to feel my pain. When I was disappointed, he taught me to look at the problem through the prism of hopefulness and to try to distill out the good in what seemed bad.
My father taught me that everyday activities can be elevated. He showed me by example that mowing the lawn or doing laundry were not activities beneath him, but that these ordinary tasks can be elevated in the service of Hashem. Family responsibilities were not to be shirked, but rather to be lifted in the service of the Creator. My father gardened and dabbled in carpentry. He played ball with his kids and yet, he learned day and night. It was normal, it was seamless and it was holy.
My father showed me never to expect things to be perfect. He wanted those closest to him to accept all that the Creator bestowed upon them and to distill out the good in them. He modeled how to exercise strength, restraint and humor to navigate through life’s challenges. He helped others achieve joy in their lives while he always found happiness in his.
When my father was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, I was devastated and Aba was calm and funnier than ever. He told me many times that he had no complaints with G-d, that he had a utopian life. His only argument to the Creator was that he could no longer praise Him if he was taken from this world. He would quote the following words of Dovid Hamelech (King David):
“What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?
He showed me how to appreciate others and to express thanks in a meaningful way. I recall so often when he would publicly and privately thank my mother for all the years of support so that he could learn Torah without worry. My father would thank every doctor and nurse as he rode the roller coaster of his illness. He personally thanked me for just about every act of kibud Av (respect for my father) that I performed.
My father revealed how to daven, by being totally immersed in his conversation with Hashem. He showed how to learn and to teach, to leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of the truth in Torah. He showed us how to stand up for kevod shamayim (respect for the One above), while expecting no honor for himself.
My father taught us about finding everything in Torah learning and in finding Torah learning in everything. He taught us to apply every attribute, every gift and every challenge to derive closeness to our Creator and to never forget that the essential reason for learning Torah is to draw close to Hashem.
Those lessons seemed so effortless for my father, the masmid who learned Torah for close to 18 hours just about every day. In my father’s greatness and normalcy, Aba never expected me to be him. He just invested in me by example, yearning for me to be the best that I could be.
Today is a wonderful day in the Respler family. My niece, Sara, is getting married later this afternoon to Lawrence Rosenblum. It is a wonderful opportunity for the family to celebrate, especially because Sara is surrounded by so many female cousins. We love to party and this celebration will be one to remember.
Over the past few years, I have been trying to accumulate less “stuff” and instead, build more memories. So, instead of getting another gift for Sara, Leah and I decided to go all out and host a memorable shower for Sara.
There was delicious food and drink, great camaraderie and even some dancing. The shower began with a wonderful theme. You see, Sara is the ghostwriter of ModestZara, an account dedicated to posting tznius (modest) finds at Zara. Sara wears Zara, breathes Zara and embodies Zara’s classic and timeless style.
Leah scoured the house to find anything that could be used for the theme. We found mannequins of all sizes, a shoe music box, rolls of kraft paper and lots of assorted bags and boxes. I picked up some miniature tote bags and black and kraft paper goods at the local dollar stores.
I printed some Zara-inspired signs using bar codes and a Zara-inspired font.
I thought up a clearance candy station and one of Sara’s friends organized a hot cocoa station replete with marshmallows, whipped cream and all types of cocoa and milk. I created a menu and a to-go station near the front door. I lined my granite countertops with kraft paper and brought up my dairy chafers.
Leah kept insisting that we get dozens of Zara bags from our local Zara store so that the guests would understand the theme. I thought that with everything we had designed, the Zara-reference was more than apparent.
But, Leah insisted. She said that it would be great to put these bags on the buffets and the dining room table. It would be great to put unwrapped gifts into these bags and that it was extremely important.
I did what any mother would do. I called Zara and pleaded my case for the free bags.
I explained the Modest Zara connection. I explained how Sara represents Zara’s classic style. I emphasized that Sara captures a modest Zara population on social media. I waited on hold. I spoke to the manager.
And, I was told Zara does not give out any bags without a purchase.
So, I told Leah that I had valiantly tried to get free Zara bags, but that I had failed.
And, Leah did what any self-respecting daughter would do. She took matters into her own hands.
I don’t exactly know how it happened. But, later that week, Leah came home with a big smile and dozens of Zara shopping bags in all shapes and sizes.
And, I set to work cooking and assembling. Davida made her awesome cupcakes. She tinted the frosting a kraft-brown color and frosted those cupcakes. She then piped a thin S onto a chocolate fudge cookie to embellish the cupcakes.
I created my shoe and pocketbook station using a shoe-themed music box and handbags fashioned from cookies, frosting, and sour sticks. For each pocketbook, I took two half-moon Tirosh cookies and put them together using frosting. I placed a sour stick handle between the cookies. I embellished the fronts of these pocketbooks with assorted sprinkles and edible gems.
My niece, Orit, made a delicious Caesar Salad and one of Sara’s friends made an incredible Greek Salad. I prepared orange soup. One of Sara’s friends made Penne Vodka. I prepared lasagna and quiche. and Leah prepared cabbage salad and a fast-moving smartphone game. My niece, Michal, and her daughters prepared warm brownies.
We ate and we drank. We laughed and we danced. And, no one overlooked the Zara theme because we had plenty of Zara bags for decor.
Today is chof-alef (21) Kislev, the eleventh Yahrzheit (anniversary of passing) of my dear mother-in-law, Devorah bas Yitzchok Aaron (Devorah, the daughter of Yitzchok Aaron). We are in Israel to commemorate the yahrzheit and it is a time of reflection upon a life well-lived.
It is winter here and we have cool, beautiful weather. The fields, the mountains, and the flower stands all over Israel abound with calaniot (anemones) in every color of the spectrum. These calaniot are the national flower of Israel and they represent all that Israel is. They add color and hope to the darkest season in the most barren places. As the rain brings nourishment to the fields and mountains during the winter, these calaniot blossom.
Our small garden as you enter our Jerusalem apartment is also replete with greenery and its own flowers. The variegated leaves and chrysanthemums that were planted two years ago are lush and nourished by the winter rains. They, too, bring the promise of color and bounty in the cold winter.
In honor of the yahrzheit, Don and his brother, Mordechai, completed a masechta (portion) in Gemara (ancient Talmud). On the eve of the yahrzheit, we hosted a siyum (finishing party) and seuda (festive meal) for family and friends in Jerusalem. It was a time to combine reflection, learning and good food as a way to elevate the soul of my mother-in-law.
I created a number of small floral arrangements and one larger one to decorate the tables of our siyum seuda. The smaller floral arrangements were intended as a take-home gift for our guests. The larger centerpiece was to remain with us to grace this week’s Shabbos table.
I began with a glass low vase and soaked a piece of oasis. I then took a variety of leaves from the garden. I started with a single succulent to create this centerpiece. I then added the ribbon-like variegated leaves and stuck them into the oasis in two places. Each leaf end was secured with a toothpick to ensure that the top end of the variegated leaf didn’t budge. I randomly added fuchsia anemones, making sure that they moved in all directions of the arrangement. Finally, I added some more leaves on short stems to fill in the arrangement and to ensure that all of the oasis foam was covered.
At the yahrzheit siyum, I spoke about Mom and reflected upon what made her unique. I compared her to a Devorah (bee). K’shma kein haysa (her name reflected upon who she was).
T’hay nishmasa tzrurah b’tzror hachaim (May her soul be bound in the bond of life).
Tonight is the Yarzheit of Devorah bas Yitzchok Ahron
The Yarzheit is a special time to reflect on the qualities of the neshoma (soul) that remain in this world even after a persons petira (passing)
This year I thought we would take my mother-in-law’s name, Devorah, which means bee and we would explore some of the unique and even surprising facts about bees to garner some lessons that she taught us all:
1. A bee is a busy and social creature.One bee must fly on average 90,000 miles, about three times around the globe, to produce one pound of honey. A bee colony is comprised of more than ten thousand bees and less than 80,000 bees.
My mother-in-law was a busy woman, always thinking of others and connecting people around her Shabbos and Yom Tov table. She was really a people person who enjoyed being in the company of others. She sought out new friends wherever she went and so many lonely people found a place in her home and in her heart. She was truly a busy and social creature.
2. A bee honeycomb is a very efficient structure. It uses the minimum amount of beeswax in each perfect hexagon to hold the maximum amount of honey. My mother-in-law had the unique quality of finding a small and inexpensive gift that would show her concern and caring for another person. She would keep a box of Dixie cups with knock-knock jokes for decades. She would take them out and distribute them. We were each mandated to read the knock-knock jokes out loud and then she would make sure no one ruined the cups by drinking from them. She would then collect them and those Dixie cups would go right back in the box and into her cabinet.
On Shabbos and Yom Tov, Mom would ask me to make platters for kiddush and then she would whisper to me “in case more people come, please cut each piece of gefilte fish into half and then into quarters so that each guest would get a piece.” Every guest would arrive hungrily and at least go home with a quarter-piece of fish. Her friends always left filled by her friendship and attention.
She would find safety pins and Bobby pins and dollar store gifts that would be just what we all needed Like the beehive, Mom was efficient about using small things to their maximum benefit.
3. The venom in a bee sting has medicinal properties. Bee venom has shown promise in treating arthritis and other types of pain.
Mom was known to speak her mind, especially when she saw something with which she disagreed. For me as a new daughter-in-law,, some of my mother-in-law’s words stung. But, as I got to know Mom I really began to understand and appreciate this quality. I learned that her bee sting had medicinal properties. Her words were honest and truthful, and I personally learned a lot through her.
When I first was married, she admonished me for not calling her every Friday. I apologized and felt stung by the criticism. After all, in my family, we called each other whenever we felt like calling. There was no schedule and that was just what I was used to doing. Nonetheless, I decided to start calling my in-laws every Erev Shabbos (Friday afternoon) as that was their expectation. As the years went by, I realized what a blessing the initial criticism had been. Now, my children and grandchildren call me just about every Friday afternoon. That is the medicinal quality of that sting.
4. A bee is the only insect that produces human food and the bee is the only non- kosher creature that produces a substance that we are allowed to eat.
Like the bee, the sweet honey that my mother-in-law produced is unique and defies logic. She had the ability to take the most mundane and insignificant gift and elevate it by making someone feel special. She was able to take her toughness and criticism and combine it with her Simchas Ha’chaim (joie de vivre) to produce children who are known for their incredible sweetness And, she taught us that it is possible for each one of us to be the only insect that can produce something edible and then elevate it to something pure and kosher.
May the neshoma (soul) of Devora bas Yitzchok Aaron have a tremendous Aliyah as she buzzes and soars in the Next World. May each one of us continue to produce the honey from all that Mom has taught us.
We spent this past Shabbos at the beautiful home of our cousins who hosted a yahrzheit Shabbos for our dear cousin, Yisroel Simcha. It was an uplifting Shabbos of inspiration, learning, delicious food and ambiance and beautiful Divrei Torah (words of Torah). There was an incredible siyum by family and friends who gathered to spend Shabbos together reminiscing about Yisroel Simcha. I spoke during the Shabbos about the lessons and legacy he exemplified.
We encounter Yitzchak and Rivka who come from opposite backgrounds.
We are introduced to two male twins, Esav and Yaakov, who are opposite physically and ideologically
When thinking of something to speak about, I couldn’t think of a better topic than opposites because…
Yisroel simcha z’l was really the paradigm study in opposites:
Brilliant v Simple. There was a simplicity to Yisroel Simcha’s brilliance and a brilliance to his simplicity.
Serious v. Hilarious Yisroel Simcha’s humor was never silly or sarcastic. It was him finding the absurdity in his illness and the difficult circumstances of his life. Yisroel Simcha used humor to elevate himself and to make everyone around him feel good.
Wisdom of an elderly person v. effervescence/naivete of a toddler
Knew everything about the material world and yet that relationship w materialism didn’t affect his neshoma one iota
Respectful v irreverent
While thinking about Yisroel Simcha’s opposite attributes, the one thing that I found no opposite for was his sense of simcha. There were times, I cried my eyes out, worrying and thinking about all that he was going through. I remember his Bris and his Bar Mitzvah vividly. During the celebration of his Bar Mitzvah, I locked myself in a bathroom stall and each time I tried to emerge, I just couldn’t.
But Yisroel Simcha didn’t cry. Esther didn’t cry, even when he came to dance with her. And, I never, ever saw Yisroel Simcha sad.
So when I look for the opposite for the attribute of simcha, I pair it with the attribute of Yisroel.
Yisroel Simcha was Yisroel, the man who rocked the endurance game and was victorious. Why? Precisely because he was b’simcha (in a joyous state). It seems supernatural and yet that was instilled in his very nature and his nurture. That was what made Yisroel Simcha unique, brilliant and funny. And, it was all effortless.
Here we are at his Yarzheit Shabbos and we are transported back to all that we encountered when we were with Yisroel Simcha. Why? Because that effortless sense of being b’simcha while enduring b’emunah (with faith) is rooted right here and that will endure forever. Those symbiotic qualities that are so rare and that so affected each one of us are in Esther and Menachem. And, they were a part of Aunt Regina a”H, Temma a’H and of course, this was Yisroel Simcha’s greatest legacy.
Rifka was the parent entrusted with the nevuah (prophecy) during pregnancy that made her understand Yaakov’s mission. She was willing to sacrifice everything for Yaakov to help him reach his full potential, much like Esther who spent tens of thousands of hours bandaging and selflessly helping Yisroel Simcha to be all that he was in the face of great adversity. Esther and Menachem do not need to speak a word and yet, we can connect to all that they represent.
For us, to recreate that, would take enormous effort. But for the Possicks, it is in their nature and it is in their home. And, this family had the amazing ability and zechus (merit) to allow the effervescence, the hilarity, the wisdom, the emunah, the effortlessness and the brilliance of Yisroel Simcha to shine through.
I believe that when you are evaluating any type of relationship, never, never judge the other person. Always judge who you are in their presence.
Perhaps, that explains the most perplexing set of opposites in our parsha:
Yitzchok loved Esau for the hunt was in his mouth while Rivka loves Yaakov. There are two interesting differences in describing the love of Yitzchok toward Esav v the love Rifkah feels for Yaakov:
Their love is described in different tenses: Rivka’s in the present while Yitzchak’s in the past
Yitzchok’s love was based upon the taste in his mouth while Rifka’s love is not dependent on anything
Perhaps, Rifka understood that her love for Yaakov was never dependent upon what was בְּפִ֑יו, For Rifka her love was just that ubiquitous feeling of her being her most elevated self in Yaakov’s company.
If we were to evaluate our relationship with Yisroel Simcha based upon who we were in his presence, we would probably all say the same thing: In Yisroel Simcha’s company, we were all: funnier, happier, smarter, more connected, more elevated and even weightless. Why? Because Yisroel Simcha had this effortless quality about all that he was and all that he did. He should have been the most complicated person we knew and yet, he was the least complicated.
For us, we need to work on reconnecting, through this Shabbos and through recreating that person we were in Yisroel Simcha’s company. So, what we can do is to be in touch with that hilarious, joyous, witty, clever and elevated self in each one of us with whom Yisroel Simcha put us in touch. And, with that extra confidence in ourselves and in our tefilos (prayers), we can transform this yahrzheit Shabbos into a celebration of true simcha for this incredible family with the coming of moshiach b’mehara ub’simcha (speedily and with great joy).
This recipe is simple to prepare and is perfect for those Thanksgiving leftovers. It is a fleishig (meat) version of pizza and is really a cinch to make. The first time that I prepared it, I served it for Shabbos lunch to the rave reviews of my guests.
You can easily substitute any type of pulled chicken or pulled beef.
This past Erev Shabbos was a busy one. My father’s chemo day has been moved to Thursday, so more of the Shabbos preparation has been piling up on Friday. Aaron and Hindy were arriving for Shabbos. Guests were coming for Seuda Shlishis (third meal) Shabbos afternoon. I needed to run to Monsey for a nursing home visit. Candle lighting was at 4:12 PM. And, there was so much to get done. Thankfully, we had an aufruf to look forward to attending Shabbos morning.
I woke up before 5 AM on a mission. All the ingredients were on hand, but not much of the cooking had been started. I had been too exhausted on Thursday to start my Shabbos cooking, but thank G-d, I had plenty of energy early Friday morning to accomplish all that I had to do.
I decided to start with the funnest part of the Shabbos preparation. I used my large soup pot to make the Rice Krispies Treats batter for the Aufruf Cake and decorated the top with simple Marshmallow Tulips. After turning the cake onto a doily, I placed it on one of my Upcycled Chalkboard Chargers and wrote a mazel tov wish in metallic marker right on the charger.
Don loves arugula. He will eat a bag of arugula as a snack.
I love tomatoes.
In fact, my mother has told me that “tomato” was my first word. I pronounced it as “apimanus” and would do anything for a tomato. I still will. I just think that the juiciness, sweetness and unique character of a tomato makes a salad complete.
And, nowadays, tomatoes are available in all shapes and colors. There are yellow pear tomatoes and brown kumato tomatoes. There are beefsteak and grape tomatoes, cherry and low-acid tomatoes.
And, most are available year-round in your local markets. Best of all, tomatoes are very simple to check for kashrut (kosher status) as their structure rarely allows for insect infestation.
Recently, a group of our friends joined to prepare an exquisite and delicious Sheva Brochos (seven day wedding after-party) for our newly married children, Yitzchok Aaron and Hindy. There was gorgeous china and stemware. The tablecloths were elegant and beautiful. Every delicious home-cooked dish was impeccably prepared and served.
But, for me, the stand-out memory of the evening was the tomato salad. It was a beefsteak tomato salad served in stout chunks with the most incredible pesto drizzled on top. It was gorgeous, fresh and simply delicious.
Last night, my aunt and uncle came to visit my parents who are living with us. They were coming from quite a distance and were due to arrive around dinnertime. I had been busy all day with my mother and we arrived home later than expected. Before I left that morning, I had prepared a crockpot lentil soup and set a simple brisket and Simple Rainbow Roasted Vegetables in my oven on time-bake.
What I had left for the end was the salad. I knew that I had some pre-checked lettuce and other assorted vegetables in my refrigerator bin. Thirty minutes before their arrival, I opened the bin to begin preparing the salad. All my salad ingredients, including the checked lettuce were gone. All that remained were tomatoes, onions and arugula.
And, oh, there were tomatoes! I had containers of every type of tomato imaginable. There were yellow pear tomatoes and brown kumato tomatoes. There were grape tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, but no beefsteak tomatoes. Last week, all the local markets had interesting tomatoes at great prices, so I had stocked up. And, my salad thieves had barely touched the tomatoes.
So, what was there to do? My mind raced back to the Sheva Brochos tomato fantasy. I had never received the recipe, but in my mind, I knew exactly what to do. And, the results were even better than the original and approved by all my guests.
Arugula, washed and pat dry
1/2 onion, cut in chunks
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Wash and cut tomatoes. If using large tomatoes, cut into thick slices. Arrange in a bowl or on a serving platter.
In the food processor fitted with the s-blade, pulse onion chunks and well-dried arugula. Once the onion and arugula are completely broken down, add lemon, salt and oil and process until well combined.
Right before serving, pour pesto over the tomatoes. Enjoy!
Kosher laws disallow the eating of any whole insects and therefore most greens require a process of soaking, rinsing and in some cases, pureeing. Kashrut authorities differ somewhat on the proper checking of leafy vegetables. This blog was not designed to be your kosher authority, so please consult your local rabbinic authority regarding using greens such as arugula.
For an interesting appetizer, side dish or buffet option, decant tomatoes into a glass. Top with arugula pesto and garnish with a small bread stick or crouton.
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Every day is Thanksgiving. That is my corollary to my mother’s cardinal rule of “every day is Mother’s Day.” Feeling gratitude is an ongoing and essential goal and should not be limited to any one day of the year. And, I love so many of the traditional foods associated with Thanksgiving like turkey, pumpkin and cranberries. As these ingredients begin to become available at our local markets, I buy them, hoping to find new and improved ways to use them.
Giving thanks is such a pivotal tenet in Judaism. Each Jewish holiday commemorates something that has occured for which we are to feel gratitude. The word for thanks in Hebrew is תודה, which is rooted in acknowledment, humility and praise. The virtue of humility is based upon showing gratitude to G-d for what we have and not ascribing all that we have to our own strength and prowess.
This particular Thanksgiving season is poignant and special for me. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several months ago and my parents have moved in with our family as my father undergoes his experimental chemotherapy treatments. As challenging as these few months have been, they have been so beautiful, as well. Going through each season with my parents and gleaning wisdom and life lessons from my parents has been a treasure and a privilege. It is something for which I give eternal gratitude to G-d. I pray for strength, support and positivity to help us traverse this challenge. Focusing on the aspects for which to show gratitude has transformed these difficult times into an opportunity for Thanksgiving.
This morning, I bought the first fresh turkey breast for the season and I intended to make it memorable. I placed the turkey breast in a crockpot and topped it with sliced Vidalia onions and a handful of garlic cloves. I poured barbecue sauce and water over the top and set the crockpot temperature setting to high for eight hours.
I came home to the most delicious Thanksgiving aroma. After removing the bones, I shredded the turkey.
Half of a turkey breast on the bone
1-2 onions, peeled and cut into rings
8-10 medium garlic cloves
1 cup water
2/3 cup barbecue sauce
Place all ingredients in the crockpot. Set crockpot to high and cook for 6-8 hours. Turkey should be falling off the bones when ready.
Remove and discard bines, Using two large forks held tines to tines, shred or pull the turkey. Add several tablespoons of extra water and barbecue sauce, if turkey needs to be moistened
On Shabbos Bereishis (Genesis), we were still in Israel after spending Sukkos and Simchas Torah there. Our favorite shul (synagogue) is located in the Jerusalem Municipality complex and is attended by a mix of neighborhood residents and guests. It is such an awesome cross-section of the various types of Jews living and visiting nearby. It is a potpourri of Chassidim, Yeshivish families and Modern Orthodox Jews and every type of Jew philosophically in-between. Our shul hosts people from all parts of the world, all walks of life and all ages. Best of all, there is a warm connection between all those who pray within. It is a tiny oasis of tefilla (prayer) and friendship in the holy city of Jerusalem.
On that particular Shabbos, there was a Bar Mitzvah being hosted in the shul. As the Bar Mitzvah boy was called to the Torah, his nine siblings stood at attention for his aliyah (calling to the Torah). In the woman’s balcony rising above the bimah (Torah table) were his proud mother and six identically dressed sisters, ranging in age from two to twelve years old. The older sisters brought candies which they showered down upon their brother. Carefully displayed in plastic bags were candy flowers that were hand-designed and distributed to the young girls in the women’s balcony section. They were simple colorful marshmallows, each skewered with a sour belt sepal.
The flowers were colorful and gorgeous. They piqued my interest because they were so simple and yet so beautiful. Their beauty belies the unity of the ingredients and the simplicity of their design. And, yet, these flowers transport me instantly to that special place in Jerusalem that, for me, represents its own blend of unity and beauty.
1 large jar of marshmallow fluff
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 box of Rice Krispies cereal
Over low heat in a large pot, melt butter or margarine. Add marshmallow fluff and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat. Add Rice Krispies, 2 cups at a time. Using a firm spatula, stir until well combined.
ALTERNATIVE MICROWAVE METHOD
Melt marshmallow fluff in microwave for 30 seconds.
If marshmallow fluff is melted enough to mix, pour 1-2 cups of Rice Krispies into an extra-large bowl, add a large dollup of marshmallow fluff and mix with a firm spatula until combined. Return unused marshmallow fluff to microwave and melt for 20 second increments, adding a dollup at a time with more Rice Krispies until all the marshmallow fluff and Rice Krispies have been used and the mixture is evenly combined.
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On Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), we offered a L’Chaim to the newest couple in our Respler family. Lawrence proposed to Sara on a rooftop in Manhattan. The family gathered in Queens as the engagement became official. The atmosphere was electric as we awaited the arrival of this new couple at Sara’s family home in Queens just a few hours after havdola (ceremony terminating Shabbos).
As Shabbos concluded in New Jersey, we prepared to travel to Queens. I didn’t want to arrive at the L’Chaim empty handed. I thought long and hard about what I could bring that was festive, whimsical, simple to prepare and could safely anchor the love birds from Yitzchok Aaron and Hindy’s Floral Arrangement.
Davida had been home for Shabbos with two of her terrific friends, Alyssa and Elana. All three had helped all Shabbos long with our Shabbos meals’ setup and cleanup and were on board for the task of preparing this cake. I had showed them the package of new chosson-kallah (bride and groom) embellishments that had just returned with me from my latest trip to Jerusalem. I loved that the chosson was wearing a glittery kippa on his head and the kallah was wearing a wedding dress with sleeves. I joked that since there were a dozen embellishments in the package, if each one of these young women were one of the next twelve friends and family to find their bashert (chosen spouse) soon, I would save an embellishment for each of them.
The task was simpler than expected. I repurposed a rose-shaped silicone mold. Davida prepared a batch of Rice Krispies Treats and I packed the batter firmly into the pan. After a short few minutes, I inverted the mold onto some wax paper. I pressed the love birds and the Chosson-Kallah skewers into the cake and the SimpletoWow wedding cake was ready to go.
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When contemplating a theme for this Aufruf, the choice was simple. The Gemara in Pesachim quotes “Inveihagefen be’invei hagefen davar na’ah umiskabeil” — “The mingling of vine grapes with other vine grapes is a beautiful and acceptable thing.” We’ve heard this quoted by so many of our friends and family with regards to the shidduch between YA and Hindy.
So, I thought we would explore together what exactly this means.
On the surface, we understand that this refers to the union of two well-matched individuals. As I am fond of saying, “a good marriage is when two people with good qualities find each other. A great marriage is when 1+1 is greater than 2, when these two people become a force together.”
At Yitzchok Aaron’s bris, I spoke (yes, YA, a woman spoke at your bris , even in Passaic). I told the story of two men, two grape vines, one named Chaim Dovid Fischbein and another named YA Kramer. I told of how Chaim Dovid, the proud yekkie, left his wife and family in Israel after the war and tried to make a living on the shores of the US, hoping to bring them over. I told of Chaim Dovid’s commitment to Shabbos and how it was so hard for him to hold down a job in America as a Shabbos-observant Holocaust survivor when a six-day workweek was expected.
I told of YA Kramer who was a fruits and vegetables dealer whose real career was to help people after the war. I recounted how these two men met and how YA helped Chaim Dovid during those lonely and difficult years. I told of how YA lived with broken-down furniture so that he could help people like Chaim Dovid who had lost their family and their lives in WW2 Europe.
I didn’t know then that YA was to be my only son, but I felt that the first boy’s name should be for Yitzchok Aaron Kramer, Don’s Zaidy, as a token of appreciation for all that he had done for Chaim Dovid Fischbein, my Opa, financially and emotionally.
YA, that is precisely what invei hagefen means. It is the entwining of two types of grapes that is so beautiful and acceptable to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
We are honored and humbled by the mingling of the Resplers with the Shippels because we want your vintage to be the entwining of so many of the beautiful qualities possessed by the Shippels. Their warmth and the chinuch and goodness that they impart to their children and to the world is breathtaking.
In just about every place that I have lived, we have planted a grapevine. So, I know a thing or two about grapes and these are some of the interesting facts:
1) The quality and makeup of the soil determines the taste and quality of the grape and its wine
2) A grapevine requires the support of an outside structure and employs tendrils to adhere the vine to its support for strength and endurance
3) The vine trellises upward but its fruit hang downward
4) Every grape consists of sucrose, tanins and acids
From these grape-related facts, I’d like to weave some simple to wow marriage lessons for you, YA, as you leave our home and embark on your life together with Hindy.
1) The quality and makeup of the soil determines taste and quality.
Make sure to look toward the roots of the Cohen/Respler and Wassner/Shippel families. You don’t have to look too far back to find great role models. You have an “Aba” who is the paradigm of Torah hasmada. You have your Bubby, Zaidy and Savta who set the Chesed bar high and of course, you will find so many of these sterling qualities in the roots of the Shippel and Wassner families, too.
2) Just as the grapevine uses tendrils to attach and receive strength and support from an outside structure, make sure to find friends, role models and Rabbeim who help you grow in strength and offer support to you and Hindy as you continue to grow together.
3) The vine trellises upward but its fruit hang downward.
As you grow upward, always remember to remain humble and consider where you came from. Always aspire to great heights and never look down on others who are not where you are yet.
4) And finally, every grape consists of sucrose, tanins and acids.
It is the sweet and sour that work together in the fermentation of the wine. Hashem will give you sweet and sour times. Make sure to use them both to ferment your own vintage.
As we send you off to marriage, please remember the humble grape that becomes elevated once it is squeezed. While the grape has the prominence of being one of the shiva minim in its own right, it takes on a whole new kedusha profile once it is squeezed. We know this by the change of bracha. While a grape is a ha’etz, the grape juice and wine produced from the grape has the brocho of hagefen. The product of the grape will beH be part of your marriage ceremony next week as we recite the hagefen and so many other beautiful brochos under the chuppah.
May your life with Hindy retain the kedusha of each of you individually and take on its own blend of kedusha as you create your own vintage that grows better and better with age.
This week is one where we have been basking in the beauty, delight and joy of a new couple in our lives. Our son, Yitzchak Aaron, has announced his engagement to Hindy Shippel. As we welcome Hindy into our family, we feel humbled by the enormity of the gift of this union between two families. My parents, who are now staying with us, have been actively involved in this shidduch and my father especially has been delighting in the details of their courtship.
We were in Israel for the past two weeks and wedding-themed accessories seemed to be everywhere. Hindy and Yitzchok Aaron’s effervescence has been infectious and my father called Israel occasionally to provide updates on them, always referring to them as the “love birds”.
So, when I found a pair of Styrofoam wedding birds in a store in Israel, I just couldn’t resist buying them. The groom was wearing a black top hat and the bride was decked out in a tulle veil. They were charming and delightful. The five-shekel price was perfect and I knew that I would find the ideal opportunity to use them.
The lovebirds accompanied me home and were unpacked. They patiently sat on my kitchen counter in their package. Yitzchok Aaron and Hindy announced their engagement Wednesday night, just hours after we arrived in New Jersey. The past thirty-six hours were a whirlwind. And, I forgot about the Styrofoam love birds.
Yesterday, I picked up a 3 for $12 flower special at Shoprite along with the basic groceries to restock my refrigerator. Still basking in the wedding spirit, I chose all white flowers. I purchased two bunches of hydrangeas and one bunch of calla lilies. I cut them down to size and arranged them into my hallway vase.
And, as I was bringing the vase back to the front hall, I encountered the love birds. After positioning them atop my new arrangement, they too are basking in the excitement of this simcha.
This blog is about preparing simple things that create a wow. Simplifying recipes and preparations without sacrificing taste and presentation has really become an art form for me.
One of the “aha” things that I have discovered is that simple really is better. It really is best to prepare a few delicious signature dishes with just enough variations to keep things interesting. And, sometimes, a memorable meal can be created from just one recipe.
It creates less mess. It creates less stress. And, it creates less waste.
This recipe is just that. It is simple enough. It is delicious and hearty. And, the wow factor is that it is an entire meal in one bowl.
2 tablespoons oil or butter
2-3 onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 cartons mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup wine
4-6 cups water
1/2 cup milk or cream
4-6 ounces frozen cheese tortellini
1 tablespoon salt
dash black pepper
Over medium-high heat, heat oil in a heavy-bottom stock pot. Add onions and garlic and cook until just starting to turn golden brown. Add sliced mushrooms and cook until mushrooms have softened and are releasing some liquid, about 10-15 minutes. Add wine and water and stir until combined and soup is just beginning to boil. Reduce heat to low and add milk or cream and stir until slightly thickened, a few minutes.
Carefully add tortellini and turn heat to high. Once tortellini float to top, lower heat to medium and cook for several minutes more, until tortellini are cooked through. Shut heat and cover pot until ready to serve.
My son, Aaron, loves farfel. It is his go-to Shabbos side dish and he looks forward to it every Shabbos. Aaron likes it not too soggy with just the right amount of fried onions. Most Friday mornings, Aaron offers to prepare farfel for himself. Most Fridays, I rush to make it for him because his idea of a cleaned-up kitchen and mine are very different.
A few months ago, I prepared farro with sauteed onions in the rice cooker. After running some errands, I discovered that the farro had been nearly finished. Both Aaron and Leah sheepishly told me that they couldn’t resist “tasting” the farro and that it tasted just like farfel. So, farro has now become the not-so-heimishe farfel.
And, cooking it in the rice cooker has taken the time, effort and guesswork out of preparing our not-so-heimeshe farfel.
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
1 cup farro
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
dash of black pepper
In a saute or fry pan, saute onion in oil, until soft and just turning brown. Using a rubber spatula, scrape onions with oil into a rice cooker, reserving a spoonful for garnish.
Add farro, water and seasonings to rice cooker. gently stir to combine. Cook until ready. All the water should be absorbed and the farro will be soft and golden-brown when ready. Garnish with remaining onions.