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Jewish World Review
Oct. 5, 2008
/ 7 Tishrei 5769
Mamma to the masses
Rabbi Yitzchok R. Rubin
A "son" remembers the "European Rabbi Lady" who touched his life and tens of thousands of others
The youngster looked about in his isolation, his heart gripped with loneliness. He was just fifteen years old and circumstances had landed him in hospital far from home and friends. He had been rushed into this austere environment with a rare condition and was immediately put into an isolation ward. Just days before he had sat in front of his Talmud partaking of the wisdom of spiritual mentors; now he had no idea if they even knew of his whereabouts.
The year was 1960 and the very idea of mobile phones had not yet become even a dream. The young student was deeply aware of the absence of familiar faces. Tears welled in his eyes; most of all he missed the special warmth of his Rebbe who he knew would be praying for him. It was Friday morning, the thought of spending the Sabbath alone, with no visitors, no uplifting songs, nothing but tubes in his stomach was too difficult to bear.
Our patient was a sort of celebrity on the ward; never had the staff seen a Chasidic lad in such close proximity. They bombarded him with questions about his straps (tefilin), his fringes (tzitzis) and of course the curly earlocks on the side of his head. The young man took it all in his stride and actually enjoyed the diversion. He was soon tired though and not eating any real food was taking its toll.
As the morning became afternoon, the hospital went on in its institutional way, blood being tested and measured; each doctor smiling without any real idea what the outcome would be. All they could tell was that for one so young it was rare to see such symptoms. The pain was constant and despite all their efforts the teenager was still hurting.
Suddenly a rush of energy was felt throughout out the ward. Voices could be heard: "Sorry lady, but there are no visitors allowed!" combined with the tapping of a defiant set of determined shoes. In through the doors strode a figure that defied all natural laws. Carrying two large paper shopping bags, Frieda Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbetzin (rabbi's helpmate) was a woman that never took "no" for an answer. Her innate charm and elegance was combined with a steely strength and when she felt that one of "her" children was in need there could be no barriers.
She must have travelled hours to get to this hospital and how she even found out which one the boy was in remains a mystery. But Sabbath was soon coming and the lad needed his Sabbath food. Out of the bags spilled a cornucopia of heimishe (Old World) delicacies: gefilte fish, soup, kugel, chicken, even compote; nothing was left out. A white cloth was soon placed on the bedside table and a bottle of wine together with cutlery, challahs and salt placed with reverence. The nursing staff was shocked into submission as the tall Rebbetzin gave them orders on how to feed the boy. As for the patient, he was laughing for the first time in days. His pain seemed to slip away with each new edict from the smiling Rebbetzin. All stood to attention and just before she turned to leave she shared Sabbath blessings with all. Then, just as she had come in like a tidal wave, she turned and disappeared, leaving behind the whirlwind of her holiness.
Creating the massive movement that is Bobov took enormous effort and sheer audacity. No one thought in those early days that there could ever be a Chassidic group so enlivened with the zest of what was the greatness of bygone generations. The Rebbe, ztl, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam (1907 - 2000) was a regal force that enlivened all that came into contact with him. And behind his every venture was his Rebbetzin who created the ambiance for his creativity. This powerful love for all that is Jewish could be found in the many deeds she did things no one ever spoke of nor would she want them to become public.
The tragic news of the Rebbetzin's passing last month became the tidings many dreaded. Although she had been weak and ill for years, the energy of her will and goodness could still be felt by all those who had the merit to know her.
That young boy grew up, had his own family and never forgot the light she shed in his dark hospital room. In truth he never got to eat any of that lovely food, he was still attached to tubes but that didn't matter, because her visit brought a spiritual light that illuminated every one in that far off ward.
In fact, the nursing staff had a wonderful dinner that night thanks to the "European Rabbi Lady" and I wouldn't be surprised if they still talk of it. I know I do, because I was that young boy and her care touched my very core.
The Bobover Rebbe, ztl, had the gift of teaching us lessons about life by his actual example. His every word was enlivened with spiritual warmth and his lifestyle was a living Sefer Torah. No more so than in the realm of domestic life. The Rebbetzin was given great honor and was very much part of what the fledgling Bobov was to become. It was no simple task back then, living as they did in cramped quarters with all the responsibilities of a growing movement germinating in the living room.
There are now thriving religious communities, some that even have synagogues at every corner. In that post-Holocaust era the seeds were being sown and it was a feat of enormous courage to live with such dreams. She could have wished for a more tranquil life, one built around lesser ambitions. Yet hers was a neshomah (soul) perfectly matched to the awesome foresight of her husband, the Rebbe, and so the reality that became Bobov was very much her success as well.
I share with you one last memory while it is still fresh in my mind. A few weeks before my wedding the Rebbetzin called me into her living room. She said that she and the Rebbe were sorry they would not be able to travel to my wedding (I was getting married in the Holy Land and they were, of course, in America.) However, she wanted me to know that she felt very much part of the simchas. To prove it she gave me a package in which was a robe the Rebbe wore to his public gathering on the Sabbath. It was made of gold-colored silk in the style that is still unique to the Rebbes in Bobov. She said the Rebbe wanted me to wear it under my kittel on the day and that I should feel how they were sharing in the special occasion. In fact on that day the Rebbe drank a l'chaim with his household, and then gave a l'chaim in the Bobover headquarters.
This was the majesty of the Rebbe ztl and the royalty that was his Rebbetzin. May her merit bring light to all of Jewry, and may future generations seek only to follow in this holy path.
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Rabbi Yitzchok R. Rubin, an author and educator, is spiritual leader of South Manchester Synagogue in the United Kingdom.
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© 2008, Rabbi Yitzchok R. Rubin