Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1920, my mother, the oldest of eight, helped raise her younger siblings while her parents sold new but flawed merchandise in their store on the corner of Rivington and Pitt. Her brothers and sisters remember her in those years as a disciplinarian who forced them to eat their cereal, never quite realizing then that she was sacrificing her childhood to help her parents.
Hers was not an easy life, especially after contracting polio at the age of 9, slowly recuperating over several years. She dreamed of becoming a teacher and worked her way through college, walking the distance back home at nights to save a nickel. A teacher for close to 25 years, most of them at East Midwood Jewish Day School in Flatbush, she made a lasting impression on many of her students as serious, no-nonsense and hard-working. She once told her students, "I'm here to teach; you don't have to love me. My husband loves me; my children love me. You're here to learn."
Nevertheless, she cared deeply about her pupils and made countless telephone calls and home visits, walking miles to attend their barmitzvahs on Shabbat and keeping in contact with several of them way into their adulthood. She helped direct their eighth-grade graduation plays and introduced math games to their Friday lessons so they would have no homework to complete on Shabbat. Introducing a Jewish history program into their curriculum, she made it into one of the outstanding courses in the school.
Raised in humble circumstances, my mother would tolerate no disrespect to the cleaning or maintenance staff by any student, many hailing from well-to-do homes, and even slapped one of them when he dared to mimic a janitor in her presence. Many years later, this student wrote her a letter thanking her for being the best teacher he had ever had, helping him to become a mensch. Rather than adored, my mother was revered.
My mother taught me by example how to be a good friend. In the years when having almost any kind of cancer was a death sentence, my mother advised a stricken acquaintance to choose a friend on whose shoulder she could cry, having had the experience herself of losing a daughter to leukemia. This woman chose my mother who made the two hour train ride to visit her each Thursday after finishing a full day of teaching, week after week, month after month, until her friend's death.
In what was to develop into an extraordinary friendship, my parents bought a two-family house in Boro Park, Brooklyn in the early 1950s with another couple they knew only slightly, dividing equally the expenses of the upkeep of the house and of the two cars they bought jointly. No-one quibbled as to who used more oil, gas or electricity.
People in the neighborhood were waiting for a fight, a split, a breakup, but it never happened. "What was the secret of your 25 year partnership?" I once asked my mother. "Compromising and ignoring; not letting small irritants break up something far more important, and a genuine affection for one another," she answered. This ongoing friendship has continued into a second, third and now a fourth generation as most of us have moved to Israel. My mother was the last of the two couples to die, but she left us an indelible legacy of deliberate, determined and ultimately beneficial coexistence and friendship.
My parents' aliyah from the U.S in 1977 augmented an already developed sense of volunteerism they had begun there, with my mother remaining active in Amit, once Mizrachi Women, participating in the absorption of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and volunteering for ESRA in the second-hand shop. My parents were presented with the Kfar Saba Zeev Geller award for their efforts in securing funds abroad enabling transportation for the elderly and infirm to get to their day care centers.* After my father died, my mother continued dispensing charity from funds collected abroad and when she became more infirm, the indefatigable Eddy Wolfe, another volunteer award winner, took over.
One of the most incredible blessings of my mother's life was her unique, extended family. Besides her children, devoted grandchildren and great grandchildren, cousins, nephews and nieces, many of whom called, wrote and visited her faithfully and regularly during her illness, she was blessed with four brothers and three sisters who remained her stalwart allies until her death.
During her last years these same siblings whom she had forced to eat their cereal now came to her rescue. They phoned, visited, sang to her, played old songs on the electric organ and guitar, and challenged her to Scrabble games. She lived in her own apartment with a dedicated caretaker, visited by the family and close friends she loved. While she could, she attended concert rehearsals in which her son-in-law participated. She rarely complained or talked about her infirmities, requesting her visitors to talk instead about their healthy lives and activities. Many were inspired by her stoicism, optimism, smile and courage.
May her memory be blessed.
*Ironically, many years later, when my mother could have benefited from these day care centers herself, she was rejected because her medical condition rendered her unsuitable.