(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in May 1998)
My mother died on April 21, two days after Pesach and sixty years after my father. She was an extraordinary person, with a prodigious memory and powerful mind. Her courage sustained and molded a family that might have disintegrated under the burden of tragedy. At 92, she was too young to leave us.
She was born in Romania into a comfortable family that lost everything, as did many others, in the World War. Although she was an outstanding student, her studies were not continued after high school graduation, something that she regretted all her life.
In 1928, she came to the U.S., shortly after her marriage to my father, a cousin from the same area in Rumania who was already in this country, serving as the Rabbi of a Manhattan synagogue. We have few photographs and know little of her early years here. She began to raise a family – Arthur in 1930, Ruth in 1932, Allen and me in 1934. In 1931, she published a recipe book in English, with the income going to charity.
Purim in 1938 fell on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. My father had been hospitalized for a burst appendix but seemed on the way to recovery. My mother saw him in the morning, went home to care for the children and then was called back to the hospital to be told that her husband had died of peritonitis. Just weeks before her passing and sensing that she was seriously ill, she sat down immediately after Shabbos and wrote a narrative of that dark day, of how she fought her way through the carousing crowd with tears streaming down her face to return home to cover the mirrors and to mourn.
She entered a period of pain and despair, of a desperation that she never spoke of although over the years scraps of information appeared. My father had died penniless; three weeks later she was served with eviction papers. She had no close relatives in this country, no parents or siblings or nieces and nephews, only cousins and four young children, ages 3 to 7.
Allen and I were placed in an orphans’ home. In 1939, I was hospitalized critically ill with diphtheria. The next year was Allen’s turn with pneumonia. She turned to people for help and some of the responses added to her pain. A handful of people who assisted in a modest way could not forget to remind her of what they had done.
Already in 1938 she had written to a saintly relative in Europe, asking whether she could send Arthur and Ruth to be cared for back home and also for advice. He responded that there were darkening clouds in Europe and told of a widow who, faced with a similar situation a century earlier, had provided for her children by baking challahs for Shabbos.
Late in the year she moved to Borough Park where there were cousins who helped. Out of a small oven in her apartment, she began to bake, four challahs at a time. Skilled in all ways with her hands, her challahs and cake quickly gained acceptance. In 1943, the year of Arthur’s bar mitzvah, the family was reunited and my mother opened what would become perhaps the most famous kosher bakery in the world.
The next seventeen years were hard work, running the bakery and trying to raise four children. In quality of product, kashruth and business ethics, my mother maintained a high standard. I cannot recall a single dispute with a supplier or customer. Our practice was to give a weight allowance on every piece of cake that was sold.
My mother’s schedule in those years was legendary, but only in the sense that it was so extraordinary that in the absence of unimpeachable corroboration, it would be impossible to regard the testimony as credible. We lived above the bakery. Except during the summer, on Thursdays she would arise at 3 am, be in the bakery within the hour, and work without let-up until an hour or two before Shabbos.
By 1960, Arthur had started his own business, Ruth was married and living elsewhere, Allen and I were on the way toward doctorates and academic careers. The bakery was sold.
Retirement hardly meant inactivity or much leisure. My mother had gone to Israel in the 1950’s to seek relatives who had survived and to provide help. This became a larger part of her life, as did the local women’s burial society. She read and corresponded widely, made bedding for the children and grandchildren, and cooked and baked up a storm. She often responded to calls by saying that she was too busy to talk.
The pain of her first years as a widow left its mark, mainly in her fierce caring for the unfortunate and also for ordinary people who led simple, good lives. She cared not whether they were Jewish or of the color of their skin. At her local supermarket, she find out when the cashiers had a birthday, confirmation or other happy event coming up in their family and for each one she would bake and decorate a cake and have it delivered. So it went in doctor’s offices and wherever else she met people she hardly knew.
As the years went by, she developed close bonds with each of her grandchildren, later her great-grandchildren, offering advice and revealing more about herself than she had to her children. They were a constant presence in her life.
Age began taking its toll in her 80’s and protesting against the inevitable, she slowly reduced her chores, much like a general yielding territory to a superior enemy. Yet, through some amazing chemistry, her mind became stronger and her memory a wonder, as if the diminution of her physical powers was the catalyst for mental growth. In her 91st year, while celebrating Pesach at Allen’s home in Silver Spring, she recited from memory a long poem by Goethe in German.
A year earlier, Allen commemorated her 90th birthday, as we had her 80th, by dedicating a Sefer Torah that was written in her honor. It was a wonderful events, one of her happiest days. Afterwards, she wrote a letter of appreciation to the community which began, “I have been fortunate to spend the last Shabbos celebrating my birthday in your warm, friendly, caring community. Thank you.” Then, “The Kovod and respect is for the Torah. The Torah is everlasting and its message lets us live and survive in this modern society.”
Despite our pleas, she never allowed us to bring someone in to stay with her. This past fall, after the holidays, her health began to fail. Six weeks before her death, my mother relented and a woman was hired, yet her condition worsened and reluctantly she was hospitalized at Maimonides. Ten days of constant care from family and nurses did not prevent further deterioration. We (and she) sensed that she was dying and for Pesach and her last ten days, she was at Arthur’s and Dorothy’s home in a makeshift hospital room where family members and several wonderful medical people ministered to her.
As she lay dying she bequeathed us a legacy of living. It was a gift that she never lost awareness or her remarkable memory. Each day she recited from memory chapters of Tehilim (Psalms) and favorite prayers and said the Viduy, the confession for the dying. On her last Friday night, the final day of Pesach, she blessed the Shabbos lights and heard Kiddush. The next afternoon, we thought the end was near. Her four children gathered around her bed, held her hands and said the transcendent Sh’ma Yisroel prayer with her, word by word. The grandchildren then came in, one by one, to say goodbye, to cry, to be blessed.
On her final day, as she reviewed what might be left unfinished, she gave instructions to give gifts to three nurses at Maimonides, a book by Allen for the hospital’s president, a birthday cake to a handicapped man. On Monday morning, while holding my wife’s hand, she let go and she died.
Amidst the tears and Tehilim, we had celebrated a Pesach of loss and of redemption.