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September 4, 2015 / 20 Elul, 5775
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My Mother’s Bashert


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On the 6th of Adar, 5667 (March 20, 1907) Shoshe and Rabbi Avraham Halevi Shapiro welcomed Moshe Aharon, their sixth (and last) child, into the world in the little town of Nesvizh, near Baranovich, in Russia.

The little boy grew and just before the outbreak of World War I, when he was seven years old, he was brought for a farherr to the sainted Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt”l, who pronounced him an ilui (child prodigy). The war interrupted his formal education as the Russian authorities evacuated the family to Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd). In spite of the hardships, young Moshe Aharon learned well.

After the war, the family went back to its home, now in Poland. Moshe Aharon learned in Slobodka.

He realized that there was no place for a young Jew in anti-Semitic Poland, but he could not get a visa for the United States even though his eldest brother, Eliezer (Layzer), who lived in New York, sent the necessary ticket money and affidavits of support. The Polish quota was way oversubscribed, and it would take years for him to get a visa.

Moshe Aharon left Poland days before his 16th birthday, after which he would have been denied an exit visa until he completed his military service. He traveled by train across Europe, and then by slow boat to Cuba, planning to spend a year there and then getting a U.S. visa as a non-quota immigrant living in the Western hemisphere.

While he anxiously waited out his year in Cuba, the U.S. Congress changed the law because too many ”undesirables” (Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans) were coming to America. Back he went on the Polish quota.

He haunted the U.S. Consulate in Havana for a visa, to no avail. While waiting, he helped organize the first Ashkenazi Jewish community in Cuba. He learned Ladino and was offered the position of Haham by the Sephardim.

Meanwhile, in Bialystok, Devora, a young Jewish orphan whose mother had remarried, realized that there was no future for her in Poland. Her oldest brother, whom she had never seen because he left Europe before she was born, lived in Brooklyn. He agreed to sponsor her for immigration, provided she could prove she was over 16.

Devora took two old women to City Hall, where they swore they had been present at her birth (true) on March 20, 1907 (not true), a date she picked out of the air to make herself over 16. Armed with the birth certificate and papers from her brother, the young (well under 16) teenager got a U.S. visa and left home, never to see her mother again.

Living first in Harlem in the early 1920s, then in Brooklyn near her brother and his family, Devora worked in the needle trades. She made friends with other young women and stayed friends with them when they married.

Everyone tried to find her a shidduch, but to no avail.

Finally, a friend’s husband suggested that she write to a landsman (someone from the same town in Europe) living in Cuba and see what would happen. The correspondence revealed that they had a lot of interests in common and they seemed to be compatible.

So, in December 1929, Devora went to Key West, Florida, and on to Havana by ferry on a vacation with some girlfriends. She was met at the ferry landing by her friend’s husband’s landsman with whom she had been corresponding.

But they did not hit off. The chemistry was wrong.

However, she and her friends had met with him and his chevra. And among his friends was Moshe Aharon. It was literally love at first sight. Devorah was pretty; Moshe Aharon was handsome. Devora was articulate; so was Moshe Aharon. They were both frum and shared the same goals.

Within a month they were married by the local rabbi and the Alcalde (mayor) of Havana. Devorah started a ”high fashion” dressmaking business and was successful. But she had to go back to New York without her Moshe Aharon, who was still waiting for his number on the Polish quota.

Finally, in 1932, the visa came through, they were reunited in New York, and one year later the first of their three children was born.

They shared a birthday, March 20, 1907 – the day he was actually born and the day she chose many years before she even knew him – until 1977, when Harav Moshe Aharon Halevi Shapiro was niftar.

On her 85th “birthday” in 1992, my mother was taken from us.

Together, she raised three children, who gave them six grandchildren and, as of the last count, 18 great-grandchildren, all shomrei Torah, ken yirbu.

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