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September 1, 2014 / 6 Elul, 5774
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My Dearest Yiddishe Mamme


In loving memory of  Sara Altman bas Reb Bentzion Harnik zt”l, great-great-granddaughter of hatzaddik hagaon Chaim Yosef Gottlieb, zt”l, Stropkover Rav – on the occasion of her Shloshim, 29 Shevat.

The 30-day period of aveilus corresponds to the “z’man hischadshus hayaraiach,” the time for the renewal of the moon. The moon initially appears small, achieves its peak in middle of the month, and then diminishes. Such is the pattern of man’s life cycle: we start out as an infant, grow and develop to reach our zenith in mid-life, and then begin our descent that ends in death.

Just as the moon begins renewal following its 30-day cycle, the soul of the deceased experiences rebirth through her new existence in Olam Haba. (Mekor Chayim)

Kol sheruach habryios noichoh heimenu, ruach hamakom noichoh heimenu. (Pirkei Avos 3:10) – “The one who is pleasing to man, is pleasing also to God.”

My Yiddishe Mamme – few ever had the pleasure or privilege of hearing you sing this and other stirring tunes, in your hauntingly beautiful voice that would send shivers down the spine of the listener…

Which brings to mind, dear Mom, your many virtues:

Modesty: As you emerged from the ashes of devastation, your talent (inherited from your much-revered father, a beloved baal tefilah and teacher of chazzanus, R. Bentzion Harnik, zt”l) gave you an outlet for emotional release. Buoyed by the enthusiasm of a post-war protective circle of friends, you attended a conservatory to study music, yet turned down a subsequent offer that would have doubtlessly catapulted you to fame and fortune. Instead, you delighted small women-only audiences at tzedakah parties with your special gift. Before long, even that occasional exposure was too much – you always shunned the limelight – and so it was only your lucky little ones who would intermittently, privately, be treated.

Dedication: Your loyalty and selflessness were unsurpassed – your husband and your children were your life’s breath. Never, ever, did you default on kitchen duty – a “Meal-Mart break” was unheard of. You could have been dropping from fatigue but would pay no heed to your tiredness. You lived for us, for our father – your partner in life for over sixty years, may he live to be 120 in a healthy state of mind and body.

Spirituality: Who of us could have missed your intense bakoshos – entreaties – whenever you bentched lecht forShabbos or Yom Tov? Morning, night and in between, you had us all in mind and on your lips, beseeching God over and over to help every one of us, from children down to great-grandchildren. “Ich halt in ein baten dem Eibershten,” you frequently told me. “I keep pleading with Hashem…”

Fortitude: Without parents to show you, to give you, to guide you, you started out as a new bride in Hungary. A daring escape on foot in the darkness of night from an increasingly anti-Semitic regime, with the bare clothes and a newborn on your backs, led to a fresh start in the Holy Land. But life was still a struggle, so four years later, with two babies in tow, you set sail on a harrowing boat ride that ended at the ports of Montreal, to yet another beginning. Many were the times you’d wonder if your latest sojourn was a worthwhile one. But you persevered with your trademark tenacity and were more than content with your humble lot. Laziness was never part of your repertoire and so you always made more than the best of what was yours.

Confidante par Excellence: You never let us down and always had pearls of wisdom to impart. Each one of us can testify, child and grandchild alike, that you were the best secret-keeper this side of the planet. If any of us had a need to unburden or share but did not wish to publicize, you were the one to be trusted, without hesitation.

A Class Act: You were the epitome of eloquence and refined elegance, whether doing your thing behind the stove or in your cherished garden; whether at a family simcha or just out shopping. You were bright, intelligent, down-to-earth, friendly, gracious, giving, understanding, and humble in all your ways. I am reminded of the time we spent Shabbos at the LIJH intensive care unit following your heart surgery. After much back and forth quibbling, you finally humored me – you agreed to have just a slice of gefilte fish and a piece of challah. I was all excited and prepared it carefully – only to have you offer it, in your most hospitable manner, to the delighted nurse on duty for the night. (I should have known better.)

Congeniality: Speaking of hospitality, well, we can just ask “the boys” who came around forever every Friday for your mouthwatering chulent, keeping the tradition going even after your children had flown the coop. (The married “boys” hoped their wives wouldn’t be the wiser.) You were Mrs. Personality to all our friends and then some, as we were growing up and beyond. Never at a loss for words, you were yet ever-conscientious not to say something that would, God forbid, be offensive to anyone. The slightest indication that you may have been would make you sick at heart for days.

Meticulousness: You were impeccably inclined, both physically and figuratively. A most telling description was made just recently by the neurosurgeon whom we had need to befriend at Joint Disease Hospital after you sustained a neck fracture. When apprised (by e-mail) by one of your grandchildren that we wouldn’t be keeping our next appointment, he replied: “Your grandmother was a very fine lady. respected by everyone she came in contact with. I saw in the hospital how beautifully she conducted herself and interacted with others. Every action was a true kiddush Hashem.”

Lover of Peace: You abhorred strife and would steer clear of any machlokes. In your book, there was no compromising when it came to achdus, especially amongst family members. Your love for your children superseded any desire to castigate (once we were on our own), and you were equally on guard not to chas v’shalom be instrumental in instigating any shalom bayis problems in the lives of those you cared so deeply for.

Valiant: As the indomitable spirit in our midst, you were much admired and adored by everyone who came to know you. You told it like it was – but perhaps never more prophetically as on the Shabbos that marked nine consecutive weeks we’d spent in each other’s company (regretfully, they’d come to a close at twelve). Out of the blue, exactly three weeks before you would leave this world for a better one, you disclosed that you felt your end was near. My attempt at encouraging you to focus on the positive, and to point out your steady progress to date, did nothing to sway you. “I can’t help the feeling,” you explained calmly. “But I’m fine with it. I’ve lived my life”

Unique: You were a special soul. Lest I, as your daughter, be accused of being a prejudiced party, allow me to cite the good doctor again. At our first meeting, following a harrowing pain-filled and exhausting odyssey, he offered his medical opinion – that your only viable option was to be fitted with a “halo.” You managed a smile and quipped, “Sounds like I’ll be holy…” Grinning, the insightful surgeon gently intoned, “We don’t believe in that. You are a heilige neshama.”

It is written, “Praiseworthy is the one who passes away during the time of Shabbos (or on erev Shabbos).” For on Shabbos, the malachim created for the purpose of meting out judgment and suffering to a departing soul immediately upon death are at rest.

Only Gan Eden is open, so that a heilige neshama has unfettered entry into the most coveted abode in the heavenly spheres.

As the song says, “My Yiddishe Mamme, I need you more than ever now, I’d love to kiss your wrinkled brow, How I long to hold your hand once more”

The Nazis made you sing for their entertainment. So you sang the beautiful Yiddish melody with its heartrending lyrics – which spoke touchingly and longingly of your own Yiddishe Mamme so barbarically taken from you. And for your performance you were rewarded two extra rations of dried out bits of old bread – which you broke into tiny pieces to share with your starving bunkmates.

For that was who you always were, my dearest Yiddishe Mamme

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.

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