After my son Moshe got married in Israel several years ago, I decided to keep in more frequent touch with my cousin Ruzah. I would call her on a weekly basis (a good opportunity to practice the Ivrit I learned in day school), speaking to a woman who was of an older, wiser generation – rendering her more like a mother. Ruzah, like all my first cousins was indeed my parents’ age, married with children before I was born. Her experiences mirrored my father’s generation, although she really was from mine. Her mother and my father were siblings and my unknown grandparents were hers.
My father was the youngest of a family that included eight sisters and two brothers. A ben-zakanim, he grew up with his many nieces and nephews. My conservative guess is that he had at least 50 of various ages – including several who were born when he was a toddler/pre-schooler.
When his family was swallowed by the Holocaust, only four nieces, who like him had been slave laborers in their late teens/early twenties, survived. A nephew and niece in Canada were spared because their parents, my father’s brother – 19 years his senior – had moved there years before the war to join his wife’s brothers.
Ruzah had been married in a DP camp and she and her husband Romek (Avraham) decided to move to Israel. I have no doubt that my uncle wanted them to come to Toronto – he had sponsored my parents as soon as he discovered his “baby” brother had survived (the only sibling to do so) but Ruzah, even as a young bride was wired by an “es kimpt dir” attitude.
In other words, instead of feeling that she should be pampered and taken care of by family in Toronto (justifiably so after years of intense suffering and loss – her immediate family had been wiped out) and having help in adjusting to a new country and language, she opted instead to take the “hard way out” and give of her strength and energy and devotion to the newborn, struggling State of Israel. I imagine that in her mind, she felt the people of Israel were “entitled” to the fruit of her hard labor, as opposed to her being the recipient of someone else’s sacrifice.
By traditional standards, Ruzah was not frum. For whatever her reasons, post-Holocaust she shed the many rules and regulations she grew up with and did not keep Shabbat or kashrut, yet she had a huge and consistent hakarat hatov that she often expressed. I remember when I would eat lunch at her house (she went out of her way to ensure that any visitor who kept kosher would have mehadrin food on plates and cutlery that were kept separate or made of plastic) she would sigh deeply in content at having a full belly and thank Hashem for the food. Having experienced long-term starvation as a slave laborer in a Nazi death camp, Ruzah truly appreciated having as much food as she wanted. Her brief todah (thank you) to God was of a sincerity that is rarely palpable in the speed–bentching I am accustomed to hearing. Seems like there is a rush to get the words out as fast as possible and be done with it.
Ruzah’s husband had also been raised in a yichusdik home, and his knowledge of Talmud was considerable – much to the amazement of those who did not see beyond his bare head – and his erlichkeit, integrity and middos matched those of his wife. Unfortunately, his Charedi business partner did not share his values and embezzled the money that was supposed to sustain their business – leaving them without a parnassah and having to start all over again. (Guess he had a “kimpt mir” attitude.)
While Ruzah may have been lax on some of her observances, the ones concerning ben adam lechavairo – those that govern how you treat other human beings – she was absolutely machmir on.
Her unwavering outlook was “Es kimpt dir – you are entitled to the best I can do for you,” and Ruzah did not take any short-cuts, nor did she expect to get back what she so fully and unconditionally gave to those who crossed her path.