I was deeply saddened by the petira of Mrs. Irene Klass, a”h, wife and daughter of Rabbi Sholom Klass, z”l and Mr. Raphael Schreiber, a”h, founders of The Jewish Press. Although our paths only crossed once – and just for a minute – that one very brief encounter had a lasting, positive impact on the quality of my life. The handful of words that Mrs. Klass, a complete stranger, said to me ignited a flicker of light on the gloomy road I was on, a light that was to grow stronger and brighter with the passing of time. Almost comically, this encounter took place over 25 years ago in a swimming pool at the Homowack Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
I don’t remember why I was there; perhaps there was a Shabbaton that weekend and I needed a time out from the emotional turbulence I was engulfed in. It was a time of great turmoil in my life, when “happily ever after” was not the in the script of my personal storybook.
I do recall being in the pool and talking to a friend. We must have been chatting about family, for the discussion led to my telling her of a wrenching, bittersweet experience I had many years earlier in Israel, the summer before the Yom Kipper War. It ironically also involved a brief encounter with a stranger – an elderly Holocaust survivor (a rarity in 1973, since at the time of the Shoah, he was middle-aged. He, like millions of other Jews his age would have been deemed unfit to work and “selected “to be gassed.) We were at a gathering, and I saw a relative of my mother’s walk over to him, and point to me. His tired face got animated and he got out of his chair, shuffled over to me, shoved his face close to mine, peered intensely at me and said in Yiddish, “Aah, du bist Klein Shimmele’s einikel”. “Ah, you are little Shimon’s grandchild.”
He told me that he had been my grandfather’s boyhood friend, that they would skip school to fish and swim in the river, and would get into all sorts of mischief. And then he shook his head sadly and walked away.
I was stunned and shocked. In my lifetime, I had never been referred to as a grandchild. I was a daughter; sister; cousin; friend, – but I had never been an einikel. My childhood association with my parents’ parents – who were murdered by the Nazis – were flickering yahrzeit candles and being shooed away before Yizkor.
I simultaneously savored – and mourned – what to me was a sweet yet bitter moment – the first – and last time I would ever be someone’s grandchild.
Out of nowhere I heard a quiet, refined voice say, “What a moving story.” I turned and a slight, older woman smiled at me and said, “Please write it down and send it in to The Jewish Press.” When she saw my surprise and possible skepticism, she told me that her name was Irene Klass and if I mailed the article to her, care of The Jewish Press (email and computers were in their infancy at that time), it would get into the paper. And then she swam away.
I did write the story down, and mailed it – and true to her word, it was published. There, in the largest Anglo-Jewish newspaper in the world, a newspaper distributed in English speaking communities all over the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, etc. were several hundreds of my words and my thoughts – with my name above in bold lettering!
In today’s world of instant global communication via email, blogging and You-Tube, where just about everyone can showcase their thoughts, opinions and experiences, having an article accepted in a newspaper is not a big deal.
But back then, it was a big deal for most people. And for me, especially, it was a very, very big deal. At that time in my life, I was floundering in a sea of negativity, buffeted by endless waves of denigration and put-downs that threatened to wash away my self-esteem. Irene Klass, with her sincere invitation to me to write an article for her popular, internationally distributed newspaper – conveyed to me that I did indeed have something of value to offer. And my drowning ego was given a rare, badly needed buoy.
I, like many people found myself in an environment where support and encouragement were the exception, rather than the rule: Not out of actual malice, I believe, but due to genuine cluelessness. In some instances, however, I had to associate with people I can only describe as mean-spirited bullies. The tips of the verbal arrows they aimed at me were saturated with criticism, disapproval and censure. My appearance; my weight; how I dressed; my hairstyle; my speech (I have a life-long lisp) – were scornfully scrutinized and dismissed as being substandard, inferior. This denigration even spilled over onto the one thing I was supposed to be good at – writing. I remember deciding to enter a short story contest in a women’s magazine – fantasizing over what I would do with the $1000 prize. As I put a sheet of paper into my typewriter, I was told not to bother – there was no way I was going to win.
Yet the wife of the publisher of The Jewish Press, an editor herself, was asking me to write an article for her esteemed newspaper.
My mother, a”h, an Auschwitz survivor, once remarked how even a small morsel of food could revive a depleted body and keep it going. Irene Klass had innocently given me a morsel of validation that fed my depleted self-esteem and revived it.
And she kept on giving me more morsels. Shortly after my first article was published, I sent in another to her. And that too was put into The Jewish Press. And then another. And another.
Initially I was surprised – it was understood that Mrs. Klass would put in the first one – after all, she asked me to write it. But why did she put in the “unsolicited” articles? The ones who had told me I couldn’t win; that I wasn’t good enough; that I was second tier; that I didn’t measure up – they couldn’t all be wrong, could they?
Continuous acceptance of my articles that evolved into a long-running column and recognition, words of praise and letters of approval from readers who wrote in or stopped me in the street, in the ensuing weeks and months and years, clearly indicated that they were.
When Irene Klass declared that I had something worthy to share with thousands of people – she unwittingly launched my first tiny step on a long journey of self-discovery. She had gently squeezed the “lemon” that I was told I was – and showed me that I was actually “lemonade.”
For me, the memory of Irene Klass will always be for a blessing.