For a number of years I have been volunteering in a second-hand clothing store in Gush Etzion. I really like the camaraderie among the volunteers, the hustle and bustle, as well as finding some treasures to bring home to members of my family such as new pants, leather boots, head scarves, books, etc. All of the proceeds go to a local tzedakah fund.
I usually volunteer twice a week. When I am there the number of volunteers can be just a few to a minyan. Recently I was there and only one other volunteer came. Over the years, Ukrainian-born Berta and I have gone from “boker tov” or “shavua tov” with a smile to warm hugs and kisses at seeing each other.
I didn’t know much about her life, except that she had undergone treatment for breast cancer, her husband is not a well man, she has a very frum family, she became a great-grandmother in her 60s, and that she is a vivacious woman despite her health issues.
That morning when we were the only two volunteers, I took a break to eat a tangerine that had been left on the desk in the main room of the clothing gemach. I asked Berta if she would like to have a tangerine as well, and she replied in the affirmative. She sat down next to me, and I started asking questions about her life. We continued conversing way past the time that it takes to eat a fruit or two.
She was born to a Jewish family, but like most Jews under an oppressive regime, her parents and even her grandparents knew nothing about Judaism. Perhaps her great-grandparents had been frum, but she didn’t really know.
She did well in school and in the tests to get into university. She wanted to become a math teacher. She went to be interviewed at the college she wanted to study at, but she was not accepted. Her mother realized that her daughter was not accepted because the college had enough Jews already.
Berta returned home with her mother and burst into tears. A relative from Moscow came by once when Berta was crying. She was close to him and his family because there would be family reunions and everyone would get together. Her cousin said to her, “Why don’t you apply to the University of Moscow and live with us?” Berta was close to his son Michael, and so she agreed.
She was accepted to the university and so off she went to Moscow! Her cousins lived in a one-bedroom apartment. She and Michael slept in the living room and his parents slept in the bedroom. Michael was like a brother to her.
One day Michael’s mother said to him, “Why are you going out with all of these shiksas when you have a wonderful woman right here?” Michael agreed, and when Berta returned to their apartment, he seated her in the kitchen and asked her to marry him. Berta responded, “But you are like a brother to me.” Michael persisted, “Okay, but do you want to marry me?” and Berta said yes.
Through his studies in history, Michael had gotten interested in trying out Christianity. His experience in the church did not draw him into that religion. One day he got on a train and took it three stops. He was looking for a shul, and he met two men from Chabad. They would not take him to a shul, because they were not allowed to bring young people there. Michael wanted reading material about Judaism, and over time he was given a bit.
After Berta agreed to marry him, he told her that he wanted her to go to a mikveh before they got married. She had no idea what that was, but she agreed. She was given little instruction by the Chabad rabbi’s wife. Berta remembers it as a terrible experience – the water seemed murky, it was cold, and she didn’t like the fact that she had to disrobe in front of a stranger.
The Jewish wedding ceremony was held in her cousins’ small apartment. The Chabad couple came. Michael’s mother had prepared a wedding feast with loads of chazir. The Chabad couple removed the chazir and searched for something kosher in the kitchen. Sprats and some other fish took the place of the chazir.
Berta had no inkling about the journey she and Michael were going to take. They started keeping kosher, and their small apartment became a hub of Jews who came for Berta’s simple, but tasty Shabbat food such as pirozhki. For a year following the wedding, Berta’s mother kept bringing non-kosher food into their apartment; she had difficulty accepting the young couple’s choice to learn more about Judaism.
Berta and Michael eventually moved with their children to Eretz Yisrael. Baruch Hashem, they have built a large frum family.
Among her many activities is that she gets together with other Russian-speaking Jews and helps them with their Hebrew. She also accompanies her historian husband to book fairs and book launches where he has a Russian-speaking following. (He looks like a big strong man, and you wouldn’t know that he has serious health issues.)
You never know what you might find in a second-hand clothing store. I certainly found a treasure!
May Hashem bless them both with better health. Please daven for Michael ben Rivka and Berta bat Chana.