Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Grandmothers of a nearly forgotten time

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2009 at 10:54 pm

This Sunday, amid much of the Pesach preparations we went to a Zeved Bat for friends of ours. It was an occasion to remember the grandmothers Yaira Rivka was named after. These were stories of unimaginable challenges, all too common, sixty years ago. One came to America alone at the age of twelve, leaving eight siblings behind who perished in the Holocaust while the other, the youngest of thirteen went to work as a seamstress at the age of eight. When the Czar’s army came to plunder her town, she was saved by a Russian soldier who happened to be Jewish, and later became her husband.

These were strong women, undaunted by grim poverty, tough unsentimental women who protected and nurtured their families with single minded zeal.

Two weeks ago, someone sitting next to me, asked if I was related to Batsheva Bratt, to which I replied, “She was my grandmother!” “What a sweet woman. One time, I was playing softball and I broke a window in her apartment building. I was scared to death when she came out to see what happened! She took one look at my face, and said, “Gevalt, his face is white as a sheet! Honey, it’s only a vindow—come in for something to yeat.” The man who related this story is over sixty years old, and yet, he remembered this story with such present emotion, I couldn’t help but be moved.

She came to the U. S. when she was only sixteen with no English and ended up in Kansas City, married and made a life in the New World. She was an old time Matriarch who ruled the clan with a stern voice and a gentle hand. It would never have occurred to her to be a feminist, for no man she felt was her equal. One might ask, why does it seem that the Mothers loom so much larger than the Fathers? Why do their strength, their courage, and their tenacity occupy such a large part of our collective narratives?

In last week’s Parsha, Rashi comments on some mirrors that were used in the Tabernacle which were oddly named “the mirrors of legions”. (the marot tzovot). He recounts the following story:

During the time when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, the men would come home exhausted from working in the fields. A wife would sidle up to her husband, hold up a mirror and tease him. Who do you think is prettier, me or you? This would excite her husband and a new generation of Jews was born.

These mirrors were used by women to entice their beleaguered, depressed, and enslaved husbands to create the next generation of Jews. From the bleak background of slavery, the men had given up, and if it wasn’t for the idealism of the women, there would have been no generation to redeem. Those mirrors created legions.

Fast forward to turn of the century pale of settlement with widespread poverty, persecution and powerlessness. Beleaguered and beaten day to day, how did these Jewish families spiritually sustain themselves? Many were anchored in the strength of these women who knew not only how to manage a household on very little, but also knew how to nurture one.

It is not only the generation of Egypt that benefits from the tenacious zeal of Jewish women, it is every generation.

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