OpinionJewish Diaspora

A heartbroken son mourns his mother

Gratitude from a son who would not be in Jewish communal life without the dedication and sacrifice of a matriarch who placed herself second to all her children’s needs.

Shmuley Boteach
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of the World Values Network. He can be followed on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

In the space of just two and a half years, my siblings and I find ourselves in the painful position of being orphaned of both our parents. In May 2020, at the height for the COVID-19 pandemic, we buried our father on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. I published a book about the harrowing experience of losing a father and the nearly impossible challenges of saying Kaddish during the pandemic. The book, Good Mourning, was published just four months ago. I dedicated it to my late father, Yoav, and to my living mother, Eleanor (Esther-Elka) with the words, “May she be blessed with life and health until the Messiah comes, because I love her and I refuse to ever go through a year of Kaddish and grief again, God forbid.”

That was just four months ago, one month before my mother’s 80th birthday celebrations, where her children and grandchildren gathered from around the world to rejoice with the Miami Beach Jewish community in a festive jamboree.

Just weeks ago, my mother was the very picture of vitality and health. Yes, she struggled walking, as she had for a few years. But she sparkled, she was razor sharp and her famously engaging personality positively glowed. The last decade saw my mother move around the world with her partner and near-husband of 20 years, Yitzchak. They lived in three of the world’s greatest cities—Jerusalem, Miami and Toronto—and did cruises and toured. And most famously, every Friday night for Shabbat in Miami Beach my mother hosted some 40 people—many of them strangers without any other place to eat—at her home, where she presided as the matriarch of a large and loving family.

If you would have told me that I, her youngest child, whom she always called her baby, would be conducting his own mother’s funeral, which I did yesterday, just three months after her 80th birthday, I would be in shock.

We took her on a cruise for her 80th and she loved it. She complained of some knee pain, which weeks later increased. The doctors continually said it was arthritis. She checked in for surgery after it was discovered to be a tumor and exactly four weeks later, we lost her, having never left the hospital.

So, here we are. A woman at the prime of her life. A matriarch of a family of some 70 descendants, thank God. A woman whose children in Miami just dedicated a Hatzalah ambulance for her 80th birthday, a woman revered throughout South Florida for her hospitality and legendary for her kind-to-all personality, being buried beside her parents in freezing cold New York.

Born on 12 Cheshvan 5702, Oct. 23, 1942, at the height of World War II and the Holocaust, my mother was saved from Hitler’s ovens by her father Frank Paul’s decision as a teenager to depart Lomza in Poland and come to the U.S. some 35 years earlier. I always reminded my mother that on the day she was born—as was true of every day of 1942—some 10,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. And yet, believe it or not, on the exact day she was born the allies experienced their first ever significant victory over Hitler when the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery broke through German defenses in Egypt at the second battle of El Alamein.

A passionate Jewish woman to her core, my mother was also deeply American, with a lifelong Brooklyn accent and someone who literally lived in each point of the American triangle of New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

When I was 8, my parents divorced, and my mother moved my siblings and I from Los Angeles to Miami Beach, where we grew up. My mother raised us a single mother, working two daily jobs to afford a roof over our heads, the clothing on our backs, and, most especially, expensive Jewish day school tuition.

A bank teller during the day, she worked a supermarket checkout clerk at night. She would rush home from the bank, make us dinner, and then rush to her night job. I would never have become a rabbi without my mother putting in 16-hour days to afford yeshiva, and it behooves me to offer the gratitude of a son who would not be in Jewish communal life without the dedication and sacrifice of a matriarch who placed herself second to all her children’s needs.

One of my earliest childhood memories was a torrential downpour on a Saturday night in Los Angeles. We had very little money and we were thrilled when my grandparents, Frank and Ida Paul, bought us a shiny new red Chevrolet station wagon. But while it was sparkled on the outside, it was a piece of junk on the inside and it kept breaking down. As my mother took us for an outing after Shabbat in a torrential downpour, the car broke down again. My mother got out of the car and made sure her five children stayed inside so they didn’t get sick as she tried to get the car to start. She forced the hood open, cutting her hand deeply in the process. I can still see the blood gushing from her hand. I remember feeling a sense of my own helplessness as I bore witness to mother’s limitless dedication. I was just a boy, but I wanted to do something. It was a feeling that would return to me in the most horrible way in a hospital, almost half a century later, as my mother took her last breaths, and I could do nothing to help her, provoking from me a primal reaction of pain I never knew imaginable.

My mother had five children in just three and a half years (Chaim and Ateret are twins), and with little finances she almost never had any household help. But she never complained as she cooked, washed, ironed, cleaned, chauffeured and somehow got us to school each morning and picked us up in the afternoon. I have no idea how she pulled it off.

She had a very hard life and a most unhappy marriage. But she always masked her loneliness. Later in life, on a Shabbat night after all the guests had left, I sat alone with my mother and asked her how she had been so strong with so little money and so many broken relationships. “Shmuley,” she told me, “A person is like a rock. And as you experience hardships, you take your knocks. Pieces of the rock get chipped off. Sometimes whole chunks. But you remain a rock. You’re always strong.” And that’s what she was to her five children and 27 grandchildren. Our family’s rock.

I took my parents’ divorce very hard and one of the most difficult things about it was witnessing my mother’s loneliness. I distinctly remember that as a young teen, when I would go out in Miami Beach on a Saturday night to a movie with friends, I always felt bad that my mother was home alone. But she always pushed us to enjoy our lives never asking anything for herself.

It was at the bank where she worked as a teller that I first brought my future wife Debbie on our first date, as Debbie lovingly reminded me the night my mother died.

All this dedication I remember. All this sacrifice I will never forget. As my mother lay dying at the University of Miami Medical Center, I watched as my eldest sister Sara gently stroked my mother’s face and told the nurse, “My mother is a queen. She worked three jobs to raise me. There is nothing I would not do for her.” And that is how all her children felt.

As I drew closer to Chabad from a very early age and then told my mother, at age 14, that I was planning to go 3,000 miles away from home to attend a Chabad yeshiva, my mother took it badly. She felt Chabad was robbing her of a son. We were already an Orthodox family. Was this increased level of observance that I was embracing a rejection of her and the way she raised me? Would I, her youngest—her baby as she always called me—remain as close to her even as I lived across the country in a yeshiva dormitory? She expressed her displeasure to Shneur Zalman Fellig, the Chabad student who had, of all my numerous Chabad associates, the greatest influence on me. Was her son joining a cult?

My mother need not have worried.

All five of her children, especially her baby, saw everything, noticed everything and remembered everything. I could no more be separated from my mother than I could be detached from a limb. I knew what my mother had done for me. Judaism, if anything, would always bring me closer.

Few people get to hear their eulogies in their lifetimes. How ironic is it, therefore, that on my mother’s 80th birthday in October, I was able to pay her tribute at a synagogue in Miami Beach. The Torah reading was Bereishit, Genesis, and I spoke about the curse of Adam and Eve after their seduction at the hands of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve were blessed with endless abundance. They lived in paradise. They enjoyed every colorful fruit of the Garden. But the serpent—a symbol of jealousy, insatiability and greed—injects his venom and causes the first couple to focus not on their blessings but on their deficits, not on what they have but on what they lack, not on all the fruit they could enjoy but on the one forbidden fruit which was off limits.

I mentioned to the synagogue, while I gazed up at my mother, that all humanity was stricken with this curse—except for one. My mother was the most content person I had ever met. She never stopped lecturing me about how the only thing that is important in life is family and good deeds. We almost never spoke of my professional work. She was only interested in hearing about Debbie and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Her Shabbat table was the most diverse of any Orthodox Jewish family in Florida. On any given Friday, she had people of very religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and belief. There were people who were single, married, divorced, widowed and any combination thereof.

My mother’s Shabbat table became renowned throughout Miami Beach as a home for all, including and especially those who are so often overlooked. My mother taught me to see the divine spark in all and that each person was a child of God. While she gifted me the most ferocious Jewish identity, especially with regards to fighting for the Jewish people and Israel, she always saw beyond the borders of the Jewish community to the universal human family.

As children growing up in Florida my mother often took us to Disney World. Oh, how we loved the theme park and, oh, how we hated the drive. It was four hours long. But my mother would make it at least six as she conversed with every toll booth attendant on the Florida turnpike. My mother got into conversations with bus drivers, taxi drivers, clients at her bank, store attendants, people in elevators—you name it. She was a legendary conversationalist, even as it drove her children to distraction.

And when the Lubavitcher Rebbe later sent me to Oxford University as his emissary with my wife, we sought to create that same diverse community, with my mother’s example of treating every person as possessed of infinite value and worth guiding my work and ethos as rabbi to the students.

I remember watching my mother read The Jewish Press and other Jewish publications every week. She would read about women in shelters for the abused, fathers who were struggling with a child’s life-threatening illness, and families who could not pay their rent. We had little money. But she would write out checks to these total strangers whom she had never even met but whom she could not ignore. Their stories touched her. It taught me and my siblings of our eternal obligation to the those in crisis.

And so, I return to this painful day, just two short years after my siblings and I lost our father. I was sure that the dedication, which I read out loud to my mother when I presented her with the Good Mourning book, would give her no choice but to live until Mashiach comes because I could not bear the pain of losing another parent. And when I wrote the dedication, I felt positive that a just God who have watched my mother’s endless optimism despite hardship, infinite acts of kindness despite desperate times and incalculable devotion to her children and grandchildren despite their being spread around the world—and bestow upon her at least 20 years of life.

I looked forward to at least her 90th, and perhaps even her 100th birthday. After all, her own mother, my grandma Ida, died just one month shy of a full century.

But it was not to be. My mother has left us at 80 at the prime of her life and just one hour—literally—before the bat mitzvah of her first great-grandchild, a joyous event to which she had looked forward with such anticipation.

There is no question that we were robbed, and she was robbed. We were robbed of at least a decade with the matriarch of our family. And she was robbed of seeing many more weddings of her grandchildren and many more births of great-grandchildren.

Why would God have taken such a good woman from the earth well before her time? There is no answer. And if there is, I don’t wish to hear it. What I want is my mother back. And I join my rebbe in demanding of God—Mashiach now, an end to suffering and death—so that I be reunited with her.

I’m grateful to God that my mother’s aloneness after her divorce was finally assuaged with her life partner Yitzchak who could not have been more devoted to her, and whose heart-rending anguish I witnessed at my mother’s bedside.

Mom, they say that Chassidim never say goodbye. They are always in the process of meeting. And I know you will return to us shortly with the resurrection of the dead in the messianic era. Until then, every Shabbat I will remember you with King Solomon’s immortal words in Eishes Chayil, which I sang to you so many Friday nights, “Many women have exemplified valor. But you, MOM, have surpassed them all.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom “Newsweek” and “The Washington Post” call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the author of “The Israel Warrior and Judaism for Everyone.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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