Before I start I want to apologize for my extended absence from this blog and the online world altogether. I know some of you were worried by my “disappearance”. My father’s sister, Rabbanit Yehudit Meir z’l, passed away suddenly last Monday in Netivot, (in the south of Israel, very near Gaza). What with the levaya (funeral), the shiva at my parents’ house which I ran together with my siblings and spouses, and just generally not being in the right mood, I could not get my act together to write or even read anything at all.
But now that the shiva is over and life is returning to something approaching normal, I want to tell you a bit about my Auntie Judy as we called her. She was born in Fuerth, Bavaria, my father’s younger sister, a pretty blond blue-eyed girl. During the early Nazi years, she was sent out at only age 4 to buy bread and milk because she didn’t look Jewish and so wouldn’t get attacked on the streets. My father’s family fled to England (you can read the story here), and Auntie Judy received an excellent education in London before marrying the young Rabbi Yissachar Meir.
I can’t write about Auntie Judy without also writing about Uncle Yissachar, HaRav Yissachar Meir to whom she was married for over 50 years but sadly they had no children. Instead they counted their thousands of yeshiva students as their children.
Rabbi Yissachar Meir ztz”l established Yeshivat Hanegev Azata in Netivot. It was a haredi yeshiva, but with an ethos of Torah im Derech Eretz (Torah with involvement in the real world) that emanated from his yekkish (German Jewish) upbringing. The Rav (or Uncle Yissochor as we called him) was a brilliant Rabbinical scholar and was sent by the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh in Bnei Brak to re-establish Jewish schools and yeshivas in war-ravished Europe. From Switzerland they moved on to Morocco, to Casablanca and Tangiers, to do similar holy work. After escaping arrest they returned to Israel, first to Kfar Haroeh in the north of Israel, and then finally being told to “bring Torah to the south of Israel”.
In those very early days of the State of Israel, in the 1950s, southern Israel was a wasteland both physically and spiritually. New immigrants from North Africa were dumped in transit camps and development towns with no jobs, almost no housing, poor education and no hope. Rav Yissachar and Rabbanit Yehudit set about establishing a yeshiva, a day school, a girls’ vocational school and seminary, and the town began to flourish.
As if this wasn’t enough, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, Rav Yissachar traveled to Ukraine to bring Jewish children who survived and to set up institutions for them. This was a continuation of the outreach work he did years earlier with FSU immigrants. Many of the Russian students who had studied at his yeshiva taught Torah to these children and helped them continue in their spiritual path.
Rav Yissachar was not content to rest on his laurels as his yeshiva grew. He established branches of the yeshiva in Sderot, in Zerua, and he even wanted to build a new town in the south, Kasif, before he became ill and passed away.
In all of these travels and toils, my Aunt was her husband’s loyal and willing partner, running the yeshiva extremely efficiently, as well as running her house smoothly and calmly, never phased by the Rav turning up on a Friday night with 5 extra hungry Yeshiva boys to feed, helping to fund-raise and yet finding time to be an amateur social worker both for the yeshiva students and for the local townspeople who wanted to consult her wisdom.
You can read about the Rav’s life here, but I just want to share some memories with you.
From the early 1970s we would visit Israel every summer and always paid a visit to Netivot. It was lovely to sit on their verandah, watching my aunt pick grapes directly from the vine growing on their pergola, take maaser (tithes) in the kitchen and then bring the grapes out on a plate for us to eat. I loved seeing the orange, lemon and pomegranate trees in their garden and my little brother had fun chasing the cats. 🙂
After I made aliya, as a single girl, I would travel to Netivot for Shabbat about once a month. It was always so peaceful and relaxing there, but I was never bored because my Auntie Judy was a wonderful conversationalist. She was a very well-educated person, very talented and clever and she spoke several languages. We would walk around the town together and my aunt would proudly show off the new fashionable neighbourhoods being built, the new schools and housing and everywhere she went she was greeted with warm smiles and blessings.
After I married and had children, we would go to Netivot for Shabbat every few months and my children loved those visits. It wasn’t always perfect – My daughter remembers spilling cocoa all over the kitchen table and my son spilled a whole jug of orange juice on the dining room table. i will never forget the sight of the river of orange juice flowing down the table and all over my uncle! His reaction? He laughed and laughed, and said my son was a “real chevra-man” (jolly fellow). What a wonderful reaction! 😀
My aunt had a clever wit and a gentle sense of humour, but she was strong-willed and knew how to run a giant institution like the yeshiva and its satellites without stress or panic. She was an incredible influence on the town of Netivot and on religious Jews everywhere. We have missed her over these last few years of her last illness, as she was cared for by Rav Yissochor’s nephew’s family, the Chollaks, with such great devotion. And now we shall miss her even more.
Someone else who has very warm memories of the Rav and Rabbanit – Uncle Yissochor and Auntie Judy z”l – is Shlomo Tikochinsky who grew up in the town. He has written a beautifully lyrical post on Facebook which I share here, followed by my (not nearly as poetic) translation:
The Rabbanit” was Rabbanit Yehudit Meir, could this be anyone else?
This was my world then in the Azata of the 1960s and 70s. I grew up into a world in which there is mother, father and houses and trees, sun and birds and a Rabbanit.
As boys, for the Rabbanit we were, myself and Dudi’le, the eldest of the Ashkenazi kehillah that was forming and growing within the immigrant township. She did not have children of her own and we filled that role perfectly. The Shabbat meal had hardly finished when we would run to her house to drive her crazy, because Mum was busy with my little sisters who were born one after the other. We would cross two courtyards, bypass the Mikve and would arrive at the Rabbanit’s house. But it’s not nice to enter from the back door, Rabissochor* doesn’t allow. Here we maintain order.
With her difficult walk we would watch her walk to the yeshiva and back, to the little one-storey house which contained two tiny apartments which were joined into one, but from the outside it looked no different to the other houses in Rechov Abuhatzeira. Rabissochor and the Rabbanit, his hands always behind his back and her hands always holding a big folder, a kind of double plant that arrived from distant times and countries to a little immigrant township, which from now on would never be whole without them.
Until today I can hear her sweet low pitched voice. Behind the mikve you would turn left, and you could see the little sign “Yeshivat Hanegev – Office” on one door, and on the other, “Rav Yissochor Meir”. You would go down two stairs to the courtyard, go up one stair, knock lightly on the white wooden door, and the Rabbanit would open, with a welcoming, polite English smile, slightly withdrawn, but enough to soften the eternal squeak of the door and the emptiness of the house. In one moment we entered another world, into a bubble smelling of Europe, into a corner of German and English Jewry within Tunis and Morroco. A smell of distant times and quiet enveloped the living room, whose sideboard and armchairs I remember so well, to the last detail. The Rav would sit and study a book and the Rabbanit would give us chocolate. The Rav would stop speaking, stroke his hand on my cheek and go back to his studies, while she would ask questions in her quiet soft voice, like a 10-stringed harp, “Shloimele, do you want a sweet?” and her pale smile and green eyes would shine out to me from under her everlasting sheitel (wig).
The Rabbanit would take us out to the back yard, to the fruit trees, to the untiled Succah platform where there stood ironwork chairs on which she would always sit, closing letters and sticking envelopes for the yeshiva, while her housekeeper Aunt Aisha Weizman would prepare something for us in the kitchen.
For years and yovelim her natural place was in front of the typewriter, opposite files, envelopes and letters, pens and stamps, typing in English and various European languages, speaking little, smiling nobly to her surroundings, and running the yeshiva from her house. In those years she still ran to the “shack” of the yeshiva that stood at the end of the road, to cook, to help, to clean, to sew something for someone, to listen to a boy having troubles, to listen and give advice. Even after the new yeshiva building was built on the outskirts of town, and her office moved there, the little sign “Office” never moved from her door, because her home was her office and her office – her home.
She was the “Rabbanit”, Rabbanit Yehudit Meir o’h, a main road that paved the way for many paths after it.
* The writer is writing as a child, and “Rabissochor” is what he called Rav Yissochor in his child-like language.
May the memory of the Rabbanit Yehudit Meir, Auntie Judy, be for a blessing. May she be a melitz yosher for all of Am Yisrael.
יהי זכרה ברוך.