Comrade Chaya Rivkah Jessel
By Rinki Dison
My close comrade and cousin, Chaya Rivkah Jessel, had asked that both my husband and I observe the Torah's rule of "Shmiras Halashon" - Guarding One's Speech. She believed that if enough people close to her created the positive loving energy that may be generated when one sees the good in people and speaks in a kind loving way, then this would have an impact on her healing process. It was more than this, for I now understand that Chaya Rivkah, true to her generous nature, wanted us to adopt a spiritual code that goes to the very heart of Judaism.
Our family is a liberal secular Jewish family. Although we are Jewish we are simultaneously Buddhist, Satsangi, Zulu and a host of other interesting ism's. Chaya Rivkah was the first among us to truly return to the spiritual essence of what it means to be a Jew. Part of the sacrifice that was made on her journey was that the immediate family felt rejected and alienated. It took many years and a lot of hard work for me to realise that Chaya Rivkah was not judging me but reaching out to me.
We have always been close and so we had a good foundation to work upon. We had many, many spiritual conversations in which we both came to appreciate things in each other. Once Chaya Rivkah suggested to me that we should publish some of our correspondence because she thought that the love and respect we had for one another whilst we debated and discussed spiritual issues might be useful for other families who have been affected by the Frum (Religious) vs. Secular divide. There is so much misunderstanding and judgement from both sides that does not reflect the laws of Shmiras Halashon. But these are debates for another time and place. I want to write about my journey to Jerusalem because things fell into place in such a way that neither my aunt or I could dispel the notion that something strong and powerful was around us and guiding us at all times.
On Thursday night (the 1st of January), my husband and I were eating dinner with Chaya Rivkah's brother and sister-in-law. It was the last few days of our annual family holiday in Plettenberg Bay. I knew from my sister that Chaya Rivkah was back in the hospital and that she had laryngitis and a host of other infections. My sister-in-law, too, mentioned that things were really not good and Chaya Rivkah's condition had begun to deteriorate. I knew from the moment she said these words what it was I had been feeling for the past three weeks.
That night I was unable to sleep. As has happened to me before on occasions of intense worry, I felt another presence around me. I woke my husband in the early hours of the morning and told him that I had to get to Israel as soon as I could. This was a journey that for one reason and another I had been putting off since my cousin was first diagnosed as having cancer. My husband agreed that as soon as we got back to Johannesburg - on Monday the 5th of January - I could make preparations to get to Israel.
I still could not get back to sleep and so I went to the shops at 6 0'clock in the morning. I stopped off at friends and had tea with them. By the time I got back to our house it was about noon. My husband rushed out to the car with a sad look on his face. "Your cousin has taken a really bad turn and you and Johnny (Chaya Rivka's brother) are booked to fly to Israel on Wednesday night. It's all arranged and the tickets are booked." My children ran out to me and we all cried. Then my husband said that my Aunt Muriel, Chaya Rivkah's mother, would be flying earlier, on Saturday night. The Wednesday flight was the first available because we still had to drive back to Johannesburg on Sunday. I was emphatic and unusually forceful: "I want to go with Muriel on Saturday night. Change my booking".
The first of many small miracles occurred at Plett airport. At first it all seemed impossible, as there were no seats available from Plett or the next nearest town George. Port Elizabeth seemed the only option. Seeing my distress and hearing of why I needed to get back to Johannesburg so urgently the lady at the airport took pity on me and did something she is not really allowed to do. She found me the one and only empty seat on a rival airline from George at 10 a.m. the next day. I was relieved and had the sense that from here on my journey was being directed by a force even stronger than my own burning desire to be near my cousin.
A restlessness and desperation were welling inside me. I begged my husband to cancel any visitors because I felt unable to think or talk about anything other than getting to Israel and being with my cousin. I now had to confront something that had been worrying me since the beginning of our holiday. As part of our promise and commitment to Chaya Rivkah's healing process, my husband and I read each day the comments of the noted sage, the Chofetz Chaim, on "Loshon Hora" - derogatory or harmful speech - on our computer. My cousin had subscribed us onto a daily commentary from the Chofetz Chaim Foundation. I knew that I would be unable to read this when we went on holiday because there was no phone line in the house. Chaya Rivkah took great comfort that my husband and I not only read these commentaries daily but also that we discussed the meaning and really got an enormous amount of intellectual and spiritual comfort from these words.
Two days before we left for our holiday I mentioned to Chaya Rivkah (in what was to be our last phone conversation) that I would be unable to read from the Internet while on holiday. Undeterred she told me to go and buy the book from where all the references came from. I knew even as she gave me this last instruction that I would never manage to fit running off to the Judaic bookstore and looking for this particular book into the frantic schedule of packing and preparing for our holiday. I never got the book. It was a holiday in which I switched off from everything, wanting to relax and recover from a tumultuous year. I relaxed my guard and allowed my tongue to participate in a fair amount of gossip.
It says in Proverbs, "Death and Life are in the power of the tongue." Through the wise and ethical use of the tongue, we give life to others as well as to ourselves. My cousin was in a hospital in Israel loving the gift of life and struggling to maintain it, while a thousand kilometers away I was failing to do my part to increase life's energy by refraining from loshon hara. Was this not, in retrospect, a serious lapse on my part, taking life for granted at a time when the preciousness of life should have been most apparent?
Later, after the funeral, I asked a Rabbi who was visiting Chaya Rivkah's bereaved husband on at his home on the moshav. His answer was gentle, kind, and practical. He said something along the lines of "We don't know how it all works, but if it was her wish that you should have this book then you should have it." Word was sent out on the moshav, and a few minutes later someone arrived with a copy of the ArtScroll book, "Chofetz Chaim - A Lesson A Day". I didn't want to take the book - I was looking for absolution. The Rabbi insisted that I take it because that was Chaya Rivkah's wish. "You should always take it with you when you are away", he said.
Again I am running ahead of myself. On the plane to Johannesburg I accepted that I was being pulled to Israel by a powerful force. I knew I had to get there urgently. It had been too long. I had last visited my cousin 6 years before. Another set of events had pulled me to Israel for a brief 5-day visit, and I had a precious two days with her and her family. Those two days were so powerful because up until that point I had been the only member of the family, other than Auntie Muriel, to visit Chaya Rivkah at her home on a religious moshav. Her children, Shira Basya and Simcha, were then 5 and 4 years old respectively. We clicked immediately and a powerful bond was formed. I remember that as I got off the plane quite late at night my cousin has ensured that she was waiting for me. She was so excited to have me with her in Israel. She had been so long in isolation from our family. The people that I flew in with commented on how evident it was that my cousin loved me in a most powerful way. Her eyes shone with excitement and she looked so beautiful. I had changed my dress on the plane so that I would look appropriate on the moshav where I would spend the next two days. Chaya
Rivkah and I shared a passion for clothes, both of us having developed our own distinct taste and style. These were two precious days that neither of us would ever forget. She was so healthy then and full of fun and laughter. I clicked with her close friends on the moshav and we all had a good time.
Back to the present story: Auntie Muriel and I met at the airport on Saturday night. We were excited and pleased to be going with each other, both of us being intensely aware that we were being pulled to Israel. In fact we both had the same response to this tug. We believed that our journey was going to be the turning point for Chaya Rivkah. She would be so overjoyed to have us that her strength would return and she would be able to continue her brave fight. My fear of flying, my anxiety about leaving my children and about going to a dangerous country all lifted. Again I felt a great calm and a sense that I was handing over my usual worries to some higher force that would take care of everything. All that mattered was getting to Israel and giving love and hope and strength to Chaya Rivkah.
I had not been part of making any arrangements. I had no idea who would fetch us from the airport or where we would stay. My cousin Johnny and his wife Jenny had done all the bookings. After we arrived, Muriel insisted that I stay with her because a driver had been dispatched and told to look for two of us. Of course she was right because the driver from the Moshav recognised us immediately. He drove us to Jerusalem to Lori Lurie's house. Lori was a close friend of my cousin, and Muriel and Johnny had stayed with her when they visited Chaya Rivkah in October.
It was early in the morning, but Alan Lurie (Lori's husband) was there to greet us when we arrived and he told us that there was place for both of us to stay with them. Lori was already at the hospital. Muriel was tired from the journey but I was anxious to get to the hospital. I had not seen Chaya Rivkah since her last visit to South Africa four years previously. She had stayed with me for three weeks with her youngest child, Akiva. Since then she had had another child, the serene Mordechai Hirsch whom I only knew from photographs.
Lori encouraged me to shower and eat breakfast before I went off to the hospital. Muriel agreed to rest up and regain her strength. Muriel anticipated that she would be staying for many weeks and so did not feel the pressing urge that I did.
Friends kept a twenty-four hour a day vigil around Chaya Rivkah. Lori explained that the friend on duty knew that I was coming and she would leave when I got there so that I could have some time alone with Chaya Rivkah. Lori is an extraordinary woman who exudes a tranquillity that makes one feel safe and cared for all the time. In a frank and gentle manner on the drive to the hospital she warned me that Chaya Rivkah no longer looked the way she had a few months ago.
My longing to be at my cousin's side was now unbearable. Every moment spent looking for parking at the hospital felt like an age. On the way in, Lori stopped to talk with a young lady who had been on "duty" with my cousin the day before. I was restless and unable to converse with her. I needed to be with Chaya Rivkah immediately. Suddenly the four year long wait could not take even another moment. Lori understood this and took me up to her ward. All the time we were walking Lori was explaining to me what I would have to do in order to look after Chaya Rivkah for the day. Ice cubes had to be made from juice, as this was all she was able to suck on.
Whilst she spoke I thought of the favourite game that Chaya Rivkah and I had played as children. It was at the height of the Cold War. We pretended to be Russian KGB spies. We would meet in my mother's kitchen, which was transformed into a restaurant for the purpose of our game. We spoke in thick Russian accents and called each other "Comrade" whilst we prepared delicious food that we ate with great relish accompanied by much laughter as we plotted the downfall of the Western World. We both knew that the game was an outlet for our two favourite passions - eating and acting.
As Lori had warned me, the person lying in the hospital bed was not the hale and hearty Comrade I had last seen four years ago. That is, physically she was not that person. The moment I saw Chaya Rivkah, even though she was very weak and it was difficult to speak, her fighting spirit and her great wit were apparent. Her first words were, "How long are you here for? No, I don't even want to know. You are here - that's all that matters."
As I walked into her ward the first person I met was Shoshana Levy. This was someone I knew from our past. Chaya Rivkah grew up in Yeoville in Number 2 Alpha Court. Shoshana and her sister Helen lived in the flat above. We were all of a similar age and we had spent many joyful hours together playing and having fun. Now Shoshana was playing her Celtic harp at the foot of Chaya Rivkah's bed. There were other friends around who were dutifully doing things. It was agreed that everyone would leave so that I could have some time alone with Chaya Rivkah. I was part of the reinforcement. These troops were battle weary and perhaps also afraid that the war might soon be lost.
Aunt Muriel and I had travelled with such assurance of purpose. Both of us had expressed the same sense that "everything would be fine". When my sister Sheila had met me at Johannesburg Airport I admonished her for her tearful countenance. Everything will be fine, I assured her. I had the same response to my mother's anguished tears. Muriel and I might have been the rearguard, yet we were convinced that our presence would make all the difference. Suddenly I was confronted with the reality. Chaya Rivkah's body was more than battle weary. It was giving up the fight. One didn't need to be a doctor to know that the end was near. Still I was here in Israel and some naïve narcissism had me believe that I could make a difference.
Immediately I began to recriminate myself and told Chaya Rivkah that I had not got the book and not fulfilled my agreement to read the Chofetz Chaim as promised. She smiled and said "Aha! You came out of guilt!" Partly true, I guess, but I laughed as I cried, I had come because she had summoned me. I had not come before, there were so many obstacles.
"Come while I'm still here", she had begged me. Then we had made promises of being together in April -- she had planned to have a Remission Party. But it was early January now. Chaya Rivkah had septicaemia and other infections. It was difficult for her to talk and she could hardly move at all.
Throughout the day that I spent with her it was very apparent that she had no intention of dying. Although exhausted and in desperate need of rest, her intellect and spirit were totally focused on survival and healing. Different doctors visited her intermittently. It was clear that they all admired and respected her courage. She discussed her condition with each doctor and demanded to know why one was not giving her another course of antibiotics. He explained in a gentle way that her kidneys and liver could not tolerate another bout of antibiotics just yet.
At times throughout that day it was difficult to hold back my tears. Chaya Rivkah introduced me to an Australian doctor. I was unable to talk because of all the emotion I felt and tears ran down my cheeks. He looked at me and said, "It's good to cry now, as this is a very scary time."
At no point during that busy day did Chaya Rivkah anticipate that her body was unable to do the bidding of her mind. A group of haematologists had visited in the morning. As always, Chaya Rivkah was extremely lucid and interested in discussing the next steps in her healing process. Together with the doctors she agreed to have a pipe placed down her nasal passage that would assist in draining fluid off her stomach to relieve her nausea. This was discussed with her other doctors when they visited. Her main doctor was not keen to do this as she had tried it a few nights before and it had made her very uncomfortable. I got the sense that he figured she only had a few hours left and he wanted her to be as comfortable as possible.
Chaya Rivkah was undaunted. She wanted this pipe and she was insistent that it be done by a nurse called Shifra whom she particularly liked and trusted. Chaya Rivkah dispatched me to ensure that the correct nurses do the procedure on her and none other. "It is almost 3 o'clock and that nurse's shift ends at three. Make sure you find her and tell her to do it before she goes." She had the tone of a commander giving orders during battle. Coherent and insistent - this was how it had to be.
I was suddenly in awe of my cousin. She had always had a powerful intellect and was focused and determined in everything she set her mind to. I ran to find the nurse. Fortunately she could speak a bit of English because I cannot speak any Hebrew. She was very kind but a little taken aback that Chaya Rivkah had insisted that she do the procedure. "But I did it a few nights ago and she hated it," she insisted. I began to cry again and explained that it was giving her hope and that she insisted that it be done. The nurse should have knocked off at 3pm. But true to her promise she came some time after three.
It was difficult but eventually the pipe was inserted. It looked painful and uncomfortable but Chaya Rivkah did not complain. In fact she now made it clear to me that I must not fuss over her. She couldn't stand it she said when people fussed -- "When I want something I will let you know."
It had been a long hard day. All she wanted was to sleep but there were constant interruptions. Many of the doctors came back on their own and either stroked her arm or held her hand. One doctor bent over her so tenderly like a father kissing a daughter on her first day at school. I knew that each of these doctors was saying goodbye to someone who had made an indelible impact on them, someone who had believed in their ability to help make her well. "Hashem does this" she once explained to me. "It's a miracle -- he works through the chemotherapy and the doctors to make me well again".
Sometime late in the afternoon Lori arrived back at the hospital. She told me that Chaya Rivkah's children would be dropped off downstairs at the entrance to the hospital and that I was to go back to her house with them until Shlomo Zalman, Chaya Rivkah's husband, would fetch them. I was pleased to be seeing these children again -- it had been a long time and I had not yet ever had the pleasure of meeting the baby, one year-old Mordecai Hirsch.
Little Mordecai had become dangerously ill when he was only a few weeks old. He was in intensive care for 12 days. The family in South Africa had felt helpless and we despaired. Then my sister suggested that out of respect for Chaya Rivkah we should all go to shul (synagogue) on Shabbos and pray. So it was that Auntie Muriel, Sheila, Hazel, my daughter Jenny and I went off to Oxford shul. It was the first time that I can ever remember going to a shul with Auntie Muriel. Chaya Rivkah really appreciated the gesture and was convinced that it aided in the healing process.
Chaya Rivkah had said to me during that difficult day when she was being poked and prodded and having pipes placed down her nose, "You see? They did this to my baby Mordechai Hirsch in the hospital. I am going through so much of what he went through".
As I was leaving the ward to go and meet the children downstairs, Chaya Rivkah reminded me that I must not leave my coat behind. Notwithstanding everything she had been through that day, she noticed that I had put my coat on the chair when I arrived. As always, my cousin impressed and astounded me. I kissed her goodbye and went to see the children.
Six long years melted away the moment I saw Shira and Simcha. We hugged and were overjoyed to see one another. Akiva could not remember me because he was only eighteen months old when he had stayed at my house. He greeted me with exuberance and warmth nonetheless.
A lady brought in Mordechai Hirsch in his pram. His large soulful eyes and calm manner that I had seen in the many photographs I had been sent by his devoted mother astounded me. "He won't give you any trouble", said the lady who handed him over to me, "He is an angel." That was apparent from the first glance. Shlomo Zalman said goodbye to the children and went off to see his wife.
Lori took us all back to her home where she had cooked a delicious meal. The table had been laid out with bright coloured serviettes and great love and care. This lifted all our spirits. The children played happily and chatted away. The Lurie household is filled with happy loving vibrations and was a welcome antidote to the trauma of the day.
I was anxious to speak with my husband and children to assure myself that they were having a safe drive back to Johannesburg. Lori and Alan insisted I use their phone whenever I needed to. Long distance phone calls to my children are always difficult. Everyone put on brave voices and made an effort to sound chirpy. They were safe and almost at the hotel where they would be spending the night. My husband wanted to hear about Chaya Rivkah, but I did not want to say too much in front of her children. Shlomo Zalman came and fetched them at about 8:30 and took them home. He looked tired and stressed.
The next morning, Monday January 5th, Lori knocked on my door quite early to see if I was awake. Chaya Rivkah had sent a message that her mother must come to the hospital at once. We readied ourselves and went off to the hospital. Again Lori was very careful to explain to Muriel that Chaya Rivkah now looked very different to when she had last seen her a few weeks before. Once more Shoshana Levy was at her bedside as were many other people whom I didn't know. Her breathing was laboured and she looked close to the end. People were praying all around her.
"Don't be afraid," I whispered in her ear. I wanted to comfort her and assure her that another journey would soon begin for her. Instead she became alarmed and sat up with shock and indigence. "Am I dying?" she asked. It had not yet occurred to her that her body was giving up when her mind refused to.
Shlomo Zalman came to the rescue. He spoke in his resonant, gentle, deep voice. "No, Lovey - you're going through an especially hard time right now, so all your loved ones have come to encourage and pray for you and give you extra support." He named a particular prayer and he read it out loud. I did not know what he was saying but the words were powerful and calming. Lori let me read it in English so that I could understand what was being said. A few minutes earlier the ward had been a frenzied place. People were crying and praying. Shlomo Zalman asked them all to step outside so that the family could have some time with her. His presence was very comforting.
Lori was called out for a phone call. She returned and said to Chaya Rivkah, "You are the first to know. My daughter Tova has just got engaged. I want you at that wedding." Suddenly the ward swelled with the notion of life and celebration. It did not seem incongruous. It felt optimistic. Lori really wanted her wonderful friend to be at her simcha (joyous event). Chaya Rivkah's brain must have been weighing it all up. Hope, love, continuance -- all a real possibility only not in that frail body. But it would be many hours before the brain would accept what the soul and the body knew were inevitable.
People have asked me whether or not Chaya Rivkah was lucid. Even though I was not with her in the final hours I know that she was completely lucid. She had refused sleeping tablets and any medication that interfered with her clarity of mind. I think that she was only given a little morphine and then only when she was very close to the end of this lifecycle.
Lori explained to Chaya Rivkah that the psychologist had said that Shira and Simcha must come and see their mother. At first she was opposed to this idea - worried about the effect it would have on them. I wanted very much to tell Chaya Rivkah that I had spent a wonderful evening with her children and that she had done a wonderful job with them. But I had alarmed her so much when I had told her not to be afraid that now I said nothing. Lori explained that it was important for the children to see their mother and then she agreed.
The two older children had been called out of school and brought to the hospital. Now the women went into a debate as how best it would be to handle this situation. Should they come in one at a time or both together? Who should escort them into the ward? How would their mother's physical deterioration be explained so that they would not panic when they saw her? Each question was discussed and every minutia thought about.
Jacqui and I were told to go downstairs and fetch the children. We were told how to prepare them. When they were upstairs, Shlomo Zalman took each child at a time and spoke quietly with them. Shira looked terrified and close to tears. Chaya Rivkah knew her babies were near and could bear it no longer. She called for them. She had to see them immediately. I don't know where her strength came from because she had been unable to move any part of her body. For her children, she sat up and was even able to touch Shira's cheek.
Simcha came prepared. He had bought a gift along the way and was proud to give it to his mom, who exclaimed "Oh, it's beautiful!" Shira was overcome with emotion and began to tremble and wail. Her mother was worried and tried to calm her down.
I took Shira out of the ward. This was not a time for adult weakness or indulgence. I was calm and suddenly I was filled with happy funny memories from our childhood. I told Shira Basya all kinds of things that her mom and I had done together as children. She began to calm down. I promised her that I would not leave her side for the rest of the day. I gave this assurance for myself more than for her. I needed Shira Basya as much if not more than she needed me. This beautiful little girl was living proof that Chaya Rivkah and I had laughed and played and lived. In this child were the repositories of Chaya Rivkah's hopes and dreams.
When we were teenagers I had gone to dance classes with Chaya Rivkah, or Diane as she was called. I was a useless dancer but Diane was brilliant. My passion for dance far outweighed my ability. Diane was always encouraging and enthusiastic, even though I was the klutz in the corner who could just about never get the steps right. Our mothers had instilled a love of music and dance in us. That morning in the hospital I had felt like a verbal klutz. I wish that I had said many things to Chaya Rivkah that morning, for instance, that she had done an extraordinary job with her kids. They are so bright and talented. I wish that I had told her how much I valued her and enjoyed her. I said very little to her for fear of saying the wrong thing.
We had spoken often on the phone. We had a very honest relationship and she had been one of my closest confidants and I hers. Even though we lived in different worlds we shared our fears and our hopes. Chaya Rivkah had been a constant support to me when things came off the rails. She was deeply concerned for every member of the family. Two weeks before from her hospital bed she had called my mother because she had heard that my mom had a broken wrist.
Five months previously, when Chaya Rivkah had phoned me just before going into hospital to check out what her growths were, she spoke for the first time of her fear that they were cancer. In our family we trust our feelings before we listen to the word of any doctor. I have a good feeling, I said to Chaya Rivkah. It will never be cancer. Similarly, Muriel and I had believed our visit would turn the tide and Chaya Rivkah's health would improve.
My cousin tried to teach me that one should look at situations from a much bigger perspective and extract the positive out of them. I know that death is not the end. I know her soul is dancing in the wind and the clouds. I know in some strange way that Muriel and I were protected all along our journey. We accepted that her physical death was necessary. We accepted that our journey was perfect. We were able to see her off and be part of a mystical experience. Sometimes our "feelings" are a projection of our deepest desires and sometimes our feelings have tapped into some great big universal truth that we may interpret in a clumsy way. Muriel and I were pulled to Israel with a feeling that everything would be fine. In the greater scheme of things -- at a level above attachment, ego, emotion -- things were perfect. Chaya Rivkah was free and all the hard work she had done on herself spiritually ensured that her journey would take her to high places.
Chaya Rivkah's funeral was extraordinary. Everything that Chaya Rivkah participated in was a happening event. She understood when we laughed and cried. People have looked at me strangely when I say that we were joyful at her funeral. We celebrated her life -- we felt intense joy at knowing her. How can this be? Perhaps she was chuckling in the breeze with us. It felt that way. She was liberated from that body that could no longer fight. Her soul is still hovering - it is not yet 30 days since her departure from the physical form.
The rabbi said that Hashem would never permit such a thing to happen and not ensure that Chaya Rivkah's children would be safe and looked after. I know that those children are going to be all right.
Out of respect for Chaya Rivkah both Muriel and I wore head coverings. A rabbi had once referred to Chaya Rivkah as a Torah Feminist. This is true -- her discovery and interest of Judaism was developed through her interest in feminist women who had become frum. She interviewed these women for her Master's Thesis in Sociology and her world was transformed. From the outside, from a traditional western liberal paradigm, a head covering on a woman looks like submission to a Patriarchal Society. Chaya Rivkah, however, once explained to me that when she was just a plain feminist (I mean this in the sense before she became a Torah Feminist), she was already concerned with women being objectified as sex things for men's pleasure. Chaya Rivkah had long blonde hair and big blue eyes - two attributes highly sought after by a certain type of man. At the University she became concerned about being objectified. Whilst some women enjoy the titillation of this attention - Diane was offended by it. She began to uglify herself so that she would not be treated in this way. She wanted to be respected for her intellect not patronised for her looks.
Some years later when we were having one of our many talks and I was struggling to understand why frum women covered their heads -- she gave me a feminist answer. We are to be respected for the power that we have. We do not want to be objectified.
Suddenly on that mountaintop in Jerusalem walking with this powerful group of women I had a brief moment of clarity. Suddenly I felt part of a community that had seemed alien to me. Such is the schism of our people.
Chaya Rivkah and I had many discussions about the State of Israel. Nowhere is the schism of our people more harshly portrayed. Many Israelis are nationalists and not at all concerned about being Jewish. At one point she and I seriously discussed the possibility of my husband getting work in Israel and of us going to live there. I thought she would be overjoyed at the idea of having family near her. She thought long and hard about this and I knew what pain her response caused her. "You are better Jews in South Africa," she said. "I'm afraid that if you live in Israel you will no longer observe the High Holy Days. You may not even go to shul anymore".
The secular/frum divide does not just cause pain in families; it is in our people as a whole. As I said earlier, my experience on the mountain top cemetery where Chaya Rivkah is buried was profound. Suddenly I was part of the Collective. The heart, the brains, the soul of the mass was working collectively. Here I was walking with this group of women -- my head was covered -- and it felt perfect. I did not feel compromised. I did not feel patronised. It felt like a privilege -- my people doing their ancient mystical obeisance on the mountaintop. For the briefest of moments I understood that we are part of a great spiritual hierarchy, a small band of mystical Jews keeping the spirit and the commandments alive.
From her hospital bed my cousin had requested that Shlomo Zalman bring me a book called, "The Other Side Of The Story". She wanted my children to have some tapes on Shmiras Halashon and that I should have this book. I read it every night and have not yet finished it. It's a book that I will read many times in my life. It's about seeing the bigger picture - from the other person's perspective. It's about judging favourably and seeing the good in everyone. It's about the negative energy that we create internally and externally when we get angry and misjudge situations. It's about controlling our thoughts and our hearts and our tongues.
It sounds so simple but it is the hardest thing to apply to our lives. That is why so much is written about it. We all do it. With a look, a sigh, a harsh word. Frum people, secular people -- all of us need to guard our tongues. We create energy with every thought, every action and every word.
Chaya Rivkah was authentic and honest and, like all of us, struggling to be a better person. The Rabbi mentioned her personal honesty. Her spiritual quest was genuine. The form of how to do things and when to do thing traps some people -- Chaya Rivkah got over this and her quest was one of substance. I know this because she made me lift my game. She challenged me without embarrassing or chastising me. It was mental and spiritual gymnastics. She never gave up on any member of our family. It was us who judged her from a narrow perspective and not the other way around.
There is such an irony in the "liberal secular Jewish" family -- anything and everything is "cool" and acceptable. Well, certainly in my family. The one thing that makes us all a little uncomfortable is having one of us move into what we label as a "right wing" modus. It's the perspective thing that has us again. We have become trapped by our own modalities, but they are false. Actually I can think of few things that are as all encompassing as seeing the other side of the story. It's the basis of law. It's a good framework for any society. It would be healthy for us pinko-liberal-secular types to stretch ourselves a little every now and again and try to see the whole picture.
Chaya Rivkah passed on from this world on Tuesday morning the 6th of January. Alan Lurie had driven all the children and a young lady from the Moshav and myself back to the Jessel home on Monday night. Shira Basya was in a heightened state of anxiety. Every phone call made her jump and cry as if it was the call we were waiting for. That phone call never came. Although Chaya Rivkah died at 2:55 in the morning it was decided not to phone for fear of waking the children.
At 7:00 in the morning Shlomo Zalman returned with some friends. Shira was the first to wake. SZ took her privately into his study and broke the news. Her cries of anguish were agony to my ears. Next Simcha woke up and he in turn was taken into the study. More cries and screams of pain. Mordechai Hirsch had woken but slept as long as I held him. I needed to hold onto him. Akiva in turn woke up and intuitively knew something in his world was changed forever.
The funeral arrangements were made. If one dies in Jerusalem the funeral takes place with some immediacy. No time for Johnny to fly in to attend his sister's funeral. Phone calls were made and practicalities attended to. I had sat up the whole night with the phone in my hand waiting for the call. At around 3:00 in the morning I thought of calling Lori Lurie on her cell phone but didn't for fear of waking the children. I had a peaceful sense at that time as if the inevitable had occurred.
There were many phone calls to family members in South Africa. Then came the strangest call - Johnny had managed to book Muriel and I onto a flight back to Johannesburg on Tuesday night. If we did not take that flight we would be unable to leave Israel until the 21st of January. We would have time to be at prayers and then leave for the airport after that. There was a lot of discussion around the appropriateness of our departure because it meant that Muriel would not be with Shlomo Zalman and the children for the seven days of Shiva (mourning period).
I knew once more that the merit of Chaya Rivkah was allowing for yet another miracle. I needed to be back with my family. Muriel needed to be with her son. Chaya Rivkah always understood how hard it was for me to separate from my children. The five days I had in Israel six years before were an enormous sacrifice.
This had been a perfect journey. Muriel had stroked her daughter's arm and was able to tell her how much she loved her. I was able to be with Chaya Rivkah's children at a time in their lives when they needed to feel loved and contained by family. Chaya Rivkah was finally able to accept that her soul could no longer inhabit her broken body. She had died surrounded by friends, a loving husband and her darling mother. She was blessed on her sacred journey.
I am left with the peaceful comforting feeling that everything my mother taught me as a child is true. We have souls and when our learning curve and purpose on earth has been achieved it is time for the soul to move on. It may seem hard to understand and accept that a young woman who wanted so badly to be part of her children's lives should be cut down. But then we are not seeing the bigger picture. Rabbi Macinter at prayers in Johannesburg said that death does not end one's relationship with a person. I know this to be true. I know that every time we speak of Chaya Rivkah with love, honour and respect for her struggle in life and the things she tried to teach us we help her soul to go higher and higher.
Chaya Rivkah Jessel loved words. She was a writer and had she lived longer she would have produced many more articles and probably a few books. She was intensely in touch with the power of the word. Hashem created the Universe with the word. She and I would often berate ourselves because we had abused the power of the word by speaking harshly or indiscreetly. If there is but one way that I can honour the life of my cousin and close comrade it would be to respect the power of the word. My husband and I continue to read the Chofetz Chaim daily, slowly and ever so slightly as we try to incorporate this into our lives we are evolving. Chaya Rivkah succumbed to loose talk -- she was very human -- but she aspired toward a higher level. She asked only that we should share this awareness and aspire toward a higher level ourselves. Perhaps in this small way, if more people took heed, the painful divide between frum and secular Jews that so adversely afflicts our people might be bridged.