First Person: Rivky and Gabi were truly special people


Many of you first heard of the Holtzberg family four days ago when news of the Mumbai hostage situation emerged. I feel compelled to write this because I want the world to know who Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg were in life and to tell you what I witnessed of their accomplishments in their brief 28 years on earth.

While I am devastated by their death, I am thankful that my life and so many others were touched by their purity, friendship and spirit.

Before I entered the Chabad house in Mumbai, I thought, “What kind of people would leave a comfortable and secure life in a religious community to live in the middle of Mumbai; a dirty, difficult, crowded city?” As I got to know Rivky and Gabi over the course of this past summer, I understood that G-d creates some truly special people willing to devote their lives to bettering the world.

I was first welcomed by Rivky, who had a big smile on her face and her baby Moishie in her arms. She ushered me and my fellow travelers into the Chabad house and immediately offered us something to eat and a sofa to rest on. We quickly became good friends. We bonded with the Holtzberg family and the staff at Chabad, including Sandra, the heroine who saved baby Moishie’s life.

Like his parents, Moishe is a sweet, loving, happy baby. He was so attached to Rivky and Gabi. He got so excited to sing Shabbat Z’mirot (songs) every Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackFriday night with his father, and I could tell by the light on Gabi’s face when they were singing together, that he looked forward to it too. It breaks my heart that I can still hear Moishie’s voice calling, “Ima, Ima, Ima”, and she will no longer be able to hold him or rock him in her arms.

On my second Shabbat at Chabad, Rivky told me there were two Israeli men staying at the house who were just released from an Indian prison. When I saw these men sitting at the dinner table, I was startled. One man had only a front tooth and a raggedy pony tail, and the other looked like an Israeli version of Rambo. I observed the way that Gabi interacted with them and how they were welcomed at the Shabbat table the same way everyone else was, and my fears melted away. Over the course of the night, I learned that these men were not the only prisoners or ex-convicts the Holtzberg’s helped. Gabi frequently brought Kosher meals to Israelis in prison, spent time with them, listened to their life stories, and took them in after their release.

I realized that Gabi and Rivky’s job was not only to run a Chabad house and provide warm meals and beds for weary Jewish travelers, it was much greater. The Holtzberg’s were running a remarkable operation. They took their jobs as shlichim (emissaries) very seriously. Their lives never stopped. There was no such thing as “personal space” or “downtime”. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.

Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people, while Gabi made sure to provide meat for everyone by going to the local markets and schechting (koshering) chickens himself. They also provided travelers with computers for internet access, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for internet cafes. They even took care of our laundry. Having spent much time abroad, it was clear to me that Rivky and Gabi were unusual tzadikim (righteous people).

On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors. We called these rooms our “healing rooms” because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.

The juxtaposition of their home to the guest rooms was just another example of what selfless, humble people Rivky and Gabi were. They were more concerned about the comfort of their guests than their own.

The Holtzberg’s Shabbat table was a new experience each week. Backpackers, businessmen, diplomats and diamond dealers gathered together to connect with their heritage in an otherwise unfamiliar city. We always knew we were in for a surprise where an amazing story would be told, either by Gabi or a guest at the table. For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei torah (words of torah) to share. Though most of them were delivered in Hebrew (and I caught about 25%), his wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas. Rivky once told me that there was one holiday where they had no guests. It was just herself, Gabi and Moishie. I expected her to say how relieved she was not to have guests, but she told me it was, in fact, the only lonely holiday they ever spent in India.

I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, “be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.” Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.

Everything Rivky and Gabi did came from their dedication, love and commitment to the Jewish people and to G-d. I cannot portray in words how remarkable this couple was. If there is anything practical that I can suggest in order to elevate their souls, please try to light candles this Friday night for Shabbat, improve relationships with family members and friends, try to connect to others the way that Rivky and Gabi did- with love, acceptance and open arms. There is so much to learn from them. May their names and influence live on, and inspire us in acts of kindness and love.

Hillary A. Lewin is aPh.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at theFerkauf Graduate School of Psychology ofYeshiva University

ALTTEXT

The author (right) with Moshe and Rivka

First Person – God Laughs?


This column first ran on July 26, 2002, and is one of a series that the beloved former managing editor of The Journal wrote about her life and her battle with cancer. She died on Sept. 5, 2002. She was 54.

My girlfriend “E” was the first to declare what others had been observing for a while.

“God sure is having a good laugh,” she said. “You write a column called ‘A Woman’s Voice.’ And yet you have no voice.”

The irony had crossed my mind.

Lance Armstrong, the bicyclist, had testicular cancer. Beverly Sills, the opera singer, has two daughters who are deaf. Is there “meaning” in the fact that I, who have for some years traveled the country public speaking, and whose professional identity is hung up on the moniker of this column, cannot be heard?

I haven’t had a speaking voice in more than a month. I whisper, a frog croaking through the bulrushes.

My right vocal cord is paralyzed. While speaking, which I assure you doesn’t hurt, I puff like I’m running a marathon. I take an hour to eat scrambled eggs.

Still, if you ask me, God has nothing to do with it.

The loss of a voice carries a surprising spiritual threat: friends act as if some crucial part of me were gone. Inside my head, I still yammer away, brilliant on the topics of WorldCom, ImClone and Israel. But when I open my mouth, I become like Hannah before the Tabernacle. My every chortle and grimace is subject to misinterpretation.

The phone rings. The caller is disoriented: Who am I? I rush to reassure them: I’m OK. I feel fine. When I had chemotherapy, I continued to sound like myself. I would call my parents in New York right after treatment ended. Sitting tall, I was convincingly strong and congruent.

These days, without a voice, identity is not so much gone as taken on faith. I have faith that the situation is only temporary. My community has faith that I’ll be restored to myself, New York accent and all.

We are known by how we sound. Sound — our laugh, our cry, the song we hum — is the beginning of identity.

We know that God stands watch at night by the natural and unnatural sounds of the universe: the roar of the wind, the bray of the ass, the bark of a dog, the sound of a baby’s cry.

I listen for God’s comfort at night, and offer the silence of praise.

But is God laughing?

Judaism has struggled since the Holocaust to remove God from the nation’s “Most Wanted” list — the “intervening punisher God” with a wicked sense of humor.

As for you and me, the good people that bad things happen to, we’re our own worst enemy: We keep asking “Why?” as if there’s an answer. We remain committed to a God who can’t wait to pull the tablecloth out from under us.

We seek out “God the sadistic entertainer” when all other explanations fail. Lacking all other reasons, we fall back to a punitive concept, that we deserve punishment; that perhaps God never liked us to begin with.

But illness has shown me another God, one of comfort. The “loathsome trickster God” offers nothing, not even to say, “I don’t know.”

There is no reason why this has happened. Life is inherently unpredictable. Diseases, like lung cancer, have more ups and downs than a soap opera. Like “Anna Karenina” you laugh or cry, and sometimes both.

It’s funny, at least to me, that since losing my voice, I can’t interrupt anyone, not even to tell a joke. I have learned to listen to news reports rather than comment on the haircut of the newscaster. Now that I listen to conversation, I’m no longer the smartest person in any room, so far as you could tell.

The condition won’t last forever. Soon, I’ll have a silicon implant that has nothing to do with breast enhancement. I’m told it will smooth out my vocal cord and will restore my voice to normal. I’m saving my best repartee until then.

“Man plans and God laughs,” is what we say in difficult times, as if God were Henny Youngman.

If so, God can find me right here.

 

Other VoicesThe Dating Game


By Teresa Strasser

A

brief synopsis of my recent dating history.

Bring Kleenex.

The Comedian

This man had obvious benefits: I laughed, I laughed till I cried, and I laughed until a spaghetti noodle came out of my nose. Really. With all his impressions, it was like dating 20 men. The fun died when The Comedian’s car was towed from outside my apartment. It seems Mr. Funny was too busy yukking it up to “bother with a bunch of stupid parking tickets.” Or insurance. Or registration. Thinking that was one of those “relationship red flags” people talk about, I put the pedal to the metal and high-tailed it out of there.

The Stockbroker

Did you know that stockbrokers could be poor? I didn’t — until I met one. This guy was more like a broke stalker. The poverty didn’t bother me nearly as much as his persistence; he “showed up” everywhere I happened to be, making me understand why restraining orders were invented. At first, the attention was flattering, but The Stockbroker had a bad habit of launching into hour-long monologues about the importance of IRAs. I was so bored that I was reduced to compiling mental grocery lists while he blathered on about the Dow Jones.

The Editor

Now this was promising. The editor was smart, considerate and working on the cutting edge of Internet journalism. Too bad I scared him off by mentioning my ex-boyfriend (for whom I’ve been pathetically pining) about as often as Robert De Niro squints. “We’re breathing air. (Sigh) Tom and I used to breathe air….” Oops.

The Unemployed Surfer/Musician Guy from Toronto

Cute, cute, cute. It didn’t work out. Refer to above headline.

The Waste Management Guy

This nice young man was very concerned with the environment and working to help others recycle. Unfortunately, he had a conniption fit when I littered one little candy-bar wrapper. Ease up, tree-hugger. Stop crying for every blade of grass and worry more about personal hygiene. Deodorant is one of the few products that actually works. When I uttered the phrase “Ozone, shmo-zone,” it was over.

The Consultant

On our second date, The Consultant got down to business; he administered the Myers-Briggs personality test, a four-page questionnaire developed to determine basic personality type and often used in business. Each of 16 personality types comes with a descriptive little catch phrase.

It seems I am one who “gives life an extra squeeze.” According to the test, I am an optimist who has trouble finishing things. So I guess I’m supposed to feel really good about the trail of unfinished projects I supposedly leave in my wake.

“And what are you?” I snidely asked The Consultant.

“Me? Why, I’m ‘one of life’s natural leaders,'” he said.

Our only similarity is that both of us are Jewish, single, in our mid-20s — and have never seriously dated other Jews. In short, we represent the demographic that Jewish community groups are so worried about. We are the young premarital Jews who have a good chance of falling into that “50-percent intermarriage” abyss.

I honestly don’t know why I haven’t dated more Jews. Maybe it was that bad experience with Zack Pearlman in Hebrew school. Maybe it’s a proclivity toward blue eyes and a WASPy face — a desire to look into the face of The Other. But as I chug lethargically toward “mating age,” I’ve begun to have visions of children with crucifixes around their necks, clutching Easter baskets and yelling, “Mommy, Mommy, why did the Jews kill Jesus?” It’s a scary vision.

I have to say, it was nice dating a man who could toss off the occasional Yiddish phrase or casually mention Maimonides. At only 3 percent of the population, however, single Jewish men are hard to find. Unless you know where to look. I thought hard about this, for you, my single readers who might be looking. So, a question: Who truly sees the perhaps hidden virtues of a man who might be too shy or too busy to cross your path?

Answer: A Mother.

So to all mothers of single Jewish men: Tell us about your son in 50 words or less. Send a description and photo for my next column to: The Jewish Journal, 3660 Wilshire Blvd., Suite ‘204, Los Angeles, CA 90010–Attn: Singles Column.

+