Friday, March 09, 2007

Ma O-ma

This Table Talk is dedicated to the memory of Yizka bas Eliezer.

I finally have a good story to tell you.

It begins in World War I. A Jewish soldier in the Kaiser's army named Steinberger is decorated as a war hero, which included time in a Soviet prisoner camp (where he lost an eye).

When he returns from the war to his home near the Black Forest, he is greeted by his seven-year-old daughter Irma. Irma finishes her adolescence in the harsh German economic depression that follows the war yet completes school and lands a good job to help support her family. She also marries Arthur Levi and they live in the only home in Alsfeld with a phone.

Kristallnacht - the Nazi pogrom of November 10, 1938 - Irma's nine-month-old baby Doris is acting fussy in her crib and cannot be consoled, so Irma for the first time takes her into bed with her. There is a crash, a rock has come through the window and landed where the baby's head had been.

That same night, the Gestapo abduct all the Jewish boys of Ansfeld. Irma works the family network for 52 hours and gets every boy released.

The next summer, Irma decides it's time to get out and attempts to leave Hamburg with Doris. Again, Irma's quick thinking, eloquence and family connections help her avoid being stripped searched and other degradations that all the other Jewish refugees suffer. Hers is the last or next-to-last boat before the infamous St. Louis that is not allowed to land at any port, including the USA and Canada, and proves to the Nazis that the world will indeed allow them to liquidate the Jews.

Irma and daughter make it to Baltimore, eventually followed by her husband and parents (who had to go via Russia and Japan). Her brother goes to South Africa and sister to Israel. After some ten years, her husband suffers a heart-attack and stroke, permanently incapacitated. Her only child Doris dies of cancer before reaching fifty.

But Irma and Doris (and we) are fortunate that Doris had three children before she died. Three girls who live in California but maintained a kesher (connection) with their grandmother they called "Omah".

I switched to the past tense because Irma indeed passed away last week. She left no surviving children or siblings but her loyal grand-daughters came to bury her on Tuesday and gave me the honor of officiating.

One of the distinct memories they will always have of her, they told me, is the stacks of envelopes. It seems that Irma had a policy of never saying No to any charity. She gave small amounts for that reason, so that she could always give. And she did this until shortly before her death.

Tzeddka is a tremendous mitzvah that cannot be overstated. Not only does Judaism say that a person should give ten percent of their net income; to illustrate the greatness of tzedaka, whenever the Talmud mentions "the mitzvah" without specifying which one, it refers to tzedaka.

In other words, tzedaka is the quintessence of a mitzvah. It is the mitzvah, the most basic action that one can do to open a transcendental connection. No wonder the Talmud states that "tzedaka saves from death" - for it is the quintessential spiritual (ie eternal) action.

Irma left no one to say Kaddish for her, but you and I can honor her memory by giving tzedaka and having her in mind. If her life has even slightly inspired us to give, then you and I have become part of her legacy and we will together uplift her soul to where it needs to go.

Zeigezunt, Irma.

Shabbat Shalom.

PS - last week after I wrote about the etymology of hamantaschen, Natasha Shabat pointed out that the name is a pun, because "man-taschen" means "poppy-pockets" in Yiddish. A perfect pun to please your pals at a Purim party. Natasha, by the way, has an amazing Hebrew-for-adults program in the Boston area.

My upcoming speaking schedule:
March 13 – San Francisco/Mill Valley
March 14 – Los Angeles

(For details, send an email.)

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