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Chasida v’?eishet ma?ase

When I left Israel a year-and-a-half ago, I left my books behind in the Holy Land, with four exceptions:

Aish Kodesh, by Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (the Piaceszna Rebbe), whose holiday and Shabbos sermons from the Warsaw Ghetto are recorded in this volume; a book of collected stories by Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon; K’afapei Shachar (“Like The Eyelids of The Morning”), by Haim Sabbato; and Chasidim V’anshei Ma’ase, “The Pious and the Noteworthy,” by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov.

Over the years, from time to time, I would pick up this last volume, Chasidim V’anshei Ma’ase. It brings the European world of chasidim to life. Aside from the rich and vivid moral ethical teachings and tales of a time gone by, the writing is laced with Talmudic phraseology and reverberations from Tanakh, thereby summoning echoes from the four walls of a Jewish study hall. It is a pleasure to read this book!

The beauty of the modesty with which these G-d-fearing village folk lived their lives, their struggles to refine their character and to serve G-d, their conflicts with their evil inclinations, their acceptance of harsh decrees from Heaven — the wisdom of these stories is a model for how to live a truly religious life.

In these pages you might meet Reb Elimelech, Reb Zusha, Reb Baruch and shrewd rebbetzins. You’ll get a glimpse into the world of Peshischa or Kotzk.

You’ll understand the real struggles and yearning to serve G-d of the water carrier, the innkeeper, the wagon driver, the infamous village curmudgeon, or the grandest cheapskate of Europe.

Whoever the persona, wherever the village, a rich world comes to life, stories of emotional power and sensitivity depicting how these followers of rebbes awoke in the morning and fell asleep at night with one goal: to perfect their deeds, to lead lives of caring for fellow Jews and to purify themselves by living as upright, G-d-serving and G-d fearing people.

Aside from the inspiration of these stories, part of the joy of reading them is their quirkiness and hyperbolic or expressive nature.

Sometimes the stories seem more like myths because of the greatness with which some of the rebbes are detailed.

This week I learned just how believable many of these legends can be.

This book was given to me many years ago, spontaneously, as I was having a conversation with someone. Her name was Cheryl Feldberger. I was in my early 20s, just starting out on a path in Jewish education, and Cheryl encouraged me to read this book. She told me it was one of her favorite books. She insisted I take it from her as a gift.

Through the years I have come to know this book’s worn pages intimately. Every once in a while, on Shabbos, I sit down for the pleasure and comfort of rereading these chasidic tales of the modest, of the righteous, of that era gone by.

Last week Cheryl Feldberger, in the prime of her life, passed away.

When I heard the news on erev Shabbos the first thing I thought of was Chasidim V’anshei Ma’ase. On Friday night I held the volume in my hand and just stared at its title.

How eerie. In my hands was a book given to me by Cheryl whose title couldn’t have summed up her brief but shining life more appropriately, more honestly, more poignantly: Chasida V’Eshet Ma’ase — “A Pious Woman, A Woman of Note.”

“Cheryl,” as she was simply and humbly known, was a notable rabbi’s wife, not to mention a serious Torah scholar in her own right. I never heard nor saw the appellation rebbetzin added to her name, ever. When she spoke to you, she just took it for granted that you knew every single Rashi commentary on every verse in the Torah. To her it was assumed basic knowledge.

She derived great life and joy from the ancient Jewish texts that she could often be found poring over. Cheryl was an independent, nuanced and thinking woman who interacted closely with, and had friendships with, people from every walk of life in the spectrum of the Jewish community — from the non-observant to yeshiva-oriented to Lubavitch chasids. She never shied away from having the integrity to face what needed to be repaired in the Orthodox community she was a part of.

Cheryl could have been a known socialite, finding her way among the aristocracy of the community, busy attending luncheons and parties. Traveling. A woman of leisure and pleasure.

Instead, her home became her life, and from there she became an advocate for the vulnerable. Often juggling two or three phone lines at once, Cheryl performed most of her legendary chesed, her countless kindnesses. Heads of schools or important Jewish organizations knew who she was — for her generosity, the charity they knew they could count on her giving when things were tight. The rest of the people who knew and loved her were mostly the ordinary folk —often broken-hearted folk, to whom, like an angel from Heaven, she ministered to day in and day out.

As in Chasidim V’Anshei Ma’ase, Cheryl was like the rebbe. Like Reb Zusha or Reb Elimelech, she cleaved to G-d and his ways — and devoted her life to helping countless people with their struggles. Be they emotional, spiritual, psychological, financial, Cheryl’s home — and more importantly — her heart was open to you. Always. No questions asked.

Cheryl’s was not the image of a “tzaddekes,” an “official” righteous person. She didn’t need it and she didn’t seem to want it. She was just Cheryl. She was a strong personality, and if someone complimented her or praised her, somehow she would divert the conversation in a different direction or make a joke, and before you knew it you were laughing together.

What consumed Cheryl was the needs of others. No one was too different or too eccentric or too down and out for her. Although she looked impeccably feminine every time I saw her, she did not hold herself above anyone. And every time I saw her, she was at the side of her mother, Miriam Beren.

Her too short life here belonged to the calibre of those righteous personalities of an era gone by.

Looking back on Cheryl’s life, it’s just like the title of the book she gave me long ago, and that I cherish so, the story of a righteous woman and her ways, Chasida V’Eshet Ma’ase.

May her memory be a blessing.

See also, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg’s View from Denver, “Her lavish love of the Jewish people“.

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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