January 30, 2013
My Ima, Peppi Feller
עד שקמת אמא שקמת אם בישראל
Three weeks ago my Ima passed away. She was a remarkable woman - determined, honest to a fault, principled, sharp witted, devoted, a fighter, a survivor. And she was an Ima like few others - investing every last bit of herself in me. On the night prior to her burial I sat down at the table to eat a bit and I turned to my son Shaul in bewilderment: “I can’t say a berakha? It’s too difficult to eat and not offer a blessing.”Then, I thought to myself.It was my mother, Ima, who taught me berakhot and now that she’s gone so has my capacity,being an onen, to recite a berakha. But,not to worry.Her spiritual legacy is deeply ingrained within.
She was a remarkable woman because she was straight, more straight than a ruler. She set the standard for what was hayashar vehatov (Dt 6:18). It was impossible for anyone to measure up to her requirements. She pushed me and others to strive for excellence, to surpass ourselves. And that’s only because she too was able to surpass herself! Looking through her papers we discovered the following example, a letter written to Doreen on the occasion of her 50th birthday:
...I admire you as a hostess which is important to your husband’s career. The special way you have with the children. They are polite and loving. Your way of caring set a good example for my grandchildren to follow. What I am trying to say - I am both happy and proud that you are my daughter in law, my son’s wife and best friend...
She was a remarkable woman because of the impact she had on others - her doctors, her rabbis, her friends and neighbors, and even my friends. Late last night, a close friend and former student, now a professor of Law at UCLA called me from Los Angeles to tell me how wonderful she was. “Your mom was a special person, strong, vibrant, dedicated. She elevated all those around her.”
She was a remarkable woman because she was fiercely independent almost to the end. She went to class and walked to shul, up and down those stairs whenever she could. She talked to Edna (her attendant) about her plans to come to LA for Pesach this year as she did every year. She had an indomitable spirit, a formidable personality and a great sense of dignity. She really appreciated her freedom. Every thanksgiving she blessed that rhanksgiving day in 1938 when she arrived on these shores.She was remarkable because of her willfulness. She willed herself forward to 96 years. Amazing! On the morning of her death when the doctor came to explain the procedure that she was to undergo and the risks involved I asked her, “do you want me to sign or do you want to sign the release yourself?” She answered deliberately, “I will sign.” She was proud and stubborn. It was this stubbornness that was the secret of her survival.
She was remarkable Ima because she made it. The nurse who knew a little Hebrew called her a giborah. Ima arrived alone as a teenager from Hitler’s Berlin in November 1938. While she was sailing across the ocean her father Chaim Shlomo Kleinmann; who sent her to safety was beaten up by his workers on Kristallnacht and subsequently died. But she persisted with her faith, her drive, her determination, and her courage. My father was fond of telling the story of what it was about Ima that piqued his interest. He was walking on Thirteenth Ave in Borough Park with Nachum Maidenbaum, his best friend and a fellow Hebraist, when he came across a young woman, a recent immigrant, challenging a speaker on the street corner “berating him” for his anti-Zionist rantings. Abba noted her passion and her idealism. And he told his friend Nachum that that was a woman he would be interested in marrying. Of course, that woman was Ima. She shared with my father a love of Zion,a Betar spirit,and a zealous commitment to medinat Yisrael. My Ima represented a different age in Boro Park when Jews were proud to be Zionists. She argued with Ben Gurion when she met him and she stood by my father’s side to greet Menachem Begin. In fact she always stood by my father’s side. She admired him so and he loved her ahavat olam. As a child I often saw the two of them walking hand in hand; that image is most enduring and endearing.
She was remarkable because she never lost her challenging spirit. It was her emblem, her seal. Just as the Torah describes Moses at 120 “his vigor unabated” (Dt 34:7), her vigor was unabated. I warmly recall how she would attend my classes at the university and sit among the young students, giving off airs as if she belonged. Of course she belonged - her Chaim was teaching. She was my life-long fan. Then when I finished the lecture she would raise her hand and I would dutifully call on her. She would begin proudly, “I’m the rabbi’s mother, but (major pause) I don’t agree with him.” Her vigor was unabated.
There was one more realm where she was vigorous, even fierce. She fought and struggled to support Jewish education. She worked tirelessly for Yeshivat Etz Chaim – she was one of its pillars. Rummaging through her papers, I came across the numerous plaques of recognition and letters of gratitude that were presented to her by the yeshiva over the years. She stood out remarkably as a champion of ivris beivris instruction and as an advocate of a modern orthodox educational approach. She saw it as a direct continuation of her own educational experience at the Hildesheimer Adas Yisrael School in Berlin.I am not exaggerating when I say that the value that I place on service, my commitment to kelal Yisrael and my enthusiastic involvement in public Jewish life all stem from her. She was my model, she nurtured this quality within me, she taught me the meaning of tzedaka and gemillut hasadim.
We are in the midst of ready the Exodus cycle in the synagogue.The rabbis teach: “because of the merit of righteous women were we redeemed from Egypt.” Maternally and humanly brave, carefully planning and cleverly cooperating, this group of righteous women outwitted a pharaoh and his brutal laws. My Ima was a link in this chain of resourceful and resistant Jewish women who transmitted the redemptive tradition.
In an inspiring new book entitled, Jews and Words Amos Oz and his historian-daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger contrast Greek heroines with the Biblical matriarchs writing:
As to the tragic heroines, their tragedy ensues in dying childless, or losing their children, or even killing them. Antigone, Clytemnestra, and Medea choose death. By contrast, Israelite and Jewish female characters over the ages almost always choose life. They fare badly at times, but not in a tragic sense. Their heroism is almost invariably about surviving, rescuing, surmounting danger, and bringing babies to the world.
My Ima chose life. She lived life. She gave life. She was a modern Jewish giborah, a heroine whose strength of personality, whose sheer will to live will inspire us all for generations to come.