Around Shavuos time this year, my husband and I spent two weeks in Eretz Yisrael. “Not a vacation”, he keeps pointing out, because to him a trip to the Holy Land is an avodah – a word that can mean both Divine service and labor; for Divine service is oftentimes laborious. Particularly if, like him, you are a devotee of sunrise davening. For me the Divine service is less laborious, but even so I agree – much as I love the Israeli food, the shopping, and spending time with my friends in cafés, it is essentially a spiritual undertaking, drastically different than lounging on a beach, assuming you would be interested in doing so.
There are many things to attend to in Yerushalayim, but the first and most preeminent is to visit our Rebbetzin in Meah Shearim. My husband has known and worshipped her since he was a young man in his twenties; I was introduced to her when we went to Eretz Yisrael as a fairly newly-married couple in 2005.
I had thought – taken for granted! – that the very first thing to do upon arrival would be to run to the Kosel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall, but my husband insisted that we must go to the Rebbetzin first. I argued that it didn’t make sense – wasn’t the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, by the Wall; shouldn’t we greet the Shechinah first of all? “No,” he maintained, “first the Rebbetzin – you’ll see…”
And I did see. In a little house in Meah Shearim we were welcomed by the wholly holy Rebbetzin who embraced us (figuratively, in my husband’s case), with such indescribable love and radiance that the experience was wholly transporting. The joy with which she greeted my husband, whom she hadn’t seen in over twenty years, made him laugh and cry like I had never seen him laugh and cry. As a young yeshiva student he had been a ben bayis (literally “a son of the household”) in her home, developing a close relationship with the Rebbetzin, her husband, a renowned Sofer (Torah scribe), and their whole family; but beyond that, when their youngest son became dangerously ill a few years later and they traveled to America for medical assistance, my husband went out of his way to be supportive and helpful in every way that he could, thereby forever earning a very special place in their hearts.
When the laughing and crying had subsided a little, we sat down in the red velvet salon to talk and I was properly introduced. With a mixture of Yiddish, German and English with a few words of Hebrew thrown in, we managed to have an interesting conversation. Born in Vienna, the Rebbetzin came to Yerushalayim as a toddler with her family, narrowly escaping the horrors of the Nazi era, and to this day she still lives in the house that was once her parental home. “My father was a king, and my mother was a queen” she told me – and it seemed to me that the condition must be hereditary; for her own bearing, with all its warmth and sweetness, is truly aristocratic. Additionally, her cheek bones are to die for. Graceful and vivacious, full to the brim of love for her Creator and all His creation, Rebbetzin Chanele inspired me that time – and every subsequent time – with such a desire to be like her, to have emunah like her, that I am entering a whole other spiritual level every time we meet.
As I was to experience myself, every Shabbos she and her husband would feed the multitudes, the salon and the dining room both set beautifully with candles and flowers. Depending on whether there would be more men or more women at each meal the bigger crowd would get the salon, while the smaller group would squeeze into the dining area. Since that first trip, I have had many Shabbos meals in both rooms; both settings are festive and dignified, and the food is fine, but the ikar, the main point of the experience, is the atmosphere; the regal, yet humble, radiance of both the Rebbetzin and her husband. The singing of zemiros, holy Shabbos songs, is no mere sing-along in this house; it is an elevated avodah, reminiscent of the singing Levi’im on the steps of the Beis Hamikdash. Sadly, for the past couple of years, the Rebbetzin must preside with the assistance of her sons, since her beloved and saintly husband now keeps Shabbos in Gan Eden.
As we walked along Meah Shearim on our way to the Kosel that day I said, “Now I understand why we had to see the Rebbetzin first; this was the necessary preparation to get us in the right frame of mind to greet the Shechinah.” Then again, the Shechinah also lives in a certain little house in Meah Shearim…
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This year, in an unexpected and unprecedented sequel to our trip, the Rebbetzin arrived in America a few days after we did, in order to attend a number of family simchos. She was kept very busy between all the special events, but one day we managed to abduct her in between appointments, and brought her home with us for a brief visit. “We have a red velvet salon too*" we coaxed her, "you have to come and sit and make a brocho in it!” And she did – she came and sat and made many blessings. It was a strange and wondrous, almost unreal, feeling to be able to entertain the Rebbetzin in our home – a person so indelibly connected to Meah Shearim, a personification, if you will, of all that is holy in Yerushalayim; suddenly sitting in our living room in mundane America. It was like a collision not just between planets, but between galaxies. Twilight zone!
My husband has been completely overexcited ever since. He managed to get her to pose with him – at a proper distance! – in a few photos that he now runs about displaying to all his friends. “Guess who is in a photo with the Rebbetzin!” he boasts to all and sundry. They are all terribly envious of him. Or so he says.
*If you have any interest in interior decorating, you may want to take a look at my red salon here.