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Tzelafchad’s Daughter

Libi Astaire

What’s in a name? According to Tirtza Jotkowitz, an attorney specializing in halachic estate planning, plenty! She traces her personal spiritual legacy back to her namesake in this week’s parshah: Tirtza bas Tzelafchad, who, along with her sisters, was among the first Jews to be concerned with the Torah’s laws of inheritance.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

According to the Arizal, the nature of a person can be discovered by analyzing that person’s name. In fact, a close look at the word for neshamah (soul) reveals that hidden between the letters nun and hey is the Hebrew word for “name” — shem. This inner dimension is obvious in the name of Tirtza Jotkowitz, an attorney whose specialty is “halachic estate planning in a secular world.”

Like her namesake in Tanach — Tirtza bas Tzelafchad — Tirtza Jotkowitz has been interested in the legal issues concerning the distribution of real property and monetary assets after a person’s death since she was a young woman.

“You could say that an interest in family inheritance law is in my genes,” she says, when we meet in her Jerusalem apartment. But even though the interest might be in her genes, back in 1968 a career in law wasn’t considered a suitable choice for a young frum woman — especially one who came from a long line of distinguished litvish rabbanim and chassidic rebbes.


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Tirtza’s apartment in central Jerusalem has an old-new feel to it: new because she and her husband, Rabbi Mordechai Jotkowitz, moved in to the brand-new building only last September, when they made aliyah to Israel from Monsey, New York; old because one of the walls showcases a portrait gallery of distinguished faces that provide a link to her family’s past.

“These are my parents,” she tells me, proudly pointing to a wedding portrait of her mother and her father, Rav Avraham Moshe Spiegel, a prominent activist in Agudath Israel of America whose grandfather — Rav Elchonon Yochonon Spiegel — shared the title of Ostrov-Kalishiner Rebbe with his brothers after they arrived in New York in the 1920s.

She is also a great-grandchild of Rav Yehuda Leib Seltzer, a member of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and Rav Yehuda Leib’s wife Tirtza — another namesake who displayed an interest in property through her work in real estate.

“My father was from a chassidishe home and my mother from a litvish one. When they got married in 1945, the New York Times ran a one-page spread, which they titled ‘East Meets West: The First Time Children from Opposing Dynasties Intermarry.’ ”

Tirtza was the first of the couple’s five children. Unlike many Jewish children of her generation, who succumbed to the desire to be Americans first and Jews second, Tirtza grew up secure in her heritage and proud of her lineage. However, it was that very distinguished lineage that almost became a stumbling block for the young girl.

“My grandfather, the Ostrov-Kalishiner Rebbe, was a descendent of the Chozeh of Lublin. Perhaps that connection explains my inclination to study a topic deeply. But when I was a teenager, this quality wasn’t always seen as being so positive. I asked too many questions — not because I doubted, but because I wanted to understand. I wasn’t content with just a small piece of information. I wanted to see the big picture.”

After high school Tirtza enrolled in Brooklyn College, which was then a typical path for a frum girl. The next step for most was to get a degree in education so that they could teach. Tirtza, however, had other plans. Her dream was to go to law school, but her father was opposed.

“Today many frum women are lawyers, but in the 1960s it wasn’t considered an acceptable job for a woman. My father was concerned that prospective shidduchim would think I was too career-minded, so he advised me to become a teacher.”

Tirtza followed her father’s advice, since to marry and raise a family was her first priority as well. At Brooklyn College she majored in French, with a minor in English. During her last year of college she married Rabbi Mordechai Jotkowitz, and after she graduated she taught French at the Bais Yaakov Academy in Boro Park.

After the births of their first two children, the young couple realized that they had outgrown their small apartment in Boro Park and needed to move to a larger one. They asked the Skverer Rebbe where to move and he told them, “If you can’t move to Jerusalem, move to Monsey.” They followed his counsel and lived in Monsey for the next thirty-seven years. During that time their two daughters were joined by two younger brothers, and Tirtza taught English at Bais Yaakov High School in Monsey.

Even though she was teaching instead of pursuing her dream to be a lawyer, Tirtza says that she never felt frustrated by that decision. “I loved teaching, and taught for twenty-five years. I also became active in Monsey’s communal life. I was the editor of a local magazine called Bas Kol, a member of the Rockland Community Council, and one of the founders of The Advocate, a Monsey newspaper. I was also a member of the chevra kadisha.”

But a career in law was always in the back of her head.


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