| Profiles |

Always the Giver

Bubby’s greatness stemmed from 96 years of overcoming challenges and
never losing sight of her life’s purpose

 

M

 

y grandmother, Rebbetzin Naomi Stein a”h, wife of Rav Pesach Yitzchok Stein, the Rosh Yeshivah of Telz, passed away last year on 11 Adar I, 5779. A woman who was a shining light to so many, Bubby’s greatness stemmed from 96 years of overcoming challenges and never losing sight of her life’s purpose

As a child, I took her for granted. She was just Bubby. A solid presence, loving, caring, sometimes strict, always the giver with a compliment and a present in hand. It was only as I matured that I began to appreciate just who she was.

Bubby spoke everyone’s language. No matter who they were, Bubby always knew what to say, the perfect gift to give. The entire community — not just her relatives — called her Tante Naomi.

Her tremendous love for others was matched only by her love and esteem for Torah. Bubby was born into greatness, but she also achieved it, in a life characterized by her relentless pursuit of Torah and chesed.


Born to Royalty

Bubby’s reverence for Torah was imbued in her from birth. Born in Telz (Telshe), Lithuania, to Rav Zalman and Luba Rochel (Dennis) Bloch, Bubby came from a family steeped in Torah. Her paternal grandfather was Rav Yosef Leib Bloch ztz”l, rav and rosh yeshivah in Telz, and author of the Shiurei Daas. Rav Bloch was the son-in-law of Rav Leizer Gordon, the rav and original rosh yeshivah in Telz.

Bubby’s mother, Luba Rochel, was the oldest daughter of Reb Binyamin Beinush Dennis, a wealthy businessman who lived in Charkov, Russia. Reb Binyamin Beinush’s father was one of the Cantonists — boys who were forcibly taken to the Russian Army at a young age and forced to serve for over 25 years. Though Reb Binyamin Beinush’s father hardly remembered any Torah knowledge upon his release, he made his learning top priority; whatever money he earned, he’d set aside half to pay a rebbi to teach him. Eventually his son became a wealthy magnate who supported many Torah institutions.

There’s a famous story told about Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Reb Binyamin Beinush. Rav Elchonon had come collecting for his yeshivah, and not wanting to ruin the expensive flooring with his muddy boots, he knocked on the back door, entering through the kitchen.

Upon seeing this, Reb Binyomin Beinush started to cry. Reb Elchonon, taken aback, asked what was wrong. “You are ruining my children’s chinuch,” Reb Binyomin Beinush explained. “I always tell them that the costly furnishings are worth nothing next to Torah. Now you, a talmid chacham, come and show them that these belongings are worth something because you don’t want to soil them.” Hearing this, Rav Elchonon went out and re-entered through the front door, this time paying no heed to the mud on his boots.

Bubby’s parents were special in their own right. Her father, Rav Zalman Bloch, was the oldest son of Rav Yosef Leib. It was assumed that when his father passed away, he’d take over as rav, a position for which he was eminently suitable, while his younger brother, Rav Avrohom Yitzchak, would succeed as rosh yeshivah. However, during the funeral, in his eulogy for his father, Rav Zalman surprised everyone and announced that he was giving up the post of rav to his younger brother. He felt that it was his father’s wish to keep both positions together; Rav Yosef Leib had hinted at it in a conversation before he was niftar. Rav Zalman became a dayan and menahel ruchani of the yeshivah.  However, Bubby told me, in actuality her Papa took care of everything in the town, since he was a big pikeach and very capable.

As young as I was when I first heard this story, it still left me in awe. How common is it to find someone who’d willingly give his position to his younger brother? He was Bubby’s role model.

Bubby’s mother, Luba Rochel, was a fitting partner to her husband. A tremendous baalas chesed, she served as an unofficial nurse for the entire town, and was like a mother to the bochurim in the yeshivah. Additionally, she raised an orphaned six-year-old nephew as if he was her own child.

With her strong roots as the foundation of her childhood, Bubby grew up in the malchus shel Torah of Telz. Whenever her grandfather, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, would leave his house, she and her friends playing outside would stop mid-game and curtsy. Though in those years most Jewish towns were plagued by all the “isms” that made terrible inroads on frumkeit, in Telz, almost the entire town was frum.

Yet in many ways, Bubby’s childhood resembled today’s reality. She went to the Yavne School founded by her grandfather, where she received a fully rounded Jewish and secular education. They even had a uniform: a brown dress with a pinafore. For community weddings, the young girls would add a white lacy collar to their uniforms in order to look “fancy.”

When I learned Shakespeare and went to Bubby’s house for help memorizing a speech from Julius Caesar, she told me that she’d also learned it, in the German translation. She added that all the kodesh subjects, and majority of the secular ones, were taught in Hebrew. And like many children today, Bubby’s favorite subject was gym.

 

Clinging to Faith

Bubby was a high school teenager when her peaceful childhood cruelly ended with World War II. On Monday, June 23, 1941, the accursed Nazis entered Telz. A month later, on 20 Tammuz, after the men were forced to perform torturous and pointless labor, they were all murdered. The women and children were killed less than two months later, on Shabbos, 7 Elul. The Nazis chose 500 women aged 15-35, Bubby included, to remain alive.

From the Telz ghetto, Bubby made her way to the Shavel Ghetto. One of the many gedolim there was Rav Mottel Pogromansky, whom Bubby knew from Telz. Bubby turned to him for encouragement, asking him, “I’m trying to work on my bitachon, but I had so much bitachon that one particular person would live, and the person didn’t survive. How do I understand that?” Rav Mottel replied, “Bitachon meint nisht as vet zein gutt, bitachon meint as s’iz gutt — bitachon doesn’t mean that it will be good, bitachon means that it is good.” These words gave Bubby the chizuk she needed to cling tenaciously to her faith.

At some point, Bubby and a few cousins smuggled themselves out of the ghetto and hid with non-Jews. When Bubby was visiting her cousin, Rebbetzin Chaya (Bloch) Ausband, my Tante Chaya, they were both caught and imprisoned in the Shavel ghetto jail. Once there, they immediately began davening and accepted upon themselves to fast on Mondays and Thursdays as a zechus for their release.

While they were davening Shemoneh Esreh, the prison chaplain, a priest, came and saw them praying. He was so impressed with their devotion that he tried to help them, notifying the Jewish head of the ghetto about their plight. Eventually, the two girls were freed and taken to a home where a table was set for them with a “royal feast” of rolls, and perhaps eggs. However, because they were freed on a Monday or Thursday, they waited an hour until nightfall, davened Maariv, and only then ate.

When the Shavel ghetto was liquidated, Bubby was taken to the Stutthof concentration camp with her cousins Tante Chaya and Miriam Bloch Hy”d (the daughter of her father’s younger brother, Rav Eli Meir Bloch). They were forced to do slave labor, digging trenches for soldiers. Once, when we had workers tearing up our driveway with pickaxes, Bubby casually commented that’s what she did in the concentration camp.

Many groups used to measure their bread with a straw to ensure it would be divided exactly equally. Bubby told me that she and Tante Chaya would give Miriam a larger portion, since she was very weak, displaying the caring and selflessness that were hallmarks of Bubby throughout her life.

 

Rebuilding

Bubby used to tell me about the first shidduch she made after the war. She was passing through Moscow on her way out of Russia, when she met her mother’s 43-year-old brother, Uncle Itzik Dennis. He was living in dire poverty, without even decent clothing.

Bubby heard about a 35-year-old woman who seemed like a good match for Uncle Itzik and suggested the shidduch, but Uncle Itzik refused to meet her, saying, “Do you think I forgot where I came from? I can’t meet a lady like this.” Bubby so badly wanted to help him, but she didn’t know what she could do.

From Moscow Bubby traveled to Vilna, where she met up with Tante Chaya and shared her concerns about Uncle Itzik. They pooled their funds. With Bubby contributing all the money she had — 200 rubles she’d received from a relative — plus money from Tante Chaya, they were able to purchase a complete wardrobe for him. Bubby’s dream was fulfilled when Uncle Itzik received their package, met that woman, and married her shortly afterward.

I once asked Bubby how she could give away all her money when she was a penniless refugee without any parents to care for her. “What do you mean?” Bubby was matter of fact. “I didn’t need the money. I was in Vilna, where there were Telzer talmidim, and they were closer than relatives.” She hardly understood my question, and I hardly understood her answer.

Eventually, Bubby made her way out of war-torn Europe and came to America, to the home of her brother-in-law and sister, Rav Mordechai and Rebbetzin Shoshana Gifter. Life wasn’t easy. While she was no longer struggling for survival, the trauma of the war years wasn’t easily removed. Shortly after arriving in Cleveland, Bubby went to see a children’s play, performed by the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. She spent the entire time crying, thinking of all the children she knew who’d been killed.

Bubby was forever grateful to Uncle Reb Mottel and Tante Shoshana for their tremendous kindness, which helped her rebuild her life. “They were so good to me that I didn’t feel like an orphan,” Bubby said.

Most important, Uncle Reb Mottel took it upon himself to find Bubby a shidduch in a way that could only be expected of a father. He traveled to New York to the newly transplanted Mirrer Yeshivah, and asked Rav Chatzkel Levenstein to suggest a few good bochurim. One of those bochurim, Rav Pesach Yitchak Stein, turned out to be the perfect match. They got married on 14 Cheshvan, 1948, in the Telzer Yeshivah dining room. The meal was a regular yeshivah supper, while the new couple was treated to chicken soup.

In the beginning, Bubby told me, marriage was a big adjustment for her. While her new husband was a big talmid chacham, he was quieter and not involved in klal work, unlike her father and brother-in-law. However, Bubby knew that her husband, with his specific avodas Hashem, was the gadol in her marriage and home, and that he was perfect for her.

Bubby’s respect for Zeidy was evident; she was devoted to his every need and showed boundless appreciation and support for his learning. She embodied the role of rebbetzin to perfection, supporting Zeidy in his position as rosh yeshivah in Telz-Cleveland and mechaber seforim of the series Likutei Shiurim. Their 54 years together served as a shining example of a Torah marriage.

 

Torah in Her Blood

While Bubby had so many virtues, her main focus was always Torah. It was such a part of her that I picked up on it even as a child. She never gave long speeches, but it was obvious to anyone who observed her, who saw the way she supported Zeidy and everyone else in their learning.

I grew up hearing the story of how a close relative thought Bubby should marry a Shabbos observant balabos. As a Holocaust survivor, she was both physically and emotionally weak, he said, and she would need a husband who could support her comfortably, not a destitute yeshivah bochur. Upon hearing his words, Bubby cried inconsolably; she couldn’t do that, she said —Torah was in her blood.

Zeidy and Bubby’s house was a very special place for a child. If you read the aleph-beis there, a special “malach” would drop candy down from the sky. Looking up, I was always amazed to see there was no hole in the ceiling.

Bubby loved to hear divrei Torah. Of course, if anyone said a devar Torah at the Shabbos table, we all listened. But even when the men were just schmoozing, Bubby would quiet us. If we’d complain and say that they weren’t saying divrei Torah, she’d respond, “Even the sichas chulin [mundane talk] of talmidei chachamim is so important.”

Even in her nineties, Bubby always stood up for any talmid chacham, no matter his age. As she got weaker, this became a real issue since it was dangerous for her to stand by herself. She didn’t intentionally ignore her physical reality; kavod HaTorah was just so ingrained in her that she couldn’t stop herself.

 

Brightening the World

Even our Russian cleaning lady was a recipient of Bubby’s kind words. Bubby remembered some Russian from her parents, and she made Galina feel so good by speaking to her in Russian.

Once Galina received some bad news while working in our house. Bubby went down to the basement where Galina was vacuuming to encourage and comfort her. Galina loved Bubby so much that before traveling to Russia for a medical procedure, she came to say goodbye to Bubby. “You are like my Mama,” she cried.

Bubby loved to give, and she was unique in how she paired that with tremendous thoughtfulness. One cousin related how her family had moved when she was in elementary school. “That year, Bubby bought me some beautiful outfits,” she remembered. “When I thanked Bubby a few years later, Bubby responded, ‘Of course, you were the new girl — you needed that clothing to feel confident!’”

When Bubby moved out of her big house, she had to downsize. She started giving away her nice Shabbos dishes, silverware, and anything else that would be appreciated by someone else. When I asked her about it she told me, “Ich vil gebben mit varme hent, nisht mit kalte hent — I want to give with warm hands, not cold ones [after death].” She wanted to have the pleasure of giving while she could still see the recipient’s joy.

After Zeidy was niftar, before my family moved in with her, I slept in Bubby’s house so she wouldn’t be alone. Once, when I was in tenth grade, I had a big disagreement with my mother. When I reached Bubby’s house, I tried to keep my upset state from her. No one could fool Bubby, though. She asked me what had happened, managing to extract all the details from me.

Upon learning that I hadn’t eaten, she immediately took me to the kitchen and made something light to eat, despite the fact that she barely cooked after Zeidy’s passing. After I’d calmed down, she said, “You know you must call your mother to apologize.” Without haranguing or berating me, she somehow got my very reluctant teenage self to call and apologize.

Bubby’s every action had a cheshbon and was meant to teach. Once, when walking outside with her, she told me to move over to her other side, so she’d be on my right side, adding, “Don’t think I care, but I want you to know the proper way to walk with someone more important than you so no one will think you don’t have derech eretz.”

Another scene occurred one Purim, when my father hosted a party for the boys in his shiur. While many bochurim came in various stages of inebriation, they were not allowed to bring any wine with them. When one boy entered with a wine bottle despite the rule, Bubby very calmly and firmly went over to him and told him to give over his bottle, and that she’d return it when he left.

He didn’t like it, but he gave her the bottle — and then he and his friends spent the next half hour expounding with drunken logic about why it was so important to drink on Purim, cajoling Bubby to give them back the wine. Bubby never lost her patience, calmly reiterating that when they’d leave the house, she’d return it. We children couldn’t stop laughing, seeing these tall strapping boys held at bay by a petite elderly woman.

Bubby’s minhag was to have two seudos on Purim, plus she received lots of mishloach manos, with all sorts of people coming for brachos. She was very careful to make sure each person who came felt good, engaging each one in conversation and giving them mishloach manos in return.

Bubby always focused on the good, complimenting generously. She always expressed amazement at whatever I accomplished, even small things. She’d comment about how one’s husband was so special, another’s children were so well behaved, always finding the exact point that would make her listener feel special.

When Bubby aged, she needed aides to assist her. This was very hard for her — so much so that she even told one granddaughter how she hoped Mashiach would come during the day so the aide wouldn’t have to come that night. Even so, Bubby would treat her aides with respect, always reminding us to serve them food when we ate. If we ever started talking in Yiddish, Bubby would always tell us to switch to English, so the aide wouldn’t feel like we were talking behind her back.

Bubby’s biggest post-war challenge was when she lost her beloved bechor, Rav Zalman Stein ztz”l, to cancer in the prime of his life. I don’t recall his passing, but I do recall the impact on her life afterward; her pain was always lurking just beneath the surface. Yet never did I hear her question Hashem. Together with Zeidy, she continued doing what she had to do, what Hashem expected of her.

 

Reaching the Summit

A friend told me she visited Bubby exactly a week before her petirah, on the last Friday night of her life. Bubby was recovering from pneumonia and could hardly walk, but she told my friend, “I know I’m an old lady, but I’m still young at heart.” Better than anything else I can write, that line personified Bubby — no matter what her circumstances, she never let herself be limited by life.

After her levayah, a cousin summed up Bubby’s life. “Tante Naomi didn’t die al kiddush Hashem during the Holocaust — she lived her whole life as a kiddush Hashem!”
Tehei zichrah baruch.

 

(Originally Featured in Family First, Issue 683)

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