Regal yet practical, Rebbetzin Sara Finkel brought majesty to the Torah world
If you stopped by the apartment in Givat Moshe 2, it wouldn’t be apparent that a centenarian lived there. The dining room table was always covered by a pretty cloth, a plate of cookies and bottle of drink at the ready, and a frum weekly magazine was always opened to an interesting article, ready to share with visitors.
And then there were the paintings. They covered the walls and the furniture, and over the years, the floor, propped up gently against the seforim shranks. Flowers, Jerusalem alleyways and windows, streams and bridges, skillfully depicted. Gedolim portraits glowing off the canvases. And, of course, the portraits of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l, rosh yeshivah of Mir Yerushalayim. From different angles, with his hat on, with his hat off, eyes lowered, learning. Captured by an artist, yet painted with the love only a mother possesses… it’s the home of artist, pianist, cookbook writer, mother of gedolim, eishes chayil Sara Finkel a”h.
A lot can change in 101 years. Rebbetzin Finkel’s life spanned generations, locales, worlds. Her parents, Rav Shmuel and Kreindel Leah Rosenblum, were famous for their chesed and hachnassas orchim. Kreindel Leah came from a Gerrer chassidic background; her father, Rav Yitzchok Meir Lubling, had been a noted lamdan in Bedzin, Poland.
The Rosenblums immigrated from Europe to St. Paul, Minnesota a few years after World War I. Growing up in St. Paul, before Bais Yaakov had reached American shores, young Sara was sent to public school, but her parents sent her to Hebrew school each day after her classes had finished.
Sara used to help her parents host the gedolim who would often stay in their home. When Rav Avraham Shmuel Finkel, mashgiach ruchani of Chevron Yeshivah, came to visit from Eretz Yisrael, he tested the impressive young woman to see if she would be a suitable match for his son, Eliyahu Meir. The test’s subject? Chesed.
Rebbetzin Finkel described their meeting (Mishpacha, Issue 833). “At the Friday night seudah, as I sat across from him, he mentioned that his feet hurt,” she remembered. “I fetched my father’s slippers and said to him in Yiddish, ‘Here, put these on, your feet will feel better.’ ”
“Shortly after Shabbos,” she continued, “he asked me for directions to a place he needed to go to. It seemed that the directions weren’t clear. So I put on my coat and walked him to his destination.
“It appeared as if he was testing me. When he returned to our home, he spoke to my father about his son Eliyahu Meir.”
The American girl met the Chevroner bochur, a grandson of the Alter of Slabodka, and was duly impressed, as she recounted in the biography Rav Nosson Tzvi (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2012), But she worried about the cultural gaps in their background, telling her brother, “The girl who marries this fine young man will be a lucky girl, but I am not sure he is for me.” After a few more meetings, though, “I turned out to be that lucky girl!”
The young couple married and moved to Chicago, where their son Nosson Tzvi (named for his great-grandfather) was born in Adar 1943. Nosson Tzvi — called Natie by friends and family — was soon joined by his younger brother, Gedalya.
The Finkels ran a lucrative catering business, which gave Sara more ways of doing chesed. They were also very involved in the community: Reb Eliyahu Meir Finkel sat on the executive council of Agudath Israel in Chicago, alongside Rav Avraham Chaim Levin, Rav Chaim Dov Keller, and Rav Yaakov Perlow, the future Novominsker Rebbe.
Sara was active in the sisterhood of Telshe, Ponevezh, and the local Arie Crown Day School. The couple maintained an open home, where they hosted gedolim such as Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Mordechai Schulman, and Rav Shmuel Greineman (whose granddaughter would later marry her son, Nosson Tzvi).
Sara was a proud mother who enjoyed spending time with her children. In her later years, a woman who helped out around the house asked Rebbetzin Finkel to reveal how she was zocheh to such children.
“I prayed for them,” Sara answered.
What else? The woman wanted to know.
“I listened to them and respected their ‘nonsense.’ ” Rebbetzin Finkel smiled. She entered their world: When they were interested in baseball, her baseball knowledge was unmatched.
By now, her sacrifice has become legendary. But in 1947, she couldn’t know who her young, all-American son would grow to be; all she could imagine was a young boy, miles and oceans away from his parents.
In her own words (Rav Nosson Tzvi, ArtScroll/Mesorah):
It was the day before Rosh Hashanah during that fateful first visit to Eretz Yisrael. I recall the Uncle (that’s how my husband referred to him), Rav Leizer Yudel, summoning me to his room to speak with me concerning a serious decision. He asked me in Yiddish to leave my son Nosson Tzvi in Eretz Yisrael to study in his yeshivah, the Mir. Before uttering a reply I thought to myself, What, leave my son, at the tender age of 14, across the ocean, thousands of miles away from home without his parents and his younger brother? How could I possibly do such a thing?
When I hesitated he added, with a warm smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, “Du darfst hobben em unter dine fachtug — Do you need him attached to your apron strings?” To which I answered in Yiddish, the language I learned from my parents as a youngster growing up in St. Paul, “I will have to think about it.” I repeated, “I will think it over,” and I thought to myself, How can I leave him behind?
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah after Shacharis, following the reading in Parashas Vayeira that narrates the moving story of Akeidas Yitzchak, it was customary for the family to congregate for Kiddush in the apartment of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l and his family.
Their daughter Rivka, who was unmarried at that time and is today known as Rebbetzin Ezrachi, was a teacher in seminary then. She reviewed the parashah again in English. When I heard her repeat once again the story of Akeidas Yitzchak, I thought to myself, If our patriarch, Avraham Avinu, was willing to bring such a korban, to make such a profound sacrifice, why am I hesitating?
It was precisely at that moment that I made my decision, which I later related to “the Uncle,” Rav Leizer Yudel: “I will permit Nosson Tzvi to remain in Eretz Yisrael.” I somehow felt at the time that I was giving him to the world; what a thought for a young Jewish mother.
What happened next is common knowledge: young Nosson Tzvi discovered a profound love for learning. An aerogramme he sent his parents read, in part, “You cannot imagine, Mom and Dad, what a great love I have to learn Torah.” He stayed in the Mir — and stayed, and stayed. He married Leah Finkel, the oldest daughter of Rav Beinush and Esther Finkel, then began giving shiurim in the Mir.
Gedalya, too, came to learn in Eretz Yisrael at age 17, in 1967. He married Mimi Carlebach (sister of Rav Binyamin Carlebach) and settled in Yerushalayim, where he became a maggid shiur in Mir Yeshivah.
The senior Finkels made aliyah in 1973. Shortly after coming to Eretz Yisrael, Rebbetzin Finkel was asked to give cooking lessons to a group of kollel wives in Ezras Torah. Soon afterward, she started writing cooking columns for English publications.
In 1989, she published her first cookbook, Classic Kosher Cooking. Ultimately, she wrote three cookbooks, all known for their homey, “never-fail recipes.”
For Rebbetzin Finkel, cooking was about family and giving to others. She’d host large Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, which gave her the opportunity to try out new recipes. Every Friday morning for years, her two sons would come to her house where they’d eat a delicious home-cooked breakfast together with her.
Her creativity didn’t only extend to her cooking. She sang beautifully, played the piano, and, in her fifties, she took up painting and became a skilled artist. She painted with her good friend, artist Rebbetzin Diane Liff, every week for close to five years. “The Rebbetzin never missed a beat,” recalls Rebbetzin Diane’s sister-in-law Rebbetzin Symie Liff of Har Nof. “She’d pick up the conversation from week to week, asking pertinent questions, inquiring over outcomes.”
Letters of Love
I first met Sara Finkel when I was 14 years old. A friend and I traveled to Eretz Yisrael for the summer, and in between babysitting my nieces and nephews and visiting tourist attractions, my sister decided that the two impressionable teens she was hosting had to meet the special woman who raised Rav Nosson Tzvi and ybdlch”t Reb Gedalya Finkel.
“Bring along something to share with her,” my sister urged. And that’s how I merited to share some rather awful original poetry with Rebbetzin Finkel. My friend played piano beautifully, and Rebbetzin Finkel claimed to have enjoyed both.
We had more visits, and after I started writing professionally, we began an email correspondence. As when I was a teen, she was unstinting with her praise. “I wanted to write to you some time ago,” she wrote to me, “and tell how interesting your serialized novel is. It’s a pleasure to read it.”
Her warmth was coupled with a genuine humility. “I am currently writing my memoirs after I was urged by a few people to do so,” she wrote. “It’s not that comfortable to write about oneself. However, I wish I could write better. I could use some tips.”
And, of course, there was the ever-present pride in her son. She once emailed to ask about my husband’s relationship with Rav Nosson Tzvi. “Were you in Israel at that time or was [your husband] here as a bochur? I am curious to know how Rav Nosson Tzvi ztz”l had such a marked influence on your husband’s life.”
Email was just one medium through which she kept in touch with all those she cared about. Rebbetzin Finkel cherished her friendships — and there were so many of them. She was the consummate hostess; anyone who visited was made to feel as though they were the most important person in the world.
“We know to be grateful and to thank one another for the big things,” Rebbetzin Symie Liff, who visited Rebbetzin Finkel weekly for almost 10 years, recalls, “but Rebbetzin Sara remembered the small things as well. Never once did I visit her or send something over without receiving an email within 24 hours: Thank you, Symie, for the wonderful visit. Or the delicious lasagna. Or even ‘thank you for the email.’ ”
Rebbetzin Finkel saw the good in everyone, Rebbetzin Liff adds. “Her ayin tovah was incredible. She never had a bad word to say about anyone, never ‘they could’ve visited more or done this more or that.’ ”
“And then,” says Rebbetzin Liff, “There was her nosei b’ol im chaveiro. Once, when she found out I’d been ill, she wanted to rush over and visit me, despite being in her nineties. When she couldn’t do that, she dedicated a day in the zechus of my refuah sheleimah through one of the tzedakah organizations. She told me that she davened for me daily, especially for my daughters’ shidduchim.”
Yet despite her lofty middos, Rebbetzin Finkel was grounded, down-to-earth, normal. “She had a wonderful sense of humor,” Rebbetzin Liff remembers. “I used to say to her that I wanted to be like her when I grow up, and she would laugh and laugh. She was my dear friend, and her passing leaves a hole in my heart that can never be filled.”
She kept up with the changing times, emailing friends, reading frum magazines, and even creating a LinkedIn profile listing her life’s resume: a degree in psychology, skills in publishing, photography, and art, her books. And then, when you scroll down: I am the mother of the late Rav Nosson Tzvi ztz”l.
Strong and Steady
Before walking out to the levayah that would take place under the broiling Jerusalem sun, rosh chaburah Rav Yisroel Glustein, Rav Nosson Tzvi’s brother-in-law, turned to his talmidim and said, “You should know whose levayah you are going to. Rebbetzin Sara grew up in the United States, but she knew how to stay steady in a generation when everyone was throwing in the towel. Gedolim from previous doros respected her tremendously; they saw in her what they saw in those from the doros before her.”
Her son, Reb Gedalya Finkel shlita, was maspid his mother. Through his tears, he said that no matter how old and no matter how much arichus yamim they were zocheh to, losing a mother is still losing a mother.
“It was hard for her,” he shared. “She sent Nosson Tzvi away, and then she sent me, and then she was alone with my father; it was so hard for her.
“But she was a true anav, she didn’t expect life to be easy. The uncle Rav Leizer Yudel told Rav Nosson Tzvi that he knew three people in his lifetime who were true anavim. One, Rav Leizer Yudel’s daughter, Rebbetzin Shmuelevitz. Two, Rav Nachum Partzovitz, rosh yeshivah of the Mir. And three—” Here the tears overwhelmed him again— “my mother, Sara Finkel…’ ”
The hespedim were quick: The streets were packed, and the Yerushalayim sun glared down. But the words of Rav Yitzchak Ezrachi, one of the roshei yeshivah of Mir, echoed through the crowds of people clustered on Beis Yisrael’s narrow streets: “The Mir we have today is because of her. We owe her all that we have here.”
Rav Nosson Tzvi’s life story itself is a lesson in never saying “I can’t,” in pushing on despite debilitating circumstances. His feats sound unbelievable. But anyone who met Rebbetzin Sara understood: He came by these incredible qualities honestly — from his mother.
Recalls Miriam Zakon, who edited the biography Rav Nosson Tzvi, “In his mother, Rebbetzin Sara Finkel, I saw that same determination in the face of adversity. As we would sit and pore over pictures of her late son, I could almost see her overcoming grief, putting it back somewhere, perhaps to be dealt with later — for now was time to fashion her tribute to her son, now was time to spread his teachings. Here was real perseverance and determination to build.”
No wallowing, no self-pity. Just genuine grief and then strength. Veiter, onward.
Like the first time she let her son go, back when he was a 14-year-old American teenager. A self-described posheteh mensch, a “simple person,” she sent her cherished son to live oceans away, and in doing so, gave him to Klal Yisrael.
Stroll by the Mir Yeshivah during first seder, stop for a moment and take in that kol Torah. And as the sound of thousands of voices raised in learning wash over you, think of the now-empty apartment on Givat Moshe, and how one woman’s sacrifice has painted an entire world.
A cousin shares:
I was truly saddened by the news of the Rebbetzin’s petirah, but gratified that I was zocheh to see her only a few short weeks ago. When I visited, I asked her for two brachos:
One for my dear father-in-law, who is not well, and one for a surgery I would be having upon my return to the States. She was so gracious; just last week she emailed me a brachah for the surgery. I reported that it had went well, and she emailed back how happy she was.
When I visited her several years back, she gifted me with one of her beautiful paintings of Rav Nosson Tzvi ztz”l. She was the quintessential matriarch, embodying royalty, graciousness, and generosity.
I celebrated a big birthday several months ago, and my children surprised me by collecting videos from my loved ones all wishing me birthday brachos. The last video in the chain of heartfelt wishes was from Rebbetzin Sara.
My shock and gratitude knew no bounds. It wasn’t only that she took the time and effort to participate in the celebrations — or that she was making me a birthday video when she herself was 100 years old — it was the mussar she regally imparted in the few minute clip.
“I know you’re a diamond,” she said, “because real diamonds are flawed. If a stone is too perfect, it’s an imitation.” It was both a compliment and a life lesson that I’ll cherish for years to come.
A friend, Shulamis Bonchek, shares:
I became good friends with Rebbetzin Finkel many years ago. She was a very good friend of my husband’s Aunt Rose a”h; both were members of an organization called Ohel Chava, which helped poor Sephardic brides, and they got me involved.
The Rebbetzin always looked put together, so regal. You could feel her presence. But even though she was so chashuve, she was so friendly. She’d invite my husband and me to all of her family simchos. In the early years of our friendship, she asked me many times to call her Sara. (I just couldn’t. It didn’t seem respectful.)
The Rebbetzin was an amazing hostess and a great cook. She loved company, and her dining room table was always laden with drinks and goodies for the company that came. Once, when she had Friday night dinner in our home, she complimented me so much, and that gave me the confidence to upgrade my culinary skills. She even called me to help her with the photo shoot for her cookbook.
I used to visit her often. Then she got very popular, and I had to make an appointment to see her. Once she had 100 seminary girls over. She told me that they came for a brachah, so I asked her for a brachah and got one too.
When her son, the Rosh Yeshivah, was niftar, I was nervous going to the shivah. I didn’t know what to say to a woman who had lost her son. But she made me feel very comfortable and even comforted me.
When I sat shivah last year for my husband, Dr. Avigdor Bonchek a”h, she called me and apologized for not coming in person because the weather was so bad. She told me how sorry she was for my loss and how much she’d admired my husband and his writings.
I will miss her friendship.
A talmid’s wife shares:
As a bochur, my husband and his friend were zocheh to spend Friday nights after the meal with Rav Nosson Tzvi, ztz”l, reviewing Reb Asher Arieli’s shiur. When the two bochurim got engaged just weeks apart, they decided they weren’t giving up their “shteller,” and if their new wives agreed, they would accompany the men to Rav Nosson Tzvi’s every Friday night.
That’s how I found myself sitting in Rebbetzin Leah Finkel’s kitchen together with my newlywed friend — and together with Rebbetzin Sara Finkel and Rebbetzin Esther Yenta Finkel (Rav Beinush’s wife and Rebbetzin Leah’s mother).
Rebbetzin Sara was so friendly. She’d ask about our jobs, share the latest recipe she was preparing for her Yated column, and catch up on my week.
My husband and I lived in the same building as one of her grandchildren. Whenever she spent Shabbos there, I’d visit her, and we’d chat for a while.
After I had my babies, she would call and tell me that as soon as I was up to going out, I should visit. When I came, she’d give me a small baby gift. Once, while visiting, she took me to a side room to show me how she’d framed her husband’s semichah certificates. She was so proud of him, as well as of her special sons.
One thing that always struck me was how much she was mechabed her daughter-in-law and how much Rebbetzin Leah was mechabed her in return. The two women came from different worlds, and yet they had a shared love for Torah, for pashtus, for yashrus.
She was a woman with emunah peshutah, emunas chachamim, a woman with little Jewish education who always did the right thing and made the right choices — and became the mother of royalty.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 758)
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