Once, there were no custom sheitels, kosher cookbooks, and seminaries. These pioneers changed that
Pioneer: Yaffa Ganz
Industry: Children’s literature
First book: 1980
Published titles: 40
Copies sold (all books): Lost count at 500,000 some years ago
The Jews may have been the People of the Book for generations, but it’s only a few decades since we’ve become the People of the Children’s Book.
In a previous, more wholesome era, secular media was far more innocent, and even families with the highest chinuch standards were often comfortable in public libraries. Jewish schools read what the public schools read.
Yaffa Ganz and her husband made aliyah from Chicago over 60 years ago and are now the great-grandparents of a growing clan. “When people refer to me as part of the ‘founding generation’ of Jewish juvenile authors, it makes me feel like a dinosaur! I usually feel pretty young, but I must admit that the publishing world ⸺ and the world at large ⸺ has undergone massive changes since I first entered the field.”
When Mrs. Ganz brought her first Savta Simcha manuscript to Feldheim Publisher’s Jerusalem office, it was a novelty they didn’t quite know what to do with. They returned the favor by asking if she’d review a five-foot stack of juvenile submissions that had been gathering dust in their back rooms for years.
One thing led to another, and Mrs. Ganz soon found herself at the helm of the newly created Feldheim Young Readers Division. In their first decade, they published an unprecedented 70 titles for children. Savta Simcha and the Incredible Shabbos Bag, the book that sparked the revolution, was a runaway success.
“I like to think it was because it’s such a great book, but I must admit, she had no competition,” says Mrs. Ganz.
Not everyone instantly recognized Savta Simcha’s appeal, however. When a company representative visited from the US, he saw the printed book, and, not recognizing Mrs. Ganz as the author, wondered aloud why in heaven’s name they’d printed such a ridiculous book.
Although he was sure it wouldn’t sell, he was quickly and agreeably proven wrong. Four decades later, Savta Simcha is as young at heart as ever, and b’ezras Hashem, a brand-new slip-cased edition of all five books in the series is coming to the bookstores this Pesach.
What the doubters didn’t anticipate was the salutary influence the new genre would have on generations of readers; not merely entertaining, the books educated and uplifted without their target audience catching on.
“I’ve had people tell me Savta Simcha set them on the road to Torah or was their first step toward making aliyah — she’s a very Eretz Yisrael–oriented lady,” says Mrs. Ganz.
Her history book, Sand and Stars — The Jewish Journey Through Time (ArtScroll), is used as a text in day schools across the United States.
Though readers enthusiastically welcomed the newly available children’s literature, it’s still rare to find an author whose books will provide more than a nice supplementary income, says Mrs. Ganz. The frum audience is small, and even break-even pricing can be prohibitive enough to keep many families from buying books on a regular basis. This, in turn, makes publishers think twice about investing heavily in juvenile literature.
In the four decades since Mrs. Ganz founded an industry and inspired a generation of authors, the world of publishing has progressed astonishingly. In the early days, all work was done manually; every correction entailed marking up a manuscript and retyping it. Mrs. Ganz remembers her joy at getting hold of a US Army secondhand IBM electric typewriter, which allowed you to make corrections on the fly.
Any changes to the book’s graphics needed to be done, literally, with craft knives and glue ⸺ the original cut and paste. With the advent of computers and desktop publishing, publishing costs have plummeted, and the process has become simpler.
“Everything is faster, easier, and more professional, but the actual quality of the literature still depends on the author,” says Mrs. Ganz.
Everyone with a story inside them now has a shot at authorship — for better or for worse. There are thousands of titles in all genres to enrich readers, but it can sometimes be hard to tease out the true gems that deserve to be noticed.
“They have their day, or week, or month in the sun, and are then relegated to the shelves, where they often just collect dust. Out of sight, out of mind,” says Mrs. Ganz. “So there are more books and more sales, but most likely, less profit.”
Today, authors are often asked to finance the publication of their books, instead of the publishers fronting the money, so it’s often the author’s determination that decides what will or won’t get published.
The biggest trend that seems to be here to stay? Comics! Are they good for the Jews? Mrs. Ganz and her grandchildren have agreed to disagree on that one.
Pioneer: Claire Grunwald
Industry: Custom sheitels
Year founded: 1960
In an age when every woman with a pleasant first name seems to have an eponymous sheitel company, some may be surprised to learn that wigs were already a common head covering back in the Old Country.
When Claire Grunwald was born, she says, “My mother looked at me and said, ‘She has a big forehead, she’ll wear a sheitel easily.’ ”
A lot happened in young Claire’s life before that prediction came to fruition. Claire, her mother, and her five siblings cheated death when their train never arrived at Auschwitz, depositing them in a relatively milder labor camp near Vienna instead.
Claire, whom the New York Times has dubbed “grande dame of Brooklyn’s sheitelmachers,” learned her trade from the ground up during the postwar years, as an apprentice to a master German wigmaker. Arriving in the US at age 17, the refugee with the golden hands landed a job immediately at Madame Marie’s salon on New York’s prestigious Fifth Avenue.
Though hair covering was notoriously a meis mitzvah in those years, when Claire married, there was no question that the newlywed was going to cover her hair like her entire extended family did. Her more machmir relatives, who didn’t want human hair, wore artificial wigs made from pell, a type of animal hair; synthetic sheitels wouldn’t hit the market until the ’60s.
When the sheitel connoisseur couldn’t find anyone who could style her sheitel to her exacting standards, Claire did it herself. Soon she was doing her friends’ sheitels — and demand snowballed.
Claire, who makes wigs that are custom-tailored to each client’s unique measurements and specifications, founded her company, Claire Accuhair, in 1960, while pregnant with her youngest. She soon had more work than she could handle.
“Hashem was very kind to us. In the ’60s, the new style was big hairdos,” she remembers. No one had enough hair for those bouffant styles. “Even non-Jews put on sheitels, so Jewish women also put them on — and didn’t take them off.”
Claire was so besieged by clients, she’d have to stop scheduling appointments six weeks before Pesach. Qualified help was also hard to come by, due to her high standards, but the business flourished.
From her salon on Coney Island Avenue, Claire watched the Indian hair crisis unfold, and listened with half an ear as different issues of tzniyus were hotly debated.
Ever the focused businesswoman, Claire refuses to get pulled into controversies. Her clients range in levels of observance, but she sees only the nachas of an exploding community.
“It’s tremendous to see how many people are in Brooklyn today, kein ayin hara. The yeshivos, all kinds of Jews. My heart rejoices. I never, ever told customers to compromise their standards of tzniyus. I tell them, do whatever your husband or rabbi says. I don’t rely on your business. Hashem has plenty of parnassah for everyone. You and I don’t need to violate my principles.”
The frumkeit issue that bothers her is the trend of blaming sheitels for every ill plaguing frum society. “It’s not fair to blame the sheitelmacher, who’s trying to support her husband in kollel, for not bringing Mashiach,” she says.
Additionally, she points out, many women who struggle with kisui rosh can find strength to do the mitzvah since they know they can still look good. Claire mentions the giyores who flew in from California in search of a sheitel to match her natural blonde coloring, insisting that was the only way she’d agree to cover her hair.
“Some people believe they have to make themselves ugly for the mitzvah, but I’m not buying that idea,” says Claire, who believes strongly in the importance of a woman cultivating her natural beauty. “Hashem gave us this nature.”
As kisui rosh became the norm, the industry has accommodated the customers with a mass-produced product instead of pricey custom works of art. The wig companies that abound today, Claire explains, are manufacturers, rather than makers of custom wigs. While she insists on using only virgin hair, most companies use refined hair, whose cuticles have been chemically removed. This refined hair, while smooth and silky, lacks the lifelike movement of virgin hair.
Similarly, many of today’s wigs are machine-made, while the technology Claire uses has remained basically the same for eight decades. “Everything is done by hand,” she says.
Today, fewer young people opt for the artistry of a truly custom wig like Claire’s. The trend toward longer wigs makes Claire’s quality hair unaffordable. The younger generation tends to buy less expensive and flatter Chinese sheitels, while Claire’s loyal customer base has become the baby boomers, whose hair is thinning, and those purchasing medical wigs. For chemotherapy patients, Claire uses yak hair to create artificial beards and peyos, since those can be as long as 16 inches.
The biggest difference in the industry, according to Claire? The people wearing them. When the survivors arrived in America, their reception was poor, Claire remembers. Earlier arrivals looked down on the backward religious newcomers, and were unhappy that they were taking away jobs.
“Then, people just wanted to blend in,” she says. “But today, we have clout, we’re more affluent.”
Where religious women were once pitied as downtrodden immigrants, today Claire sees confident, educated women who are able to support their families with dignity — and with a crown on their heads as befits the King’s daughters.
Pioneer: Dr. Devorah Rosenwasser
Industry: American seminary in Israel
Year school founded: 1969
Number of students: Over 200 annually (includes English-speaking Machal, French-speaking Machal, Machal Bet for both groups, and a special class for new olim).
Motto: Kol she’yiras cheto kodemes l’chochmaso, chochmaso miskayemes. Anyone whose fear of sinning takes precedence over his knowledge levels, his knowledge will be enduring.
It sounds almost like the setup for a tired joke: The Irish rabbi who married a girl from Chicago came to Israel….
But the joke was on whoever didn’t reckon with Rabbi Yehuda Copperman’s vision. The indefatigable educator founded Michlalah in 1964, and in the space of a few decades a revolution followed.
Dr. Devorah Rosenwasser, the eldest Copperman daughter, studied in one of Michlalah’s earliest graduating classes, and today is the school’s dean, as well as head of Machal, its division for overseas students.
Her father never planned to open a seminary for Americans, says Dr. Rosenwasser. However, the Michlalah concept — a rigorous teacher-education college adhering to the highest standards of halachah and hashkafic clarity — proved irresistible to a number of Americans, and each of its first classes counted a smattering of Americans enrolled along with their native Israeli counterparts.
“It was an itaruta d’l’tata,” says Dr. Rosenwasser. “The demand came from the bottom.”
Opening in 1969 with fewer than 20 students, Michlalah’s Machal overseas program enrollment soon jumped to 50, then100.
Although Rabbi Copperman took flak from both left and right when he first opened Michlalah, by the time Machal was born, public controversy had waned. In Machal’s early years, she remembers, the only other options for chutznikim who wanted to study in Israel were Machon Gold (no longer extant), and BJJ, both of which catered to fairly specific demographics. Michlalah, in contrast, welcomed a broad range of students, from a veritable United Nations of homelands.
“Next year, we will have students from Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, France, Mexico, South Africa, in addition to the US, Canada, and the UK,” says Dr. Rosenwasser.
Rabbi Copperman founded his seminary with a strong sense of obligation to far-flung Jewish communities, and accepted students who may have been somewhat weaker academically, but who aspired to return to their hometowns to spread Yiddishkeit.
In some ways, Michlalah is the mother of many of today’s seminaries. There are currently some 70 seminaries in Israel catering to Bais Yaakov and Modern Orthodox girls, and many of their teachers and principals went through Michlalah.
“Michlalah gave them that fire,” says Dr. Rosenwasser. “At their interviews, very few girls tell me that they plan to go into chinuch. However, that changes after being exposed to our rebbeim and teachers, who, without preaching, make it very clear how important it is to give over Torah to the next generation.”
The famous adage that a generation used to last 30 years, then shortened to five years, was actually her father’s, says Dr. Rosenwasser. And before he passed away, he’d shortened his estimate to a year.
Dr. Rosenwasser observes that the greatest change in recent years is that wrought by technology, which affects the seminary experience in various ways. The buzzing devices distract students from their studies; they encroach on time that would have once been spent meeting new people and getting to know the land.
While Michlalah requires filtered phones, they don’t enforce a kosher-phone-only policy. But the girls know it’s Dr. Rosenwasser’s greatest pride when they voluntarily make inspired choices. When 16 girls recently decided to choose kosher phones, Dr. Rosenwasser invited them to dinner at her home in recognition of their efforts.
Over dinner, she posed the question: What difference did they notice without their smartphones?
“They said, ‘We get the most out of the year, with no distractions. We learn and socialize,’ ” recounts Dr. Rosenwasser. “It reminds me of when I was a student at Michlalah over 40 years ago.
“Back then, girls were much more independent,” she adds. “They couldn’t call home every day and thought twice before standing on line with their asimonim to use the pay phone. While it’s good to be connected with parents, everything needs a golden path. Let the kids grow up, exercise their independence.”
Originally, all classes were in Ivrit, but as successive cohorts of students were less familiar with the language, many classes were switched to English. Today, a student can do fine in Israel without gaining a good command of the language.
One area in which she sees tremendous growth is the chesed the seminary girls perform. The amazing awareness of the importance of chesed, and the eagerness to seize opportunities to perform it, are a newer phenomenon, she says.
The seminary boom, unheard of only 50 years ago, seems to be here to stay. The founding of cheaper, local options in many US communities hasn’t curtailed demand, and even the threat of war and intifada put only a temporary damper on the applications.
During the Gulf War, frightened girls would pile into the Copperman home to sleep on their living room floor. Most of those students, who clustered around Mrs. Copperman as she sang and played piano to calm their fears, ultimately made aliyah, says Dr. Rosenwasser.
A common criticism leveled at seminaries is that they are at best an expensive 13th year of high school, or at worst a yearlong camp experience. But Dr. Rosenwasser believes that nothing can compare to the experience of leaving home, often for the first time, with the support of unparalleled rebbeim and mechanchos in the Eretz Hakodesh. The learning takes place on an advanced level, with a breadth and depth not possible in high school.
“We prepare them. Most importantly, we teach how to build a Jewish home, how to live in this world.” The hard work seems to pay off, she says, because the successful Michlalah graduate bears a hallmark: She loves and takes pride in her identity as a Jewish woman.
Pioneers: Esther Blau, Cherna Light, Cyrel Deitsch
Industry: Kosher cookbooks
First cookbook: 1977
Copies sold: 150,000 of the “purple cookbook”; 120,000 of other books combined
The spiral-bound, homey sisterhood cookbook was a staple of women’s auxiliaries of many a Jewish institution for decades. The most famous, unfortunately, tended to feature recipes that aped contemporary non-Jewish cuisine.
In 1977, when a group of young mothers on the presidium of the Chabad Junior Neshei had the idea to put together a cookbook, they knew theirs would be strictly kosher. What they didn’t know was that they’d create an icon.
They began to collect recipes, trying them out on their in-home army of little taste-testers, and then Esther Blau had an idea. Herself the product of a home with the highest kashrus standards, whose father wouldn’t eat processed foods and would shecht his own chickens, Mrs. Blau realized the returnees from the nascent baal teshuvah movement had scant knowledge of kashrus. Why not teach them a little something about a kosher home while they cooked?
As the women added chapters dealing with halachah and minhag, they realized it was time for some rabbinic oversight, and brought their content to rabbanim for guidance. Anticipating that the cookbook would be a tool to draw Jews closer to their heritage, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, encouraged them warmly and often gave them blessings and advice.
It was he who insisted they pay close attention to aesthetics, spending more for high-quality design and printing. He was even involved in the deliberations to choose the name, Spice and Spirit, denoting the harmonious blend of the Jewish table, where the mundane and spiritual combine.
In the ’70s and ’80s, producing a quality book was no trivial endeavor. Before the advent of desktop publishing, every potential cover design they worked on cost upwards of $1,000, remembers Mrs. Blau, and photographs of the food would have been prohibitive. Due to the Rebbe’s support, the women were able to find sponsors to cover much of the cost. Tradespeople they worked with, such as the printer, were impressed by their idealism and can-do spirit, and allowed them to purchase on credit and pay with the proceeds of sales.
The book became a classic on the shelves of home cooks everywhere — literally. Shluchim would take piles of books along with them to far-flung corners of the globe and share them with guests. Everywhere Jews go, Spice and Spirit seems to follow.
The women revised the book more than once. The second edition was the classic “purple cookbook” that tens of thousands know and love.
“Our first wasn’t amateurish, but it didn’t have the sophistication of the purple one,” remembers Mrs. Blau. “A lawyer, a big cookbook collector, wrote to us out of nowhere to say, ‘Congratulations on this project — with a few corrections you will do very, very well.’ We didn’t understand what he meant. At that point, we didn’t appreciate the difference between ‘one cup of diced carrots’ or ‘one cup of carrots, diced.’ ”
Unanimously, all three women point to the rise in health consciousness as the biggest change on the Jewish culinary scene.
“People are much more conscious of the ingredients,” says Mrs. Deitsch. “Today I can make a whole Shabbos without a drop of sugar, and the food tastes great. The trend is lots and lots of fresh herbs and salads.”
Already by the second and third revisions, the women noted this trend, and included more vegetarian options and recipes that were less greasy and sweet.
Still, despite being replete with recipes that call for margarine and non-dairy whip, Spice and Spirit has withstood the test of time, even as new cookbooks hit the market with the regularity of periodicals.
“Our recipes are very reliable,” says Cherna Light. “And people like tradition. Nowadays, people try all kinds of new trends, but they also want tradition, they want authentic.”
Baalei teshuvah especially, who may have sampled a variety of cuisines, want to know how to cook traditional European Jewish foods the way their Bubbies might have.
Today, anyone with a flair for cooking can create an online presence, and without any costly overhead, it’s easy to become an influencer. Still, its adherents around the globe cling to Spice and Spirit and won’t give it up in favor of glossy photos or fabulous plating suggestions.
Because at the end of the day, superfoods and trends come and go, but nothing replaces a good chicken soup or potato kugel.
Pioneer: Symie Liff
Industry: Special education
Year founded: 1986
Motto: The task is to ask!
If your father is almost single-handedly responsible for founding 500 day schools across the US, chances are you will feel passionate about education.
That’s why Symie Liff, daughter of Torah U’Mesorah legend Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, always felt drawn to helping kids learn.
“Chinuch and helping Klal Yisrael were our bread and butter,” she remembers.
She’d always had a special affinity for kids with learning challenges, so when she came on aliyah with her husband and two small children in 1980, she looked for work in that field. With a master’s in special education, she found work at Limudei Hashem, a small school under the auspices of special-ed pioneer Rabbi Hershel Fried.
“The special education scene was a midbar,” remembers Mrs. Liff.
With little understanding of the different ways kids learned, parents and teachers would grow increasingly frustrated with students they only knew how to label as “lazy” or “dumb.”
An American cousin, Rabbi Burton Jaffa, was the director of P’tach, an organization aimed at helping these sorts of children.
“Why don’t you open an Israeli branch?” he suggested.
The idea appealed to Mrs. Liff, who was frustrated that her dyslexic and learning-challenged students kept getting lumped into cholent-like special-ed schools with little discernment as to what their challenges actually were.
“They had amazing potential and high intelligence, but were misunderstood,” she says.
Stymied by the system’s lack of understanding of her pupils’ needs, she decided to pursue Rabbi Jaffa’s idea.
“I was as naive as a person could be,” she remembers.
Underestimating the costs and bureaucracy, she blithely began with seven boys in Har Nof. She and her tiny staff would pull the boys out two to four times a week to tutor them, and saw unbelievable results.
“From being failures with low self-esteem, they turned around and began to make it in school!” she says.
In those fledgling early days, P’tach in America covered their budget, but that dreamy financial arrangement was short-lived. Despite Rabbi Jaffa’s best efforts, the organization couldn’t afford to support its sister institution.
So Symie rolled up her sleeves and got to work, raising money, hiring staff, and taking on Israel’s Ministry of Education. It took almost ten years before she got any recognition at all from the Israeli government; even today, P’tach’s government funding is very limited, despite the Education Ministry’s conclusion — reached 35 years after P’tach’s — that inclusion is the best path for children with learning disabilities.
Though her Hebrew was good, if accented, when she first went to government offices to plead her case, officials thought Mrs. Liff was crazy.
“They wouldn’t even hear me out,” she recounts. “I told them, ‘I’ll save you money! Special-ed schools cost a lot more.’ ”
When doors were slammed in her face, Mrs. Liff took courage from her father, who would tell her stories from his years in the trenches. “Symie, the task is to ask!” he’d say, reminding her to put in her best effort and leave the results up to Heaven.
“We hired very professional staff, Anglos with masters and doctorates in special ed,” she says. “We understood children, worked with their strengths, and built them up.”
The most difficult task the young organization faced was getting teachers and administrators to buy in. Teachers were skeptical that the changes the tutors were suggesting could really make a difference to these failing children, and even parents were often in denial about their children’s challenges.
With hard work and education, the tide began to change. P’tach’s success was its best argument in favor of its approach to kids with learning challenges.
“Our way to overcome resistance was success,” remembers Mrs. Liff. “When they saw how we turned around one child after another, teachers would bring us more.”
Today, over 1,000 children all over the country are enrolled in P’tach’s school-based program, and others receive therapy services in their Ramat Eshkol clinic. (The programs in the periphery of the country were started under the initiative of Keren Yedidut Toronto.) Over 100 staff are supervised by Mrs. Liff and her associate director, Miriam Schoen.
More than ever before, Mrs. Liff sees attitudes changing, as educators understand that children with learning difficulties are just as smart and capable as their peers, that they can be helped, and, yes, they can still get into the best high schools. People spot problems earlier, reach out for help sooner, and are less ashamed of getting assistance for learning disabilities.
By teaching parents and educators to build up children’s self-confidence and give them tools to succeed, P’tach keeps hundreds of kids from falling through the cracks.
“The most rewarding experience is meeting a successful wife and mother who holds down a good job, and she says to me, ‘You saved my life,’ ” says Mrs. Liff.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 688)
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