At long last, I had located this elusive person Rav Schwab yearned to find
Bernice Esterson — Basya bas Yechiel Mechel Eliezer — passed away over Pesach. It wasn’t until her shloshim that I first heard her name, yet her passing was the final chapter in an elusive search mission, begun 35 years ago in Washington Heights.
In the 1980s, I was privileged to be a member of Khal Adas Yeshurun.
The Rav of the kehillah, Rav Shimon Schwab ztz”l, would often mention the special Shabbos he spent with the Chofetz Chaim in 1930.
Rav Schwab would note sadly, “No home where Torah is studied is without a Mishnah Berurah. The pages are bent, a little torn, with notes written in the margins. By contrast, I have yet to visit a home where sefer Chofetz Chaim on the laws of lashon hara is well-worn with notes in the margins and the pages bent. It usually remains in the same pristine condition as the day it was received. I am eagerly awaiting the time when I am privileged to view someone whose sefer Chofetz Chaim is also well-worn and filled with markings.”
I, too, yearned to meet the person whose edition of sefer Chofetz Chaim was as marked and filled with underlined passages. But I had to wait more than two decades.
In 2009 Rebbetzin Tonya Rowner, passed away. At the shivah, her son Benjy Rowner mentioned that his mother had been learning Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s classic Guard Your Tongue for decades with a friend of hers, and how the sefer was filled with notes and underlined passages.
I felt an intense joy in my heart. At long last, I had located this elusive person Rav Schwab yearned to find.
When I inquired about the friend with whom Rebbetzin Rowner had accomplished this feat, I discovered that she learned with a woman she had befriended 40 years earlier, when the Rowner family resided in Los Angeles.
I asked how long they had learned and how many times had they completed the work, but they didn’t know the answers to these questions.
Since that day, over 11 years ago, I’ve often wondered about this mysterious tzadeikes who had learned Guard Your Tongue for decades with Rebbetzin Rowner.
On the day before Lag B’omer, I received a phone call from Benjy Rowner. He said he recalled how the story of his mother’s study of Guard Your Tongue had made an impact on me. He then informed me that his mother’s chavrusa throughout her decades-long study of the sefer had passed away over Pesach, and the shloshim was that day.
The woman’s name was Bernice Esterson, he told me, Basya bas Yechiel Mechel Eliezer.
I immediately contacted Mrs. Esterson’s son-in-law and her daughter to find out more about this amazing woman.
Bernice Esterson was born in 1931 in the Bronx. She came from a family whose allegiance to Torah and mitzvos was such that her father produced his own wine for Shabbos. When both families were living in Los Angeles, a sister-like bond was forged between the two women.
Both families eventually relocated to Boro Park, and it was there that the two women began their decades-long learning of Guard Your Tongue.
Before Mrs. Esterson’s passing, she revealed to her daughter the secret code of the markings and annotations in her sefer. Aside from stressing certain points, the marking system revealed that the two women had completed the sefer at least nine times!
With the passing of Basya bas Yechiel Mechel Eliezer, my quest to find both of those unique individuals who Rav Schwab yearned to find had succeeded.
It was not two famous great rabbanim, nor was it people who looked for the spotlight.
It was two “ordinary” Jewish grandmothers who kept the true legacy of the Chofetz Chaim alive.
“Al titosh Toras imecha.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 821)
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