Rebbetzin Malkah Devorah Wolfson saw herself only as a reflection — of her husband’s Torah and her Creator’s greatness
For four years, from when I was 15 until I got married, I’d walk home from shul on Shabbos with Rebbetzin Malkah Devorah Wolfson, 80-year-old rebbetzin of Emunas Yisrael and wife of Rav Moshe Wolfson shlita. Sometimes we walked in silence; more often I chattered and the Rebbetzin listened with interest. Occasionally, she’d share absorbing vignettes and I’d carefully listen.
Sometimes, she’d thank me for walking her home; I found that very funny. Didn’t she realize she was the Rebbetzin? It was an honor for me to accompany her!
Ironically, for all of my years of walking her home a few times each Shabbos, talking to her on the phone, and visiting occasionally, I didn’t know much about her. All I knew was that she loved me, I loved her, and I loved sharing my life with her (and showing off my babies, their outfits and antics).
Speaking to numerous family members — her daughters, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters who observed her in the privacy of her home as they assisted her in her old age — filled in so much information I hadn’t known: her incredible yiras Shamayim, her love of tefillah, and her complete dedication to her husband. I also realized she absolutely didn’t realize that she was the Rebbetzin and that it was a kavod for me to walk her home.
We were separated by enormous age, culture, and personality gaps. What was it that pulled me — and so many others — to the Rebbetzin?
I think the secret was her genuine nonjudgmental orientation; she truly appreciated all kinds of people. An extreme Yekkeh by personality and background, her straightforward, conservative personality was the exact opposite of the liberal, free style we typically associate with lack of judgment.
But the Rebbetzin taught me what Torah-based acceptance looked like: a spiritual quality rooted in love of people and an open, curious orientation. She held herself to lofty standards, but she accepted each person as they were.
She was shy and introverted by nature, but watching her calmly stroll through shul after Shacharis on Shabbos with a bright smile, gracious as the queen of England, you’d never have known.
“Mazel tov on the bar mitzvah! Is that necklace new? How’s the baby feeling?” She remembered all kinds of information — who had given birth, made a bar mitzvah, recently moved, gotten a job, became engaged, and even who the shadchan was. And the women felt her interest, her caring, the connection.
She was genuinely self-effacing. As a teenager, I considered it my sacred duty to save the Rebbetzin a center seat at the Friday night Sheves Achim, because otherwise, she would sit in the back. She’d only agree after I’d tell her how hard I worked to save her a place, and that I’d feel terrible if she didn’t sit there.
At the Neshei Emunas Yisrael Melaveh Malkah gathering in her memory, a granddaughter began her speech imagining her grandmother’s confusion at being spoken about. “ ‘What for?’ she would’ve asked.”
Saved to Serve
Born in Vienna to Rabbi Eliezer Lipman and Reina Spitzer, Malkah Devorah escaped the inferno of the Holocaust along with her family, arriving in America as a young teenager. Shortly before they were due to leave, Malkah Devorah came down with the measles (or some other pimply childhood ailment), and the family was refused entry on the boat to America. They were allowed onto the next boat, and found out later the earlier boat had sunk….
She attended Bais Yaakov, where she starred as an adored student of Rebbetzin Kaplan, and went on to teach second grade in Pupa Girls School in Williamsburg for 19 years. Her students, today great-grandmothers, still warmly reminisce about their beloved teacher and the powerful impact her love and light had upon their lives.
Her kibbud eim was exemplary. After her father passed away at a relatively young age, her mother lived downstairs from the Wolfsons, and the Rebbetzin spent many years caring for her mother. Her daughters describe how attuned she was to her mother’s needs, even during her hectic years of child raising. Somehow, she juggled her mother’s care and the demands of her own busy household without exuding anxiety or stress, only simchah shel mitzvah.
When Rav Moshe’s students opened Emunas Yisrael in Boro Park, it seemed natural that the Wolfsons would move. But so long as Mrs. Spitzer lived in Williamsburg, the couple wouldn’t consider it; the fledgling kehillah dedicated to tefillah and avodas Hashem was anchored in kibbud eim as well.
A Luminous Moon
She was a mother, daughter, and rebbetzin, but nowhere was her devotion, dedication, and deference as exquisitely expressed as it was in her relationship with her husband. So different in personality and upbringing, their marriage was magical to behold.
She doted on Rav Wolfson and took extreme care not to disturb him. And while she was a strong woman in many ways, when it came to respecting her husband’s desires, it seemed as if she had no sense of self whatsoever. Years before it was the norm, her husband wanted a certain level of tzniyus for his little girls. Though it couldn’t have been easy, she went right along with it. Her children remember the refrains, “Let’s ask Tatty,” “Whatever Tatty wants.” She crowned him king.
The most unique feature in her marriage was her desire to live up to her husband’s avodah. She wanted to be part of every dimension of his ruchniyus, and Rav Wolfson reciprocated. He wouldn’t share divrei Torah until she was by the table, and he would explain them to her until she was satisfied with her understanding. She sat at the table throughout the zemiros, following along inside and whispering the words. As she did her housework, her greatest pleasure was to listen to her husband’s shiurim, but she always took care that the playing cassette shouldn’t disturb him.
Her yekkish background made many of the chassidic dimensions of his avodah foreign, but she wanted to learn. As her illustrious son-in-law, Rav Mordechai Silver shlita, put it, “She was his truest student.” Like a moon, she absorbed and reflected his light, and he was a gentle sun, carefully making sure to shine her way.
He wouldn’t leave to Shalosh Seudos or to lead any other spiritual event without the Rebbetzin’s fervent, heartfelt, and lengthy brachah that concluded with yimalei Hashem kol mishalos libcha l’tovah. Before every doctor’s appointment too, she’d walk him to the door and offer her fervent brachos.
He would make it a point to be present at her hadlakas neir Shabbos, and she had a special role during hadlakas neir Chanukah, which continued even after his talmidim joined — to hold a spoon of oil with a burning wick from which Rav Wolfson would light the shamash. (This past Chanukah, her daughters and granddaughters took over this role. Rav Wolfson explained that just as the husband helps his wife in her mitzvah of lighting the Shabbos candles by preparing them, the wife helps the husband in his mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.)
As the housework gradually became too difficult for her, her granddaughters shared rotating slots to help out. But it was hard to help Bubby.
“I came specifically to help her,” said one ,“but she was worried it was too hard for me to take out the garbage…. Before we left she insisted we take the fruits we liked from the platter bought for Shabbos. I always left her house feeling so good about myself.”
All the granddaughters say the same thing — she wouldn’t let anyone start working until she made sure they ate. “Bubby, I come here to take a break from eating!” they’d protest, but she worried that nobody should be hungry.
She knew which kind of fish or salad each grandchild preferred and found great pleasure in ensuring that each got what they liked. “When she saw that I drank a cup of grape juice at the Shabbos seudah, she always made sure I had a whole bottle every time I came. I had to work with a lot of chochmah to help her, surreptitiously washing the dishes quickly between courses as she followed the zemiros.
“She was perfectly happy cooking the entire meal for me, but found it very hard to let me help her. However, for whatever I did manage to do, she was extremely grateful.”
Her granddaughters laughingly remember how she’d pay for the two bananas they gave her from the bunches they’d buy for their families. “Never mind that I’m the one who ate the last one….” That was her nature — to give and not to take.
“If we saw someone holding a yellow Hamodia newspaper bag stuffed with goodies,” her daughter Tzippy shares, “we knew they had just come from Bubby!” The chocolate bars she gave were bought at a bargain, but it wouldn’t dawn on her to give anything less than an entire bar per child.
Her daughter-in-law Krainy never remembers her coming for Shabbos without challos, a cake, and a gift with clear instructions that she should feel free to exchange it. “The food was so beautifully presented, I’d be scared to eat it.”
Even while undergoing chemo, when she lost her appetite, the Rebbetzin was busy making sure that others ate. “You look pale, take some more food, drink something.”
“This is a woman who didn’t need anything for herself,” her daughters stress. “She never indulged. I can never visualize her with a bag of potato chips or eating chocolate. Her life was the Ribbono shel Olam and her husband, her Tehillim, Chofetz Chaim, and Torah learning.”
And her brachos… “I went through a few pregnancies throughout my years of helping her. She would wish me again and again that everything should go quickly and easily, and my labor and deliveries were easier during that period,” says a granddaughter.
Another remembers her excitement when her mother gave birth to her first sister when she was 11 years old. “Bubby grabbed on to my hands and started dancing around the kitchen with me. She was a very conservative, restrained person, but felt my excitement and wanted to share it with me.
“My most pressing concern was that the baby should have a stylish carriage. She was so beyond such a concern, but Bubby nevertheless had the most up-to-date carriage delivered to our door.”
“Despite the generation gap, you could sense her love though her caring,” a granddaughter who married into the family notes. She cared about the details of their lives. She wanted to hear about the funny things the grandchildren did, about their school life and their friends.
“She knew exactly what was going in my life — how my day was, how a child’s trip went,” another granddaughter shares. “I shared a worry of mine with her, but told her not to worry about it. She told me, ‘That’s my job. I’m here to worry about you.’ ” Even though she herself was a hard worker, she couldn’t handle hearing that anybody else was working too hard.
Another granddaughter who accompanied the Rebbetzin to Eretz Yisrael remembers, “My grandmother helped many people. When I was with her in Eretz Yisrael, she asked me if I wanted to join her in doing a mitzvah. We went on a bus to Meah Shearim. When the door opened up, I saw a home that would make the most decrepit hovel in the old Machanayim books look good. The woman who opened the door lit up as my grandmother silently handed her envelope.
“Years later, when I helped her around the house, one of my duties was to go to the bank to deposit large amounts of money for tzedakah for the poor of Eretz Yisrael. She made me recount the money a few times, taking great care that there should be no error, chas v’shalom, that no tzedakah money should be misappropriated. Every time before she went to the doctor for treatments, she’d put aside large amounts of money for tzedakah.”
Not the type to engage in light schmoozing, the Rebbetzin knew when “idle” conversation was a mitzvah of the highest order. She’d call those whom others found it difficult to talk to. They were often nudgy, but she responded with love and warmth. To some she sent food weekly.
As her daughter Tzippy describes, “She was quiet, but courageous. She knew how to do what had to get done without being outspoken about it.”
With Faith and Awe
In her interpersonal relationships, she was the quintessential giver; in her own personal avodas Hashem, her piety shone through.
At her levayah, her husband, Rav Moshe, noted her exceptional yiras Shamayim. “She had a pure mouth. In the 70 years of our marriage I never heard her make fun of a person or carrying a grudge for even a short while.”
A granddaughter shared, “When I’d come to visit we’d schmooze. But if I so much as got close to iffy topics, she suddenly fell silent.” And her daughters felt secure that their secrets were safe with their mother, “I never had to tell Mommy to keep my personal news secret. I knew she’d never share anything I told her unless I expressly gave her permission.”
When her children asked about the weather in Eretz Yisrael while she was there, she responded, “Yesterday, the weather was cooler.” Lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael wasn’t an option, veering from the truth wasn’t either.
A grandson noted, “She learned not to say anything bad about Eretz Yisrael from Zeidy, no?”
“I learned much more from her than she learned from me,” Rav Wolfson responded.
She was vigilant in retaining the kashrus of her kitchen. Even after her daughters and granddaughters took over, she felt responsible to ensure that no knife ever got mixed up, that each dish retained its status.
In a conversation with her daughter, she said, “Ich vil chalilah nisht tan an aveirah, I don’t want to do an aveirah, chas v’shalom,” in a tone we’d use to refer to a terrible tragedy.
“Bubby noticed that my stockings were thicker and of a less natural color than hers. She was 90, but she asked me to buy her the same stockings I wore,” a granddaughter shared.
Another granddaughter related, “In the last months of her life when her mind was starting to go, I tried putting on her sweater because I thought she seemed cold, but she was resisting me. Until I realized I was putting on her left sleeve before the right….”
Watching her taste the food l’kavod Shabbos, you could see her detailed focus, regality, and yiras Shamayim. She’d carefully take a spoon of soup, place a bowl underneath so it shouldn’t drip, walk over to the table, sit down, made a slow brachah, drink the liquid, and go back to adjust the seasoning if necessary. On Succos, she would perform the same eloquent ritual, but would make the longer trek to the succah so as not to eat even a small taste of chicken soup outside of its walls.
Everything she did was with a cheshbon, every item precious. But her most important commodity was her time. “When I asked her how her day was at five or six o’clock,” a teenaged granddaughter shares, “she’d say, ‘The day’s not over yet!’ She was averse to laziness, never pushing anything off for later. A favorite saying of hers was an old Yiddish one, “Morgen, morgen nur nisht hoite, zugen ale foile loite — tomorrow, tomorrow, just not today, all the lazy fellows say.”
“I once wanted to visit,” a granddaughter laughingly remembers, “so I called to see if Bubby was available. Zeidy said she was davening. I called half an hour later, and Zeidy said she was still davening. When she was still davening the third time I called, I decided, ‘That’s it! I’m just coming over. She davens all day!’ ”
Her life was ruchniyus. The pleasures of This World, self-indulgence and pampering, were foreign to her. Her day was learning, davening three tefillos, and being there for her husband. Her daughter remembers the security of knowing that she would come home to find Mommy saying Tehillim.
She’d occasionally point out to me, with reverential admiration, the young “daveners” that Emunas Yisrael, a bastion of tefillah, attracted. That was what she admired, that’s who she was.
“I was with my parents during the summer in Eretz Yisrael,” her daughter Chaya Goldie remembers. “I just couldn’t keep up, even though I’m much younger. They woke up early for a long Shacharis at the Kosel, and went on a trip to Teveria, standing davening under the hot sun, of course without a word of complaint because it’s forbidden to complain about Eretz Yisrael. Most people combine some pleasure in their ruchniyus on a trip to Eretz Yisrael, but they had no need for that.”
When she needed hyperbaric therapy for an hour and a half a day to heal a stubborn infection, her daughters got her DVDs. Of course, they knew that entertainment would hold no attraction for their mother, so they got her videos that were meaningful. “But my mother wasn’t interested,” her daughter Chana Rochel Silver shares. “She only wanted to listen to my father’s shiurim.”
She derived so much gratification from her life; her chiyus came from deep inside and she was always with Hashem.
Shabbos on the Heart
“When I think of Bubby, I think of Shabbos,” a granddaughter shares. “A whole week was in preparation for Shabbos. On Sunday we made the list, on Tuesday the compote. Thursday was Erev Shabbos. When I finished helping her on 12:15 Thursday, she told me, ‘Okay, now you can run home and get ready for Shabbos yourself.’
“Errr… I had actually planned on shopping. But Bubby got me going. My husband came home and wondered if the cleaning help had come. I told him that I had been at Bubby’s….
“She was already so weak and moved so slowly, but she insisted on walking with her walker to the table to help put on the tablecloth, to measure that it was put on evenly, with each crease straight.”
Whenever something new came into the house — a new bed, food, chocolate, or anything — it was carefully guarded and reserved for Shabbos, remembers her oldest daughter Breina Leah.
“She did possess an oberlendishe sense of elegance,” granddaughters noted, “but it was obvious from the way she put on her Shabbos jewelry that it wasn’t about the necklace, but about the Shabbos. The special kugel, decanter, inexpensive but nice-looking dishes, carefully polished silver, it was about Shabbos, not about the enjoyment of pretty things.”
“The kedushah at my parent’s Shabbos table was such that it was impossible to talk devarim beteilim,” Chaya Goldie says. And the Rebbetzin’s value of the elevated days of Yiddishkeit extended itself to Rosh Chodesh as well. As a teacher, she worked to teach her students to value the kedushah of the day, and they still remember the special Rosh Chodesh treats and songs.
“In her last months,” her daughter-in-law Krainy says, “when her mind was going, I’d walk into her house and she’d say ‘Good Shabbos.’ My shver would say, ‘Malkah, heint is duch muntig, today is Monday,’ to which she smiled. She was niftar at 91, so the kapitel Tehillim she concluded her life with was 92, the kapitel of ‘Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbos.’ ”
His Will Was Hers
Toward the end of her life, she underwent years of chemo, but she never complained. “We all kvetched about how exhausting the traveling to the doctor and hospital was,” her daughters who accompanied her admit. “But our elderly mother never said a word.”
But when she began falling asleep in middle of davening, and waking up too late to daven a full Shacharis, then she expressed her distress. “She was so disturbed about how to go about davening when waking up so late. My grandfather carefully and patiently helped her figure out what she could daven,” a granddaughter shares.
“One of my precious mementos are little notes she’d write during davening,” another granddaughter says. “In her latest years, when she was exhausted from chemo, she’d fall asleep in the middle of davening. When she would jolt awake, unsure of where she was up to, she would write notes to ask me.
“This really distressed her. I told her that people sleep when they’re comfortable and cozy and she was comfortable and cozy davening! Bubby brightened in response to my positive spin.”
When a person loses all of their faculties, their essence shines through. At the very end of her life, the Rebbetzin’s essence of dveikus came through. “I was davening with her and tried to explain that we had already said Az Yashir, and it was time to move on to Nishmas. But she insisted on repeating it four times. Four grandchildren became engaged shortly afterward.”
She would wake up in the middle of the night repeating again and again, “V’yacheid l’vaveinu l’ahavah u’l’yirah es Shemecha!” “HaBocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah,” and throughout the day she would keep on repeating “Baruch hamekadesh Shemo b’rabim.”
She was sitting at the table, her eyes glazed as they often were during her final months. Her husband was trying to connect to her, but it was difficult. “Malkah, it’s before Shavuos. We are going to receive the Torah soon,” he said. A sparkle entered her eyes.
She resisted aging for as long as she could. “I wanted her to have a walker to help her on the hilly walk from her apartment in Yerushalayim to the shul,” a granddaughter remembers, “but she didn’t want to admit that she could use the support. So, I borrowed a baby from someone and had her push the carriage. Boy, was she suspicious!”
But when the time came that her life was filled with doctor appointments, she matter-of-factly went along with Hashem’s Will for her at that point. Her equanimity in the face of constant appointments, treatments, and procedures was remarkable.
The woman who epitomized constant growth and teshuvah, who had taught a generation of girls to appreciate Rosh Chodesh, passed away on Rosh Chodesh Elul. In the month of purity and closeness, the woman of purity and constant growth left This World for a better one.
Yehi zichrah baruch.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 736)
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