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The Apartment Above the Shtibel

Now, in hindsight, I wonder about it. A shul that had a rebbetzin, and no official rav? But back then it seemed natural

On top of a Boro Park shtibel, my great-grandmother welcomed endless circles of family, friends, and loyal mispallelim. Somehow this tiny woman, staunchly faithful to the heritage of Galicia’s chassidic courts, intuited the sensitivities and proclivities of a new generation, offering warmth and acceptance with wit, wise advice, and her famous kugel. What was her secret?

I didn’t live in Boro Park, but I always felt a little spark of ownership when I passed by a brick building on a corner of 16th Avenue. It was a shul known as the Bertcher shtibel, and it was our family’s shul. To be more exact, it was my great-grandmother, Rebbetzin Chaya Hinda Rokeach’s shul. She was the Bertcher Rebbetzin, the presence and the pillar holding up a shul that had lost its rav decades before.

Now, in hindsight, I wonder about it. A shul that had a rebbetzin, and no official rav? But back then it seemed natural. After her husband was felled by a heart attack, an able gabbai and her sons and sons-in-law, particularly my grandfather, helped run the shul. She supplied the kiddush every week — trays of sponge and marble cake, and a famous, uniquely American cornflakes kugel. The mispallelim loved the shul, and loved davening together. And so the minyan kept running.

What kind of presence must she have had, what kind of respect and loyalty must she have won, to keep that shul going for so many years?

I wonder about other things too. My diminutive great-grandmother — at less than five feet, we called her “Little Babi” to differentiate her from our grandmother — was the picture of a rebbetzin from the alte heim. She covered her head with a “kupka” — something like a shtern tichel, with some fabric representing hair attached — and wore only four colors, all as conservative and quiet as could be: black, navy, brown, and gray. She greeted Shabbos with a white kerchief and white lace apron. She davened devotedly. In short, she was the archetypical chassidishe rebbetzin.

Yet there was something remarkably broad about her outlook. I knew she was smart, so it seemed normal to me that she could quote Tanach, that she could write letters in Ivrit to the Israeli grandchildren, or that she avidly followed world news. It took years for me to realize how unusual that was for a woman who had never been formally schooled, and who had grown up in an insulated, ideologically zealous home.

More than that, she accepted, even celebrated, her American grandchildren and their accomplishments. She gave each child and grandchild space and affirmation to find their path in this new country where all the rules were different and chassidus seemed like a dying relic.

What would happen if I could revisit all those memories and recalibrate my perceptions from a more adult perspective?

I reached out to some of the people who knew her well, probing them for their memories and individual takes. As I listened and took notes, I realized this was a futile quest. So many people were touched and affected by this woman — and each one saw Little Babi’s persona through their own disparate filter, told a narrative that highlighted their own values. The cousins who take pride in their chassidic lifestyle saw her fealty for tradition. The cousins who value higher learning talked of her thirst for knowledge. The cousins who settled in Eretz Yisrael spoke of her love and concern for the Holy Land. The aunt who hates structure loved her spontaneity, the relative who relishes davening marveled at her three tefillos every day.

Instead of gaining a single clear portrait of my great-grandmother, I was gaining a multihued impressionist painting, layered with so many different opinions and perspectives. In a way it was vaguer than the sharp portrait I’d sought — but it was also so much richer.

(Originally featured in Linked, Succos 5780)

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