| Family First Feature |


Five women share their experience navigating uncharted waters

It was a pivotal moment — and they felt lost, uncertain. They’d never been there before, had no experience to draw from. And neither had their usual mentors. Now what?
Five women share their experience navigating these uncharted waters.


Fitting Precedence
Sarah Moses Spero

I’m not sure there is anything more unprecedented than a Holocaust survivor who is marrying off their own child. Two Holocaust survivors married to each other and doing the same? A double victory.

My parents didn’t speak of their wartime experiences other than the whispered slip of a tongue or a runaway comment. We knew that my father was carried out of Auschwitz (half dead) in a wheelbarrow and my mother was in three different work camps. It’s not just that my parents didn’t speak of their experiences. We knew, from a very young age, not to ask.

Their own wedding took place in Europe (before they eventually crossed the Atlantic) and was celebrated with other survivors, my mother wearing a borrowed dress that many of the other young women wore, altered to fit each individual bride. I’m almost certain there was no smorg. Actually, I’m not even sure there was a wedding meal.

Each was the sole survivor of their immediate family. No grandparents, mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts or uncles, though my mother did have a few of her first cousins who survived — some with brothers and sisters of their own.

Because my parents were blessed with three daughters, my wedding was their first joint public simchah, and some of those same cousins did trek all the way from New York.

To this day I’m not sure how they arranged such a large wedding in Pittsburgh (my father was a rabbi there at the time), when I was marrying a boy from Cleveland, another bustling Jewish metropolis, three hours away.

There were no alternatives for wedding gowns other than to purchase one. That’s how we found ourselves in the bridal department of the upscale Joseph Horne Company on Penn Street in downtown Pittsburgh ordering a custom-made off-white, fitted Peau de Soie gown complete with Alencon lace and a matching satin and beaded pearl floral headpiece. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the softness of the satin, and see the handsewn pearls that trimmed the neckline.

The sleeves had the de rigueur fabric point at the wrist and the bodice was trimmed in lace that matched the pleated train (which unhooked for the dancing).

The dress I tried on was a sample, and when the seamstress arrived, her neck was draped in a tape measure, and she was carrying a hem chalk-baster. There was a stuffed pin cushion attached to her wrist with elastic.

As soon as she began to speak, my mother detected her German accent. Her back stiffened. I immediately realized that this was the seamstress’s first encounter with a survivor. “We didn’t know,” she kept muttering over and over again, afraid to look my mother in the eye. My mother’s silence was deafening. She didn’t say a word and let her finish her work. The measurements were noted and taken, and the gown ordered.

Once the dress arrived a few short months later, we returned to Penn Street and to the now familiar bridal department for the first fitting. I tried on this beautiful new gown and because I’d lost weight from the time the gown was ordered until it had arrived (the first and last time that this has happened to me), we needed it to be altered. The seamstress who arrived was not the one who had originally worked with us. My mother quietly inquired if that first seamstress was working that day, and was told that she was. “Please ask her to come back,” she requested. “I specifically want her to fit my daughter’s wedding gown.”

I cannot fathom the courage it took for my mother to do that. Nor can I quite understand what followed. As soon as that seamstress made all the markings for the adjustments that had to be made, my mother asked the salesperson to please pack up the dress because we were taking it home and she would have someone else do the actual alterations.

I never asked my mother why she did that. I don’t know if she herself quite understood or had the words to describe it. Maybe, just maybe, silence can roar.

Perhaps it was pride. Perhaps it was my mother’s sense that even within those few moments, there was some sense of justice. Whatever it was, she wanted this woman to see that we, as a people and as a nation, would continue, would thrive, and would go on to build our lives anew.

On My Own
Raizy Jotkowitz

You know the children’s party game, “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” in which you’re blindfolded, twirled around, and then need to pin the tail as accurately as possible onto the donkey?

That’s what being in shidduchim felt like for me. I was fumbling in blackness, dizzy and nauseated and confused, groping the walls as I searched for the right place on the cardboard cutout.

During seminary yemei iyun on “women’s issues,” I took detailed notes about dating and marriage. I heard the message that “love at first sight” was a myth perpetuated by Hollywood, and that real relationships didn’t start with fireworks, but were based on mutual compatibility, respect, and middos tovos, which — through the hard work of giving — would blossom into love as the years went on.

The importance of having a dating mentor was emphasized over and over again, as was the importance of making decisions with my head first. I understood that even though I could and should get guidance from the wise and the experienced, the decision of who to marry was ultimately mine to make.

All of that made sense — in the classroom. But when I actually returned home and started dating, it was altogether different. I had no clue how to navigate the complex dynamic of listening to both head and heart. My parents were baalei teshuvah, and they had been high school sweethearts. They had never heard of shidduch résumés or doing research, and didn’t know what to tell me.

Even though I was yeshivish in my hashkafos, I lived in an out-of-town community; most of my friends were more modern and dated their spouses, whom they knew from NCSY or just from around, for many months, even years. Hardly anyone I knew met a stranger in a hotel lobby and made the decision to marry someone or not within four or five dates. I was the oldest in my family, so I had no siblings who had been there.

I was haunted by the story of the man who went to the Steipler and asked if everyone had a zivug, why hadn’t he met his yet, to which the Steipler replied, “You did, you just passed her up because her nose was too long.” I didn’t want to be one of those people, who lost their bashert for superficial reasons. I liked to think of myself as deep and genuine and serious.

But I also couldn’t imagine being married to the guy who stood on the same step as me on the escalator, or the sweet boy who talked nonstop for hours about gamma rays, or the man who made me feel like I wanted to disappear into a hole when we accidentally passed someone I knew on the street, even though they were really erlich boys, serious about growing and learning, with impeccable reputations and middos.

Because of the time difference between America and Israel, I talked endlessly with my teachers from seminary at the strangest hours. So did my mother. As I dated boy after boy, my parents and I met with rabbanim and rebbetzins locally and further away.

I eventually met the boy who became my husband. And consulted with many people many, many times through our dating period. At the end of the day, though, I was terrified to make the decision to marry him, and even more terrified to make the decision to stop dating him.

So I poured my heart out to the Ribbono shel Olam, begging Him for clarity. That was at Minchah on Erev Shabbos. And while on a Shabbos shpatzir with my sister on Friday night, I suddenly wished I wasn’t taking a walk with her, but with the boy I was dating.

That’s when I knew I wanted to marry him. Because even though I’d felt that I was in the dark all along, He had been waiting for just the right time to switch on the light.


“Boy, Oh Boy”
Leah Wachsler

Growing up in an all-girls family, with no boy cousins in town to learn from, I had no clue how to navigate my clan of boys who came in quick succession. Things like pants and shirts going round and round on the ceiling fan caught me off guard. I was warned boys don’t care what they wear, but I was still shocked when one of them wore his brother’s shirt, three sizes down. They did the sledding-down-the-stairs-on-a-mattress-scare I didn’t see coming until it hit me. Literally and figuratively.

Boys are a different breed, and to be their mother, I had to reconfigure myself. Take fist fights. They were too strong for me to separate even when young, so I had to use negotiation skills. Boys’ style. Now how do you do that if you’ve never had a role model? “Experience is knowledge, everything else is information,” said Einstein. So I had to learn a new language to bring brotherly peace. Focus on justice and halachah more than fairness and values.

Language was a real problem. Boys understand it differently. It took me a while to chap that I can’t just send a son to the grocery for soy sauce. Even if I show him the empty bottle. He came home with peanut butter because it was similar to the soy butter he remembered licking as a kid. The speak was different, too. BAM! WHAM! WHOOSH! The first seven times I raaaaaaaaaaan.  Then… I just checked in on my warriors. It was Lego wars and chair trains and toy car crashes. Oh, and fixer man practice. They test their strength.

Boy power they called it. Their cry was, “Boys can do anything.” Carry stacked platters and not crash them on the counter. Um. Right. Saw down the bottom of the tight door in a strai… jagged line. Okaaay!  Redesign the succah boards, three hours before the zeman. What? I learned to suggest, not say, and turn the other way. And go along for the fun.

The excitement factory boys run is a real thing. The scarier the better. Like toddle out the door and into traffic. And sure, my husband explained it…. I’ve seen boys. But nothing prepared me for the emotional upheaval of an all-night stint at the hospital getting a red cast for one of my daredevils. I’ve done a dozen hospital runs since. That’s a hundred percent more times than anything I’ve ever experienced as a child. Growing up, it was admirable that we girls kept out of harm’s way.

Then my boys nullified it all with their safety conundrums. Boys don’t wear seatbelts, no questions asked, like us girls did.

It’s, “Oh, Ma, I’ll be fine. Do I really have to?”

“Yes.” And not run the light and wear bike helmets. One of my boychiks always rode off from home with his bike, helmet on. I beamed. Until a friend down the road told me that she sees the kid flick it off and continue, helmet swinging on the handlebar.

It was a tire-screeching moment. My attempts at mothering the boys without a model to follow had done me in. I couldn’t simply follow a mantra I heard and read. So I had a talk with myself, reflected on the helmet saga. Then I did mini DMCs with that boychik. Girls’ style. With a boy’s tweak. Because that’s the way I knew.

Boys may be a different breed, and to be their mother I had to look out for mattresses sledding down the stairs. Reconfigure myself. But I had to be me first.


Healing the Hole in My Heart
Marcia Stark Meth

Can you imagine being jealous of your own children? We’re told that a good parent, a good teacher, is never jealous of his or her own child or student. And yet….

Like most of my fellow children of Holocaust survivors, I never knew any of my grandparents. I didn’t even have photos, so I couldn’t evoke any images. But baruch Hashem I had a pretty happy childhood, so I never realized I was missing something special — at least, not until my first child was born.

That’s when I discovered the hole in my heart.

Nicknamed “The Prince,” Avi was doted on by my parents and in-laws (also Holocaust survivors). They showered him — and all the grandchildren who followed — with love. Love in the form of food, clothes, toys, babysitting, and more. I couldn’t help but remember my early childhood “toys” — pots and pans, boxes, paper, scissors, and the like. Those toys usually sufficed. And yet….

I suddenly recalled four-year-old me throwing a full-fledged kick-and-scream-on-the-sidewalk tantrum when my impoverished immigrant parents wouldn’t buy me the beautiful doll beckoning from a store window.

Grown-up me wondered: Was that tantrum triggered by a sense of something missing from my life — someone to spoil me with real toys?

Yes, grown-up me was jealous — for a minute. That jealousy was soon replaced with awe. Witnessing all that Bubby Love was enough to start healing my cardiac hole. But the scab reopened many years later. On the I-95. The day I became a Bubby myself.


Our Nachum was off to Israel for his first gap year in yeshivah, and we were driving him from Silver Spring, Maryland to JFK. En route, we stopped in New Jersey to call grown-up Avi, then residing in Queens with his wife, Tamar.

To our surprise, Tamar’s mother picked up the phone.

“They’re in the hospital.”

We rushed straight to the hospital to greet our first grandchild. A boy! They were still cleaning him up when we had to leave to get Nachum to the airport. After quick airport hugs, we started racing back to the hospital.

“Wait,” I exclaimed to my husband. “There must be a Toys R Us somewhere on the way.”

Had my husband not stopped me, I might’ve bought out the store.

Where did that urge come from? Was it prompted by pure joy? Some time-release buy-buy-buy Bubby Gene? Or was I just overcompensating for never getting “stuff” from my own grandparents?

Did I try to fill that hole in my heart at Toys R Us?

Maybe I was just trying to figure out how to be a bubby. I had no role model other than my mother and mother-in-law. I’d been just an observer, not a receiver, of Bubby Love.


Looking back, I wonder if my mother and mother-in-law did their own overcompensating. Like with food. They knew real hunger in Auschwitz. Is that why they’d constantly cook for and feed their grandchildren? Or with education. Two intelligent women, deprived of educational opportunities while growing up. Is that why they toiled so hard to make sure their children and grandchildren could attend yeshivahs and colleges?

Or was it pent-up love? They could no longer express love to their own parents and family members — all wiped out by the Nazis. Is that why they harnessed that love, lavishing it on their children and grandchildren?


I held a sleeping baby in my arms yesterday. My great-grandson. Gazing at his sweet face, I wondered: If I’m still making up my Bubby role as the grandkids get older, how do I figure out great-grandparenthood? Certainly not from past role models. Yet, this time around I didn’t feel that gaping hole. Instead, I feel immense gratitude… and hope that someday this child might know exactly how to be a great-grandparent.


Swimming in Uncharted Waters
Shevy Weiss

AS a woman who was just 14 when her mother died, I’ve often found myself jealous of women most others pity. Think young brides whose mothers died when they were married for a few months. She met your husband? Lucky you. I assume my mother would have adored my husband… but I don’t really know. Okay, so she died before you got married, but she was at your graduation? Wow, that’s amazing.

While other women might worry about a biological clock, us motherless daughters (and motherless mothers) have clocks of our own. How many years until you reach the age your mother was when she died? How many years until you have a child who is older than you were when you lost her?

With each milestone I’ve reached (and oh, there have been many), I feel my mother’s absence but take comfort in knowing she reached that milestone, too. My first pregnancy, I found myself calling my aunt often and asking if my mother was also nauseous like me. How I delighted in hearing that yes, actually, she was nauseous. (And yes, they told me, it’s a close contest as to who complained about it more.)

As a child, my mother would tell me the story of how I was born at 43 weeks, after days of labor and under threat of a C-section. Although she was exhausted afterward, she would fetch me from the nursery and bring me next to her bed. She would awaken a few hours later and find me gone and so, with her little strength, would walk back to the nursery and bring me back, again and again. Whenever she told the story, my heart would explode with love.

When I was struggling with getting my baby to sleep through the night, my uncle told me about the time I was six months old and still not sleeping through the night. He came to help my parents move, and he and my mother sponge-painted my new bedroom wall. I would picture the two of them slouched against the wall, sponges dripping in yellow paint, laughing.

When my brother was born, I remember hearing my mother say, “Having a boy is so different from having a girl.”

So when I had my boy, and I had my girl, I had this piece of my mother with me. I knew what she was like as a mother. I was still following her. Yes, the details were different, but I wasn’t doing anything so new. Sure, in the house I grew up in, we waited to eat until everyone was seated, and said things like, “May I please be excused?” while I sometimes found myself chasing after my children with a piece of schnitzel pleading for them to just take one more bite, but I still had a mother. She was just dead.

Last year, somewhere between swelling to the max and the extreme heartburn of my pregnancy with my third child, it occurred to me that I would be a mother to more children than my mother was.

At that moment, I lost her again.

How did Mommy manage three kids? She didn’t.

She never got the chance.

So here I am, months after the birth of my third, in uncharted territory. I have no model. I cannot call anyone to laugh about how Mommy would quip that having three kids is like… like… well, there’s no end to the sentence, because she never did that.

I now have more knowledge and more wisdom about something than my own mother. That makes the world so much bigger and so much scarier. Yes, women do things their mothers never did all the time — but they still have her. For someone who only has footsteps to follow, taking that walk on unmapped land is so exhilaratingly lonely.

This past Chanukah, I bought three doughnuts, lined up three menorahs with a baby on my hip, one child screaming for help with her buttons and another one asking for more orange juice. Three. I’m doing it, Mommy. All by myself, in every way.

I try to imagine my mother’s face, proud, beaming with nachas like I think she would be. I try to conjure up what her face would look like now if she were still alive, adding gray hairs and more lines, but I just can’t picture it. My mind reverts to the face of a woman who will never age past 42. For a split second, I see myself, flailing in these uncharted waters — but somehow, staying afloat. Hot tears roll down my face, touch my small but genuine smile, as I ask Hashem for more years. Don’t do it for me. Do it for these three. Six eyes meet mine, with a quizzical look. And I continue to mother them.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 873)

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