A Death in Jerusalem

Until some time last year I would learn every morning at a tiny one-room synagogue in Nahlaot, adjacent to the Mahane Yehudah market. The place had once been the home of a childless couple who left it, more than a century ago, to serve in perpetuity as a synagogue and house of study.

Every day an elderly woman would come by to empty the trash. She had a very few teeth but a beatific smile. Occasionally I would chat with her for a moment, and she would tell me how for decades it had been her mitzvah to come and clean the little synagogue. But now that her health no longer enabled to perform such labor she would still come each day to handle the trash and drop a coin into the tzedakah box embedded in the wall adjacent to the entrance. I never saw her in a bad mood.

This afternoon, I received a call from R. Aryeh Glaberson with whom I had studied until we parted ways. He informed me that the woman had passed away on Monday, and that she had a sister living near the train tracks who would be siting shiva. Unfortunately neither of knew about the death in time participate in the funeral. I can only imagine what a sad little funeral it was. After all, this woman could easily have qualified as one the 36 righteous, the Lamed Vav whose entire, anonymous existence is something none of us can understand. A woman alone, with no immediate family — no husband no children no grandchildren — the highlight of whose life was the privilege of volunteering for years to scrub the floors and windows of a synagogue nearly as invisible as herself.

R. Aaron and I met this afternoon and climbed the stairs of a shabby dwelling to the last door on the top floor. The door was locked and we had to knock hard until it was opened by the surviving sister — a widow of 85. She was accompanied by a daughter who, by all appearances, was not all there, and never had been.

As far as we could tell, we were the only people who had come by to pay our respects. It was a sad apartment, not sloppy but radiating poverty, and redolent of the difficult odor of unattended old age.

Apparently the departed was the youngest sister, and her name had been Rivka, “always a good sweet girl who had never married, but had taken care of other people’s children when she was younger”. The siblings — for there had been others — were all born in the old Shaarei Zedek Hospital on Jaffa Road where their father, and immigrant from somewhere in the Middle East, had worked all his life as a watchman with a little dairy shop on the side. The children, the oldest of whom would now be 90, all grew up in Nahlaot and lived among those wonderful, simple, excellent people who surrounded the shuk at a time when doors were unlocked, possessions were few, and things were shared.

We spent the better part of an hour listening to this old but very lucid lady describe life as it has once been, describing her late husband an IDF invalid, telling us about her father whom everyone adored and about whom no one ever had an unkind word. And, of course, she talked about her sister Rivka, who never had much of a life but whose life was full because that was how she felt about it. Rivka never went anywhere, always staying within her four cubits of Jerusalem, not just because she could not afford to vacation, but because she saw no need to, and never could muster any envy of those who had more than she did — which was just about everyone.

Rivka died as she had lived, keeling over in the shuk, instantly dead of a heart attack, taken like the strange angel she was.

As we were about to leave, Rivka’s sister asked us to wait a minute, she wanted to give us something. We waited until she emerged from her bedroom and pressed a 100 shekel bill into each of our hands. Obviously the last thing either of us wanted was to take money from this rare old lady. But clearly it meant a great deal to her to give it to us. And so we accepted it with blessings and told her we would place it in the very charity slot into which her sister Rivka had placed a coin every single day of her life.

I am not one of those who expresses a desire for the departed to be my ‘meilitz yosher’ — an advocate on my behalf in the world to come. My reticence has more to do with who the departed are than to any lack of superstition on my part. Indeed the ‘greater’ the departed the more I tend to recoil from any such preference. Today is an exception. I hope that Rivka will be a meilitz yosher for me. I cannot think of anyone better.

JJ Gross


10 Shevat 5771

20 January 2016

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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