On Sunday, January 10th 2010 6:15 AM Israel time, my Savta (grandmother), my mother’s mother, passed away in Israel at the age of 73, and laid to rest at 2:00 PM. Born on November 27th, 1936 as Rivka Nimcovsky in British-controlled Palestine, she and my Sabba (grandfather), Chanan Presser, also born in pre-Israel Palestine, had joked that they were original Palestinians.
My Savta was raised in a secular Israeli home, and served in the Israeli army as a Sergeant Major, even though the standing joke was that she was never able to properly shoot a gun. During target practice she would have someone else shoot for her and when the superior approached her afterwards, she would point at the bulls-eye and say “look I did it!” In fact, since Israel was such a young country at the time, not everyone had owned guns. The rule apparently was that is someone stole your rifle you could be jailed for something like 5-7 years. Therefore, since she hadn’t owned a gun, all of her comrades had to sleep “with one eye open” guarding their own rifles, while my Savta could rest easy, not being able to own one in the first place. In then end it didn’t matter, as she served 12 years with distinction.
The way my Savta met my Sabba is actually a funny story. My Sabba, one day, decided to visit a friend of his, who was not home. Seeing this, he decided to visit his friend Rafi Nimcovsky and see “what was happening.” Rafi was with some friends and family, and when Sabba asked if he could come in, Rafi told him “Surrre! Come on in!” Sabba then met Rafi’s sister Rivka, and they got along nicely. The day came and went, and everybody went home.
Some time later, Sabba decided to visit Rafi again, and as it turned out he asked Rafi where Rivka was. Rafi explained that she was sleeping. Shortly after that Rivka, who apparently was awaken by Sabba’s ever-bellowing voice, walked down the stairs half-asleep. Without seeing who it was, she snapped, “Zzzzzz…Mi zeh, Chanan?” (Who is that, Chanan?) Shortly after, they married and fought ever since (always in a loving manner, though). In remembering birthdays, it was easy to remember each other’s birthday’s since their birthdays were always 9 months, 9 days apart from each other.
Both of my mother’s parents were born and raised as secular Israelis, proud of their country, their heritage, and moral values. While my grandparents weren’t raised in households teaching traditional Torah and Mitzvos, their wonderful hearts and amazing Hachnasas Orchim eventually resulted in them, as well as all of their children and grandchildren, leading Torah lives. This was testament to Hillel’s teaching that Torah on one leg is that “That which you dislike don’t do to your fellow: That’s the basis of Torah. The rest is commentary; go learn!” (Shabbos 31a)
How my grandparents became religious, also, was a funny story. Being born secular, they had a strong set of traditional values, observing Pesach, Chanuka, etc. to some degree at the very least. When they immigrated to the United States shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967, initially settling in Brooklyn, New York, they enrolled their children in public school. Their reasoning was that, if in Israel public school taught everything necessary, the same thing should apply in America. After some time, they saw that this wasn’t the case.
One day, their youngest son, Gidon (my uncle) came home from school. He asked my Sabba, “Abba, in school everybody was talking about this wonderful holiday called X-mas! Why don’t we celebrate it as well?” Suffice to say, my grandfather’s blood pressure, high enough as it was, shot up faster than a speeding bullet, and decided right then and there that the kids must have a Jewish education.
Initially, my grandparents wanted their kids to go to a Hebrew day school without the “religious fanatacism.” In applying Gidon for Solomon Schechter Day School (a Conservative Jewish school), Sabba was shocked to hear that, in the mid-1970’s, the school was asking for, in terms of tuition, $12,000 “up-front.” Seeing that this was too much money, they finally decided to try out a Yeshiva in Rockland called ASHAR (Adolph Schrieber Hebrew Academy of Rockland). The Menahel, or Jewish Studies principal, told my grandparents, “Let’s first get your son into the Yeshiva, and we can worry about the money later.” This started a chain reaction.
After my uncle Gidon was accepted into ASHAR, my aunt Effie was admitted there as well (mixed classes up until 5th grade, then separate Hebrew classes from 6th through 8th grade). Soon, they started to make friends, and in the spirit of their parents, desired to bring their friends over to eat meals. Problem was, the house wasn’t Kosher and that Sabba and Savta weren’t Shomrai Shabbos. For religious people this poses a problem since one can’t eat in a non-Kosher house. Therefore, for the sake of their children and their desire to bring friends over, Sabba and Savta Kashered their kitchen, kept Shabbos, and the rest was history. Now, all of Sabba and Savta’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids are frum.
As her grandson, I saw my Sabba and Savta not only spoil me to death as a child (of course), but the the types of lengths they went to entertain guests. They were a lot of fun and full of life! Their house to me was like a palace. As a child, I remember the mornings laden with the warmest greetings, the hugs and kisses, and the constant daylight even when it rained. In the afternoons/evenings, I remember the best food coming out of Savta’s oven, playing Chess (always losing) and checkers/connect-4 (always winning) with Sabba, and complaining to Savta that Gidon, who also was tons of fun, was bothering me when he played around with me. There also was a huge lawn to play in, and the front porch always had just the right amount of shade. At night, there were the comfiest beds, sweetest “fresh” smell of the blankets and pillows, books to read just before going to bed, and a night-light that somehow contently assured me that everything was “just right.” Indeed, living with Sabba and Savta was truly experiencing heaven on earth.
Another thing I also loved about Savta, “the good stuff,” was that at many times, when she would want to call somebody by his or her name, she would run around a long list of names. For example, as a kid, when Gidon was living in the house, she would say “ehhh Gidon, ehhh Rafi.” The good stuff.
As it goes, the riddle of the sphinx is “what has 4 legs in the morning, 2 in the afternoon, and 3 in the evening?” The answer, of course, is a human being that crawls on “4 legs” in the morning of ones life, walks on 2 legs in the afternoon of that life, and at the end of the person’s life, the evening, the person uses a cane, or a 3rd leg. It’s only appropriate that Savta, who lived life to its fullest, would have a full day and a relatively short evening, as she would only need to use the walker the last few days of her life in a season where evenings are longer.
Savta lived life to its fullest. She accomplished in 73 years what it would take others 120 years to accomplish. I only hope that be granted the same heavenly experience she gave me as a child, a million times over. Amen Ken Yehi Ratzon.