Meetings with the Rachmastrivka Rebbe, Yisroel Mordechai Twerski, ztz”l.
Every Chassid has his Rebbe stories. What makes my stories a bit different is that I am an American who speaks little Hebrew and less Yiddish, and I grew up in a world without Rebbes or the concept of them. Not only were there no Chassidishe Rebbes in my world, there were not many simply Jewish things either, like chametz, leichter, shaylos, and sheitels.
When I fell down the Rabbit Hole (as in Alice in Wonderland) and began Part Two of my life, I discovered many curious and wondrous things like tishes, shtreimels, and kvitlach. During Part One, I had encountered transcendent experiences that prepared me for glimpsing someone who was traveling through worlds upon worlds.
Most of my transcendent “highs” in Part One descended on me during my forays into nature. And these experiences were so significant that I ended up abandoning city life and moving to the Maine Coast. During my meditative hours sitting on the rocky shore of the Atlantic Ocean which happened to be right there in my backyard, I began to feel the Oneness of the universe and intimations of its Creator.
My spiritual journey took me from the rocks of Maine to the stones of Jerusalem. It was a voyage of light years and can only be described as “Hashem took me out.”
There was never a doubt in my mind where I wanted to settle when I got there. While other Americans gravitated to more modern parts of the city like Har Nof and Arzei Habirah to be close to their compatriots, I fell in love with the narrow streets of Geula and Mea Shearim. I relished the low portals that required me to stoop as I entered, the girls in braids who jumped rope in magical synchronicity, the domed roofs of the old Sephardic shuls, and the smell of fresh baked pitas coming from behind those windows with their ancient iron filigree loops and twirls.
I settled into a tiny hole-in-the wall apartment with my husband and children that looked like it came straight out of the 19th century. There were sacrifices. I couldn’t make normal conversation with my neighbors who didn’t speak a word of English. There was no central heating, and we shivered in winter. There were hardly any windows in our ground floor apartment, and we baked in the summer. I overlooked the fact that I could hardly open the door and squeeze through to the tiny bathroom that doubled as the laundry room.
These were small sacrifices to make when I knew intuitively that there was buried treasure around every corner of those old, narrow streets that tended to crowd out the giant blue sky overhead.
Two doors from my tiny home was an alleyway that flooded in winter. At the end of the alley, a left-hand turn, and then walk straight for one long block. There on the corner where Dovid Yellin meets Yosef Ben Matisyahu was the Rachmastrivka Beis Medrash—and the Rebbe—only a five minute walk from my home.
The Rachmastrivka Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Mordechai Twersky, ztz”l, was related to the first Rebbe of the twentieth century to settle in Jerusalem—Rebbe Mordechai Twersky—who came in 1906. Rabbi Yisroel Mordechai Twersky became Rebbe of the Rachmastrivka Chassidim in 1982 when he succeeded his father, Rebbe Yochanan.
When I moved to Mekor Baruch in ’83 and then to Geula five years later, these neighborhoods had not yet became popular with English speakers. English was such a rarity on the streets that whenever I heard a woman speaking it, I boldly approached her and introduced myself.
When it was rumored that an American woman was living only two blocks away, I sped over and knocked on her door. I will never forget how she responded when I told her that I was her neighbor. She burst into tears and literally fell into my arms as if I was a long-lost blood relative and had just given her the most wonderful news. From that moment on, there was hardly a day that passed without a visit from her or one of her children, and the family became so close that until this day, we refer to them as our “cousins.”
We became one of the few addresses for Americans who wanted to spend a Shabbos in the Geula/Meah Shearim area.
It was not unusual to crowd five, seven, or even ten guests around our Shabbos table in the dining room which was really a fairly wide hallway between the kitchen and the two bedrooms behind.
After the Friday night seuda, we would coax those Shabbos guests, some of them still in their jeans with their backpacks stashed next to the door, to accompany us to the Rebbe’s tish. On a rainy, windy winter’s night, we would wrap up the children in their scarves and tuck them into their strollers for the walk through the alleyway and up the street to the Rebbe.
As our troop made its way to Rachmastrivka, my husband and I felt a bit like Peter Pan and Wendy with our band of lost boys. (The comparison seemed especially fitting since my English name was Wendy.) The children and I led the way into the women’s section while my husband split off with the men and headed to the main entrance.
Would my guests be able to see through the paint peeling off the walls and the odd assortment of chairs strewn everywhere? Would they see what I saw through the tiny diamond openings made by the criss-crossing of wooden sticks in the mechitza?
Did they have the eyes now and would their life’s experiences ever give them the eyes to see?
The baby would be sleeping in the stroller and my toddlers running back and forth on the old linoleum floors. Most of the Rachmastrivka women relaxed at home on Friday nights, but there were a few intrepid tish goers, mostly teenage girls, at their usual places flush up against the mechitza with their eyes boring through the diamond openings.
The men would be singing their medley of niggunim between the courses of food the gabbai served the Rebbe. It would be years before I recognized the songs and understood the protocol of when the soup was served, when the kugel, when the l’chayims, when the bentching, and years before I knew beforehand that the Rebbe would eat no more than a spoonful of his soup before the Chassidim dived in for a drop of his leftovers.
I looked through the mechitza and saw the bochurim on either side standing in rows on the bleachers, and a long table down the middle of the room where the “choshuve,” dignified, dignitaries sat. The sea of shtreimels seeped into every other available space, and besides the Chassidim, there was a sprinkling of Litvishe hats with a few wooly or baseball caps who were likely to be our male guests or possibly other tourists who had wandered into the shul.
The Rebbe sat at the end of the long table. He was clearly the center of everyone’s attention and the focus of everyone’s energy—he was the Point Man.
I had to shift around to get just the right angle to see him clearly. And what always happened when I fixed him at the center of my vision and brought him into focus?
I discovered that he was looking directly at me every single time. It didn’t make sense, but there it was. How could he possibly see me through the mechitza that was many meters away from where he sat? He seemed to fix me in his gaze. As soon as I found him, I discovered that he had already found me.
In truth, there was no way he could have seen me through the mechitza. As with many Chassidim, each one feels that the Rebbe is aware of him especially and takes a special interest in him. Whatever the objective truth, I felt that he was looking at me and reaching in to my soul.
I once mentioned to another woman how I felt at the Rebbe’s tish, and she said that she had the same experience—she felt the Rebbe was always looking directly at her.
In those days before he became ill, the Rebbe got around.
He could still walk from his apartment in Batei Horenstein to the Beis Medrash on Dovid Yellin. One morning I took the baby with me and walked over to their home to visit with the Rebbetzin.
To say their home was “humble” is an understatement. It was even far more humble than mine. It had two main rooms with a tiny kitchen off to the right, and another small room off to the left. The furnishings were sparse and very old.
The Rebbetzin greeted me at the door as if she were receiving the Queen of England. She took my hand, drew me in, and led me over to the table at the center of the room where she sat me down. In a flurry of excuses, she asked me to wait for five minutes until she came back.
When she returned, her arms were full of refreshments which she had run to purchase at the makolet, as well as a bag which she handed me. Inside was a beautiful baby outfit for my new baby boy. And then she showered me with mazel tovs and blessings for a good life, for health, for livelihood, for nachas, for Shalom bayis, for ruchniyus, for gashmiyus, for absolutely everything spiritual and material from Hashem’s bounty.
It was then I noticed that it wasn’t only her eyes that twinkled, but absolutely her whole face.
Then she sat down and gave me her undivided attention. I had never been so disappointed that my Hebrew or Yiddish weren’t better. How would we communicate? But somehow we managed to understand each other the way people were always telling me was possible: words that come from the heart can bypass the conscious mind and go straight to the other person’s heart.
When I told her that I had come from a secular background, she lit up and jumped to her feet. “Mine Tatte, mine Tatte,” and then she proceeded to tell me the story about how her father, Reb Sender Uri, had come to Eretz Yisroel from Europe as a chalutznik in the ‘20’s. He was a descendent of a distinguished line of rabbanim, but he had abandoned religious observance to join the Zionist cause.
One day when he was working building roads, specifically the first paved road in Jerusalem, he saw an old religious Jew selling seforim from a horse-drawn cart. When the seforim seller saw this chalutznik looking intently at a certain sefer, he was curious and went up to him. Her father turned to the old Yid and remarked off-handedly that he was a descendent of the author.
With all his strength, the old Yid grabbed Reb Sender out of the ditch. He literally dragged him all the way to the Rachmastrivka Rebbe’s great grandfather Rebbe Nachum, and as the story goes, Reb Sender was immediately won over by the Rebbe and abandoned his road building career forever.
The Rebbetzin finished her story by saying, “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank Hashem that my father returned to Yiddishkeit! What would my life have been, and where would I be if he hadn’t? Boruch Hashem!”
I remember thinking, “This is my kind of Rebbetzin. Someone who is so human and non-intimidating, and so completely accepting.”
My first private audience with the Rebbe was a different kind of experience. I had come away from my meeting with the Rebbetzin feeling validated. From being with the Rebbe for all of five minutes with my husband present, I came away feeling as if some deft spiritual electrician had rewired me to be able to receive a whole other dimension.
The amazing part was that I felt he knew me already, and it was unnecessary to tell him anything, not even why I had come and for which blessing I was asking.
Fixed in his steady and uncompromising gaze, I felt like an open book in which all my past, present, and future were visible to the Rebbe’s eyes. It was so different from being with the Rebbetzin who made me feel relaxed, loved, and accepted. Standing in front of the Rebbe, I felt as if I was in the presence of a powerful fire. His was a holy presence that could singe any part of me that was not entirely honest and real and awake. But the loving part was also there. His was a fiery, loving presence.
Over the years, as the children were growing up, we went into the Rebbe for blessings at crucial junctures in our lives.
Most of the time it was enough to just know that we had entered his orbit and he “knew” us, but there were decisions that we felt too small to make by ourselves, and then we would go to see him.
Before each one of my births, my husband would go to the Rebbe for his blessing for a safe and easy birth—a healthy baby and a healthy mother. After the birth, he would call the Rebbe with the good news and then consult with him about which name to choose for the baby.
The Rebbe was sandek at my son’s bris. I will never forget how I sat in a room off the Beis Medrash and waited for the baby to be returned to me. It was a bit complicated because it was a Shabbos bris, and because I was as inexperienced as anyone could be about Chassidishe customs surrounding a bris.
Earlier that morning, my husband had gone to shul to daven. Now it was raining and cold, and I had just flown through the streets in the rain to bring my newborn. There was no one to take the baby but myself. The ladies there couldn’t believe that I had brought the baby by myself, and they shooed me to a corner of the room to sit down and rest. They seemed to be disapproving, but I had no idea why. Suddenly, I wanted to cry as it dawned on me like never before that I was very alone without parents, without sisters and brothers, and without any extended family to cushion me.
My husband was still consulting with the Rebbe about the name, just minutes before they carried the baby into the Beis Medrash on a white pillow.
I waited with my two year old daughter in a little corner of a world that could not compute me and which seemed full of indecipherable secrets.
I was hoping I could be invisible. I didn’t have the language, I didn’t have the information I needed, and I didn’t understand the lay of the land. But I “held on” to the Rebbe who was above all these superficial definitions and cultural differences. I depended on my soul connection to the Rebbe to carry me through this zone of discomfort. I found a place of strength inside of me beyond my emotions which tied me into what really mattered.
I can only speculate, but I think that the Rebbe was a bit amused by our little family of American baal teshuva Chassidim. He would smile joyfully when my husband asked questions that no one had ever dared to ask him. For example, one day, my husband, bringing his creative imagination with him, went into the Rebbe and asked him, “Just for curiosity, if someone would say, –and I’m not saying it, but if someone would say— that he hears the flapping of the wings of angels, would it be good?” The Rebbe was laughing with joy, with that happy look on his faced reserved only for occasions like this. In the middle, my husband asked him again, “Is it good?” The Rebbe shook his head up and down and said, “It’s good.”
We had stepped into a reality that was largely filled with the presence of spiritual giants, both of the recent past and the present.
Not having any precedent for that, we often did the wrong thing, but sometimes it worked to our advantage. When we had just moved into the neighborhood, my husband had spied the Rebbe walking down the street with his attendant. Without thinking if it was appropriate or not, he ran up to the Rebbe and asked him to come over and give us a blessing for “a good yishuv” in our new home.
Without warning, my husband opened the door and brought the Rebbe inside. I was standing on a stepstool cleaning out the inside of the cupboards when I saw them standing in the doorway. I was stunned. There were boxes strewn everywhere, and the house was a mess.
The Rebbe stayed only a minute but he gave us a beautiful bracha. We were such innocents that we didn’t understand that you don’t just ask a Rebbe to come over to your house.
There were things I could have never done without the Rebbe. It was before one of my births, and I had already been in the hospital for three days of testing. They were insisting on inducing labor. I was frantic thinking about the upcoming ordeal, but adamant that I wouldn’t take the strong painkiller that the doctor advised. I only relaxed when my husband spoke with the Rebbe and received his assurance that I could follow the doctor’s instruction and everything would be all right.
After the Rebbe was confined to a wheelchair, and his body was weaker, his spirit was even more of a fire than before.
I brought my niece to him for his blessing just before her marriage. She was brand new to the religious world and the world of Rebbes, but she knew a fire when she saw one. She was taken off guard by the Rebbe’s piercing gaze, and tears began to roll down her cheeks as she clutched the apple he had given her through the gabbai.
When it came time to find a husband for my oldest daughter, we came one morning to the Rebbe’s house with the names of our daughter and a young man who seemed to be a likely possibility. By then the Rebbe was living on Sfas Emes Street near the Rachmastrivka Beis Medrash, and his new quarters were spacious and “Rebbishe,” but still very Old World.
As I stood in the in the hallway outside the room where the Rebbe received his Chassidim, I was feeling utterly grateful to have the Rebbe in my life. I marveled that I only needed to wait a few minutes to see him. If the world only knew who he was and what he could see, there would be lines outside his door stretching for miles and people traveling half way around the world to reach him.
Here was probably one of the greatest Tzaddikim, holy and righteous individuals, alive, and he knew me—me who was still trying to find my way in the world. Me—a graduate of Passaic Senior High School who had dreamed of making treks to the Himalayas and meeting Zen masters and other highly evolved higher consciousness individuals. Me—who had spent three days in complete silence during a yoga retreat in northern New Jersey in search of Truth, in search of transcendence, in search of G-d.
Now I was a married woman with children old enough to be on the threshold of marriage, and instead of leaving the world to find G-d and higher consciousness, I had immersed myself in the world, in the life of human beings, in changing diapers, in stirring pots of food, in cleaning under the beds, in raising children and mediating their fights, finding their other sock or lost shoe, nursing their wounds, nursing their fevers and their flus—I had, in short, embraced the human condition and still held on to my higher aspirations for connection with G-d. And I had accepted finally that I would never be really fully comfortable anywhere, not even in the Chassidishe community where I had grafted myself on, but it didn’t matter, because I had been given many priceless opportunities which I would not have had anywhere else—foremost of which was the chance to “know” the Rebbe.
The Rebbe’s attendant let us in, and we gave the paper with the children’s names to the Rebbe.
He asked a few questions about the young man and looked closely at the names. Then he looked at us and said simply, “If they meet and find grace in each other’s eyes, then finish the shidduch.”
Finish the shidduch? What did the Rebbe mean by that? Outside the Rebbe’s room, his attendant was puzzled by our confusion. “Finish the shidduch” means make the shidduch which means we had received the green light to go ahead.
It took a while for the Rebbe’s words to sink in. When the children met and they did like each other, I sensed myself standing at the edge of what seemed to be a sheer cliff. It was like the feeling I had when I stood on a misty afternoon at the edge of the Glencolumkil cliffs in Ireland.
Now, I could hear the voices shouting behind me to jump, but I froze. The decision was too big, much too big for me, a very fallible human being, to make. But I held on to the Rebbe and his words, and I did the unthinkable—I jumped.
I was still trembling in the midst of the mazel tovs and the l’chayims. And then I saw my shy, young daughter standing next to the young man she was going to marry. Someone was snapping pictures, and my daughter was peering at her future husband whom she had just met for the first time the day before, and he was peering back at her. I saw, in an instant, that they were soul mates and destined for each other. I don’t even know how I saw it and why I felt it was true. It was as if a veil fell away, and the invisible became visible long enough for me to banish all my doubts.
I would have never had the guts to make that shidduch without the Rebbe’s words to encourage me.
Whenever I thought of my terror next to that cliff and knew that I would have to jump again and again in the process of finding soul mates for the rest of my children, I thought of the Rebbe and felt relieved that he would be there to guide me every time.
But that was not destined to be. Less than two years later, I went to see the Rebbe for the last time. He had been getting progressively weaker and was no longer able to speak. The Rebbe looked up at me when I walked into the room. One might have expected that his illness was slowly quenching his fire, but it seemed that the opposite was true. The fire burned so brightly that I found it hard to meet his gaze.
I felt that the Rebbe was saying goodbye, and that knowing my sensitivity and vulnerability, he was telling me not to be afraid—all this without speaking a word. He must have known that there would be challenges and frightening situations in my personal life and in the world at large. I could hear him telling me to hold on and never give up. His eyes were so full of love and compassion, and he was telling me about the sweetness of the coming Redemption, and that I should just hold on.
© Varda Branfman, 2018
This piece first appeared in Mishpacha Magazine