Thursday, Jul 29, 2021

Majestic Matriarch- Mrs. Miriam Mendlowitz ah

Her jewels? The pure tefillos she davened ceaselessly throughout each day, the chapters of tehillim she murmured, every word emanating from deep within. Her treasures? The words of blessing and kindness she bestowed on those in her orbit.
 
Mrs. Miriam Mendlowitz, the beloved matriarch of the renowned Mendlowitz family, who left this world last week at the age of 104, was a legend in her time.

 

She was the epitome of selflessness, a daughter, wife and mother who spent her entire life, literally, caring for others. By default, their happiness was her happiness as well.

 

She wasn’t a naïve, small-minded woman. Bubby Mendlowitz was witty and clever, always on the ball. She knew exactly what was going on, and had a sharp rejoinder to every joke. In fact, when a great-grandsonrecently came to visit, and his parents introduced him, (he was a frequent visitor,) she went along with the ‘façade,’ eyes twinkling, and then asked, formally, “So, how are you doing, Chaim?”

 

At the same time she was so sweet and satisfied. Bubby lived life fully, embracing every moment and filling it to the brim.

 

She was an unusual personality, dedicated wholly to her family, to her husband, to her parents and in-laws. In the mid-sixties, when most of her children were married, she and her husband moved to Eretz Yisroel, leaving everything dear to them behind, to care for her elderly father.

 

Upending her life for her loved ones was not a new experience for her. As a newlywed she spent years caring for her mother-in-law and her elderly grandmother, both of whom lived in her small apartment!

 

What about privacy? Her ‘need’ for solitude, for peace and quiet? These didn’t exist. She drew strength and joy from giving.

 

Miriam Mendlowitz was a four year old child when her family escaped from their shtetl during the First World War, an era of bloodshed and heartbreak. Later they moved to America with little more than the clothes on their backs, and were of the pioneers whose mesiras nefesh for Shabbos cost them their jobs.

 

It wasn’t an easy life, by any stretch of the imagination. They were greenhorns who didn’t know the language, were far from their extended families, and had no support system in place. She never had any of the ‘necessities’ we take for granted nowadays: running water, a Jewish school, friends her age, sleep away camp, or even an occasional vacation.

 

She worked for most of her life, first, helping her father, and then as the owner and operator of the famous Mendlowitz Grocery Store in Williamsburg for decades.

 

The money they earned was shared with the extended family, including those down on their luck, the poor, widowed, orphaned and homeless. They gave and gave whatever they had, leaving only a pittance for themselves.

 

She raised her children without the benefit of cleaning help or nannies, while spending hours serving customers in the store. And she did it all with a sweet, giving smile. With a sense of inner peace and happiness, with her constant rejoinder, ‘I had a beautiful life.’

 

And it was true.

 

She really, really lived life, with every fiber of her being.

 

Such a woman is truly fortunate, as she finds joy in every breath.

 

The sun rising every morning gives her cause to rejoice anew.

 

Mrs. Mendlowitz radiated kindness, nobility, devotion and an extraordinary simchas hachaim. Those who knew her remember her smile, which lit up her face and seemed to make the world a happier place. She rejoiced in your simcha and shared your sorrow, as if it was her own.

 

Despite the numerous difficulties and challenges she endured during her lifetime, the hours of backbreaking work, having so many people depend on her, she saw only goodness and blessing. “Hashem is so good to me,” was her oft-repeated refrain.

 

From her early childhood in a small Hungarian village, her teen years spent in the pastoral, (and isolated) city of Scranton, PA, her subsequent marriage to Reb Reuvain Mendlowitz, the years spent running the grocery, and later her move to Eretz Yisroel, everything was always perfect. Kulon shovin l’tovah.

 

Life was beautiful, a gift to be savored and cherished.

 

The Torah teaches us, “kabeid es ovicho v’es imecho l’maan yarichun yomecha.” Honor your father and mother, so that your days will be long.

 

Is it a coincidence that the woman who moved to Eretz Yisroel to care for her elderly father, considering it the greatest blessing, lived to the advanced age of 104?

 

Early Roots

 

She was born Miriam Gross, eldest child of Reb Menashe and Chana, on the fourth of Shevat, January 14, 1910. The family lived in Adzidovic, a pastoral border village, until their escape to Prague when war broke out. Her earliest childhood memory was fleeing Azidovic, a Czech/Hungarian border village overrun by Russian troops. Her father carried her two younger brothers in his arms, while her mother held her newborn sister. She recalls the panic of running behind them, trying not to get lost. She was only four years old.

 

It was 1914, the beginning of World War I, and miraculously the family made it onto the last train out of town. Several years later, Reb Menashe emigrated to America, moving to Scranton, to carve out a new life for his family. For several years, his wife and six children lived with their maternal grandparents, waiting for the tickets to come.

 

Reb Menashe was not affected by his surroundings. He lived in a rooming house for five years and taught in the local Talmud Torah, while trying to raise money for shifskaarten, or ship tickets. During these years he didn’t eat any meat products, and only ate dairy if he personally supervised the milking. He was exceptionally careful with kashrus, eating only homemade foods for the rest of his life.

 

In the summer of 1925, after the passing of their beloved grandmother, Chaya Sara, Chana Gross and four of the children boarded the Mauretania, headed to the land of hope and promise. They were accompanied by her widowed father, the Zeide Shmuel. The two older boys stayed behind at first, to learn in a European yeshiva; two more children were born in America.

 

The family traveled in steerage, crammed with thousands of other passengers making their way to a better world.

 

There was one crucial difference, however: Zeide Shmuel was a determined, proud Jew, who didn’t throw his tefillin into the Atlantic when the ship docked at the New York Harbor. He had heard much about the land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold–if you worked six days a week, including Saturday.

 

 Zeide wasn’t interested in riches or fame. All he wanted was to serve Hashem without interference by the Cossacks or the Tzar. He disembarked from the ship at the New York harbor, along with his daughter and grandchildren, a sefer Torah clutched tightly in his arms.

 

When they arrived in Scranton, exhausted and shell-shocked, the culture shock hit them hard. Her daughter, Faigie Heiman, wrote in a tribute to her mother, “Girl for Sale:”

 

“Momma, whose given name is Miriam, was registered in public school as Mary Anne. She was put into a low grade because she did not speak English. For six months, Momma sat in her class, mute. When she finally opened up, she spoke English fluently. She was a teenager, and by the time she finished elementary school, high school was no longer an option.

 

“I didn’t want to remain in Scranton,’ Momma told me. I begged my parents to allow me to go to New York, where I could live with my aunt and uncle. My younger brothers needed a yeshiva, and I needed a shidduch. My parents realized it would be best if I moved to New York.”

 

The entire family eventually moved to New York, where the two older boys joined them. Reb Menashe’s mesiras nefesh and dedication to his faith paid off. Remarkably, all eight children, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren remained Shomrei Torah U’mitzvos, a rarity in that era.

 

It was in New York that the teenaged Miriam Gross met her bashert, Reb Reuvain Mendlowitz, from the esteemed Mendlowitz family. The Grosses had known the Mendlowitzes back in the Old Country, where Reuvain’s mother, Bobba Toba, sold dairy products in the market near Adzidovic.

 

Reuvain and Miriam Mendlowitz were married in 1931, when Yiddishkeit in America was slowly fading. True, there were some stalwarts who refused to abandon their religious practices, but the majority were influenced by the zeitgeist. Mixed dancing, Sundays at the boardwalk and ‘kosher style’ eateries were common.

 

Miriam Mendlowitz wanted to cover her hair after her marriage, but she felt self-conscious being the only young married woman she knew wearing a wig. In fact, on the first day of their marriage, she wouldn’t leave the bedroom, as she was embarrassed of how she looked. Her sister-in-law Freida went into the room, hugged the kallah, and told her how silly she was to cry over a wig. “Here, look, pull out a little on this side, a strand on this side, and you see? Already you look beautiful.”

 

Her trim blonde wig adorned her head for over eighty years like a crown of glory. Even during the final weeks of her life, she would constantly worry, “Is my tichel on my head? Is my tichel on my head?”

 

Soon after their marriage, the newlywed Mendlowitzs took Bobba Toba, Reb Reuvain’s mother, in to live with them, along with Bobba Toba’s elderly mother! Three generations, and later four, living under one roof. Remarkably, daughter-in-law and her shvigger lived in close quarters, in a tiny apartment, literally on each other’s toes, and got along harmoniously for many years.

 

As her children recalled, “They lived side by side without conflict, never raising their voices, each one appreciating the other.”

 

Zeidy and Bubby Mendlowitz had true mesiras nefesh for Shabbos, as Reb Reuvain was fired from one job after the next. “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday,” was the refrain.

 

Eventually, shortly before the birth of their third child, they opened a Williamsburg grocery on South 9th Street, which they operated, day in and day out, for over thirty years. They never took a vacation or closed the store for any reason other than Shabbos and Yom Tov. It became a source of nourishment for friends and neighbors, for the hungry and homeless, for any Yid in need.

 

As her children recalled, “Our front door was rarely locked. The store fed not only our family, but also many neighbors, even when they were unable to pay their bills. The yeshiva rabbeim were paid with post-dated checks….Poppa accepted them and in return they received cash, or food. He held onto the checks until the yeshiva made the funds available.”

 

The Mendlowitzes were blessed with five children, whom they raised lovingly in their small Williamsburg apartment, along with Bubby and elter-Bubby.

 

Despite the crowded conditions, everything was spic and span, in perfect shape. The young mother was a perfectionist, who scrubbed floors, baked delicious meals from scratch, and ironed shirts and aprons to a crisp.

 

In Eretz Yisroel

 

In 1964, with most of their children married, and their youngest son learning in Lakewood, Reb Reuvain and Miriam Mendlowitz sold their store, packed their belongings, and made aliyah.

 

What precipitated this move to the Holy Land? Once again, it was her filial devotion.

 

Miriam’s mother, Chana, had passed away the year before, and her widowed father yearned to spend the rest of his life in Eretz Yisroel. His beloved children moved to a small Shaarei Chesed apartment to care for him there. Her father only ate food that was cooked in his own kitchen, made from raw ingredients. His daughter cheerfully undertook sole responsibility for her father’s care, until his passing over a decade later.

 

Leaving her beloved children and grandchildren for many years, (travel was cumbersome and very expensive) was no small sacrifice, yet Miriam Mendlowitz considered it a privilege. At her age, she eagerly started anew, accepting the inevitable challenges and culture shock as an adventure.

 

She spent her golden years in Yerushalayim, in the shadow of the Shechinah, davening and caring for others, just as she had done for most of her life.

 

The passing of her husband forty years ago was a painful blow, yet she refused to succumb to depression. Instead, she told the grandchildren not to take turns sleeping in her apartment, as she wanted to learn to stand on her own two feet. And indeed, she continued giving and doing for others, as she had done for most of her life.

 

Twenty-one years ago, she was persuaded to move into the Tamir, an assisted living home, near her beloved younger sister, Hench Leiman. The two sisters, who lived next to each for years, were inseparable. They would go to shul together each Shabbos, rain or shine, have their meals together, and spend time conversing, recalling the highlights of their childhood.

 

Mrs. Mendlowitz remained young and spry, witty and vibrant, even in her eighties and nineties. She began to paint at the age of 85, and would proudly show off her paintings to visiting grandchildren!

 

She loved to sing and dance, and would dance up a storm at every grandchild’s wedding or other happy occasion, along with four generations of descendants. Dressed to the nines, vibrant and full of life, she was perpetually young. Everyone gravitated to her orbit.

 

As her daughter expressed, “In her mid eighties, Momma was still traveling by bus to visit friends in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood. A friend met Momma on her way home from the Wolfson Building. “Mrs. Mendlowitz, what are you doing on this bus?” she asked.

 

“I just visited a sick old lady who lives in the neighborhood.”

 

“How old is that lady you visited?”

 

“I don’t know, maybe seventy?” Momma answered with a straight face.

 

A granddaughter recalls that she walked two and a half miles, to a great-nephew’s bris, when she was well into her nineties. The walk was hardly exhausting for her, as she was in excellent shape, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

 

“Every morning when we visited Bubby, she would thank Hashem again for meriting another day. She had so much energy, was so connected to Hashem, yet so normal. She loved her einiklach and would hover over them, offering them food and drink. She was happiest when she was taking care of others.”

 

She was generous and giving, choosing to focus on the ‘good’ side of people. She didn’t keep a ‘cheshbon’ of who called and visited, or who didn’t. Those who came to visit her were showered with blessings. “Does it cost money to be nice?” was her oft-repeated motto.

 

Her house was meticulous and orderly. There was no clutter or dust running amok in her small apartment; everything had a seder. Likewise, her personal appearance was impeccable. She was always prim and proper, perfectly dressed and coiffed, even in her advanced age.

 

She never complained until her mid-nineties, when she lost most of her vision, which greatly distressed her, as she was no longer able to daven unassisted. She would often say, “What is the purpose of my life without davening?” She was connected to Hashem, and couldn’t bear not to speak to Him, even for a short time.

 

 She would spend her entire day davening andsayingTehillim. When her vision declined, she learned to daven from memory. She davened three formal tefillos a day, never skipping a ma’ariv, even after coming home late from a great-grandchild’s wedding. Her tefillos were poignant, pulsating with energy. She was a daughter standing submissively, pleading with her Father.

 

The pages of her Tehillim were well worn, as she whispered the hallowed words, over and over again. She knew the words of Tehillim by heart, and would daven for every child, grandchild, great-grandchild and great-great-grandchild’s hatzlocha.

 

She would also daven for almonos and yesomim, and for anyone she knew who that needed a yeshuah. During every war, (and she lived through many!) she would daven and cry for the safety of the soldiers. She fasted on Tisha B’av until she was 101 years old!

 

Bubby embraced every Shabbos and Yom Tov, and eagerly looked forward to Rosh Chodesh. When her children were young, Rosh Chodesh meant fresh cheese blintzes and a beautiful white blouse. Later it was an opportunity to sing Hallel, to thank her Father for His kindness and blessings. Hakoras hatov wasn’t just an esoteric concept; she lived it, each and every day.

 

The last painting she created, before her vision declined, was that of a fruitful tree, its long branches stretching heavenward, standing in a verdant field of flowers.

 

That was her.

 

Mrs. Miriam Mendlowitz remained hale and vigorous until a short time before her petirah at the age of 104.

 

During the final 72 hours of her life, Bubby Mendlowitz was constantly davening and saying pesukim,Malchuscha Malchus Kol Olamim,” and “Hashem Melech, Hashem Molach,” over and over and over again. She left this world as she had lived in it – a regal, graceful queen.

 

Yehi zichroh boruch.

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