More Precious Than Pearls

A tribute to my beloved sister-in-law, Mrs. Chaya (Perl) Silberstein a”h

Sixteen and a half years ago, I wrote a final tribute to my dear mother-in-law, Mrs. Rivka Faiga Weinfeld, who was niftar suddenly on Erev Tisha B’av of 2003. Though over a decade and a half have passed, the ache is ever present, as I miss her wisdom and guidance more than ever.

And now the unthinkable has happened again. My hand trembles and I try to write a tribute to a close family member, my beloved sister-in-law Chaya, whose sudden petirah on Tuesday, the 2nd of Shevat, after a rare pregnancy complication sent shockwaves across the world. Since she collapsed on Sunday morning, Klal Yisroel stormed the heavens, reciting Tehillim around the clock for a refuah. And then, just two days later, as her family stood around her bed singing Ani Maamin, Chaya’s pure neshomah returned to the kisei hakavod, leaving us all bereft.

How does one find the strength to be maspid a close family member? Are there words in the dictionary that can adequately describe the sight of small children bidding farewell to their loving mother, who was torn from them without warning? The cries of grief and pain, the sight of the children bidding Mommy farewell, shall never be stilled in my heart.

Chaya Silberstein, nee Perl, had just celebrated her 39th birthday. She was the mother of nine beautiful children, ranging from 19 years old to her youngest, just three and a half. She loved all her children fiercely; she lived for them, davened for them, sang to them and read them stories, her heart beating in tandem with her family.

What made her so special? Was it her magnetic personality, her relaxed manner, her ever-present smile? Was it the way she looked at you when you spoke and validated whatever you said? Was it the smile in her eyes as she hugged her kinderlach, the respect with which she addressed her parents, in-laws and husband? Was it her inner modesty, her refinement and grace? Or was it all of the above?

Everyone loved Chaya.

She was a beautiful soul, full of sweetness and goodness and inner beauty. She was a true mother in every sense of the word, a Yiddishe mamme who lived for her children, whose primary focus was the well-being of her family. Chaya, who looked younger than her years, was possessed of a rare inner compass, a sense of purpose and rare understanding of human nature.

It was impossible not to get along with Chaya. To know her was to love her.

Chaya had a unique understanding of people, the ability to speak everyone’s language, to touch all hearts. Although there are sometimes misunderstandings or hard feelings in even the most refined families, it was impossible to have a disagreement with Chaya. She simply wouldn’t allow it; she either took your side, if she agreed with you, or just stayed quiet.

Chaya wasn’t a big talker, who made a splash and spoke of her accomplishments, her chinuch methods, or how exhausted she was. She was a person with strong and definite opinions, and if asked, would share her thoughts, ideas, and dreams. But mostly she listened, with a smile that never left her face and radiant eyes that told you how she respected you—and everyone else.

Chaya joined our family 20 years ago, when she married my beloved brother Yidel. From day one, they were a team, enjoying a marriage of mutual understanding and support, of working together toward a common goal. Chaya was the serene, grounded homebody, while my brother was energetic and effervescent, and they perfectly complemented each other as they built their beautiful family.

From the first time I met Chaya, I instinctively knew there was something special about her. She had that combination of brilliant intellect, superb people skills, sterling middos and a bottomless heart—but most importantly, she had an incredible sense of purpose. For Chaya, “things” didn’t matter much, “needs” were almost non-existent, but “people” were most important.

And that smile. Oh, that smile!

To see her smile was to catch a glimpse of the Divine. It radiated from within, sparkled from her luminous eyes and lit up her face. Chaya never wore make-up, not even to her own wedding, but it really wasn’t necessary—her face shone with an inner glow. Clothing and fashion meant little to her—yet her children were always clean, neat and respectable. Her home was well maintained, her children and their friends flitting in and out, playing and laughing and coming to their mother for hugs and validation. Chaya reveled in every moment of motherhood, loving her children to pieces, marveling at their growth, focusing on every child and giving them quality time, almost without effort.

Up until around five years ago, Chaya, the busy mother of a large family, worked as an accountant at a Flatbush-area nursing home, a job she held since her graduation from high school. She was beloved and respected at the home, where she single-handedly saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars by solving a technical glitch that had eluded many others. Early on, she gathered the courage to approach her boss and suggested that as a frum workplace, perhaps it would be praiseworthy to call female employees by their titles, Mrs. and Miss, instead of their first names. Her boss was so impressed with her sensitivity that he immediately implemented the change.

Chaya did her work diligently, grateful to have a share in her husband’s growth in kollel. She was great at her job, an excellent team player. Yet she never reveled in martyrdom, or kvetched about how she was falling apart, even when she worked for many hours and was awake all night with her babies.

In general, Chaya didn’t speak much about herself. She carried a heavy burden, yet always seemed to be well-rested, in a wonderful mood, with all the time in the world for everyone.

About a decade ago, my brother and his wife made the decision to move to Monsey, which they felt would be beneficial for the chinuch of their then-five children. Although it was hard for Chaya to move away from her parents and siblings, she didn’t second-guess herself or indulge in what-ifs. The decision was made, they packed up and moved, and never looked back.

Their transition to Monsey was tranquil and easy, mostly because of Chaya’s blessedly relaxed and accepting personality. The children thrived at yeshiva and school, and we saw so much more of them. It was so wonderful to have them close by, to spend Shabbos afternoons schmoozing at my mother’s house, where Chaya would sit serenely, one or more kids climbing on her lap.

Chaya didn’t send them off or tell them to go play as the adults carried on their conversation. She would hug and soothe them with infinite patience, giving every child a turn on her lap, showering them with love until they were satiated. It was incredible to watch her speaking with the little ones, giving them her full attention and a piece of her heart. It was even more incredible to see the tremendous respect with which she spoke to and about her husband. Everything he did was special and wonderful, and vice versa. It was as if they were still in shana rishonah, even 20 years later.

Even after their move to Monsey, Chaya continued to work full time, mostly from home, commuting once every few weeks to take care of paperwork in the office. However, she steadfastly refused to have internet service in her home, and instead rented a basement nearby, at considerable inconvenience and expense, to keep her home pure.

Eventually, before the birth of her two youngest, Chaya made the momentous decision, which had been percolating for some time. As she told me, “I decided to give up my job, even though I love it, because I feel that my children are getting older and I need to give them my full attention.”

“So what are you going to do all day?” I asked, only half-joking. I knew Chaya wasn’t the type to go shopping much or meet friends in coffee shops. I wondered if she would find the transition from full-time-work to full-time-mommy challenging.

“Don’t worry about me,” she responded with her delicate laugh. “I promise I won’t be bored.” And she wasn’t. Chaya quickly filled her time with the things that gave her the most pleasure—caring for the children, cooking delectable meals and freezing ahead, organizing her closets, taking her children on small outings and spending quality time with each one.

Chaya reveled in her new role, enjoyed the more relaxed mornings, her ability to spend more time with her little ones and be available for their buses. She constantly expressed how grateful she was to have the peace of mind to enjoy her children, and this wasn’t just a manner of speech. Chaya truly enjoyed her children—she loved to cook and bake with them, to sit on the couch and schmooze with each one about their day, to daven for them with exemplary concentration. And daven she did—despite the demands of her large family, talking to Hashem was a priority for her.

Her licht benching, from the first week she was married until the week before her petirah, was a sight to behold. Chaya would stand by the candles for 20 minutes, swaying softly as she davened and pleaded for her precious family, for lichtige children whose eyes are illuminated with the light of Torah. “This is my special time,” she would say with a smile. The children learned not to bother her during this time, and waited patiently for her to finish.

Ever since she was a child, she said every single birchas hamazon, al hamichyah and asher yotzar from a Siddur! In Chaya’s home, one washed even on mezonos bread—no shortcuts. She didn’t speak about this practice, or consider it praiseworthy. It was just something that came naturally.

Although her life was hectic, with several toddlers and an infant at once, Chaya rarely seemed flustered or harried. She had a beautiful system in place, which included color-coding her children’s laundry with glitter pens, using a different color of glitter for every child. She taught her children, even the boys, to assume responsibility from an early age. We all knew that Chaya’s children were ready, willing and able to babysit, cook and clean and set up for family simchos in a pinch. They did it willingly, with a smile—not only for their mother, but for their grandparents and aunts. Chaya’s children could always be relied upon to build the sukkah, prepare the tables for a simcha, and stay late to clean up afterwards.

Chaya encouraged her children to help out in the kitchen, and didn’t micro-manage. She allowed them to make messes, to clean up after themselves, and praised them lavishly for their efforts.

In general, Chaya didn’t obsess over nitty-gritty details. She didn’t notice the things that were wrong in her life, because she was too busy being grateful for her blessings. Once, when my son was a young bochur, he came to my brother’s house to fix a door. While working on the hinges, the novice fix-it man inadvertently made a few holes in the wall. Chaya just looked at the damage and glanced away, not saying a word. To her, feelings were more important than doors.

Chaya mastered the art of self-care, of nurturing her body and soul, of making a healthy mother who would be there for her children. She knew that to be a functional wife and mother, she would need to sleep well, to eat healthy food, and get out occasionally, and even go to the gym. She loved to exercise, buying a swim membership in the summer and going to a local gym in the winter. Yet whenever she was expecting a baby, she stopped her gym membership, cold turkey, as she refused to allow her unborn child to be exposed to music from questionable sources. Later on, she quit exercising altogether, as her refined soul simply could not tolerate the music.

Chaya was always dressed respectably. She didn’t own a smartphone, and was not interested in reading Jewish magazines or perusing home décor. She was a low maintenance person who needed very little to be happy. At the same time, she wasn’t a rebbetzin or pious role model who considered it her lofty duty to set an example. On the contrary: my sister-in-law was one of the most accepting, loving people I have ever met.

Her hashkafos about parenting, running a home, and other matters were rock-solid, yet she rarely expressed her unsolicited opinions—unless she was asked. In general, Chaya avoided confrontation and the hint of disagreement like the plague. In fact, in the 20 years that I had the privilege of being her sister-in-law, I cannot recall a single disagreement or harsh words exchanged between Chaya and any member of her family.

She was genuine, so real and down-to-earth, so easy and natural and self-effacing. Chaya didn’t do sarcasm, innuendo, or the silent treatment. People naturally confided in Chaya, because she was a natural listener who knew how to keep a secret.

The eldest of 12 siblings, Chaya was the rock of her family. She had an unusually close relationship with her parents and siblings, with whom she spoke numerous times a day. And of course, her in-laws were family too. As my mother would often express, “I feel as close to Chaya as to a daughter!” We didn’t take offense, because we felt the same way.

Their home was a happy one, filled with the sounds of joyous laughter and play. Everyone loved staying at Chaya’s home, and she rarely turned down a request to host children for a few hours, days, or even weeks. A snow day or midwinter vacation wasn’t a burden for her. As she often expressed, “they’re my children, and I love spending time with them!” At family weddings, Chaya would spend the night on the dance floor, dancing with each of her daughters in turn, executing complicated dance steps and twirling around in tandem with them. Her eyes sparkled as she mirrored their enthusiasm and joy.

She enjoyed traveling, especially to Eretz Yisroel, where she could daven at kivrei tzaddikim. During a recent trip, my brother and his wife went up to a porch overlooking the Har Habayis. As soon as Chaya glimpsed the makom hamikdosh, she began to sob emotionally, sensing the pain of the shechinah.

And each summer, of course, Yidel and Chaya planned a three-day vacation with their beloved children, strapping them into their Sprinter and heading to Tannersville or Vermont. “How can you call traveling with a few small children a vacation?” I asked, only half-joking. “It’s not easy to keep an eye on them every second.”

“It’s no big deal,” Chaya would reply. “Everyone helps out and we have a great time.”

Chaya would pack copious amounts of food, making sure each child had their favorite toys and blankets. This was all coordinated without pressure, with an easy and light atmosphere. They would go mountain climbing or take their children biking and boating, reveling in Hashem’s beautiful world. The older children would help keep an eye on the little ones, and a good time was had by all. This past summer, the family embarked on a trip to Vermont, staying in a rented home with a fireplace and a backyard pond that kept the children mesmerized for hours. “At night, we made a campfire and just sat around, singing and enjoying each other,” Chaya related. “What else do you need?”

Indeed, what else do you need?

“Chaya’s children don’t fight,” my mother would often comment. It was uncanny how the children got along, helping and supporting each other. Chaya’s house was open to one and all, a place where everyone felt comfortable.

On the day of my daughter’s wedding, my brother picked up my youngest; Chaya entertained her all day, taking her to the hairdresser, giving her a bath and bringing her to the wedding so that I should have one less thing to worry about. But that wasn’t enough; when she heard we were missing a sheva brachos, Chaya generously offered to host one in her home, insisting it was “no big deal” and that her children loved to plan events, so I was actually doing her a favor!

I took her up on the offer, because I knew it was genuine. The sheva brachos was beautiful and heartwarming, especially since it was set up and coordinated by pint-sized party planners!

The food was delectable and fresh, the décor was understated yet pretty, and most importantly, the atmosphere was so serene. Everyone had a grand time, because the hostess was relaxed and actually enjoyed the event instead of getting worked up over the details. She also had the rare ability to accept help when needed, which made it so much easier to ask her for anything.

She encouraged my brother to volunteer for a chesed organization that provided rides to the hospital for patients and family members.

She would do anything for her neighbors, sending a homemade kugel for their simchos, watching their children, hosting their guests—and always with a smile. When she was thanked, she really didn’t see what the fuss was all about. “It’s really no big deal,” was her ready response.

For many years, she took care of coordinating the aides for her elderly grandfather, spending hours on the phone with the nursing staff and the insurance company. It was a tedious, frustrating job, but Chaya did it without a word of complaint, and without taking a penny. On one occasion, when Chaya was overseas, another family member took over. After one frustrating phone call, she couldn’t understand how Chaya had been doing it all these years.

Chaya wasn’t the type to indulge in hours of idle schmoozing. There was too much to do at home, and if there was extra time, she would say some Tehillim. Yet there was one place her neighbors knew they would find her, in the early morning and late afternoon: Chaya would be standing at the bus stop, enthusiastically waving goodbye to her children and enveloping them in her embrace when they returned. Caring for her children wasn’t an imposition that ate up parts of her day—it was the most important part of her day!

I last saw Chaya at a family melava malka on Motzoei Shabbos Chanukah, when the entire family gathered at a local hall. Chaya was radiant, calm, serene as always. We schmoozed and laughed and had a wonderful time, as the children ran underfoot and played their little games. And then we went home, and somehow, four weeks passed.

It was Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Va’eira. We had a family simcha in Brooklyn, which Chaya, just weeks before her due date, found it hard to attend. I called her on the way home to update her about the vort, and tell her how much she was missed. Chaya was her usual cheerful self, laughing and schmoozing with her customary ebullience. I put down the phone a few minutes later, never dreaming it would be our last conversation.

Sometime the next morning, I was awakened by a frantic phone call. Chaya had collapsed; her children found her, unresponsive, and called Hatzoloh, who rushed her to the hospital. We davened and stormed the heavens, but Hashem had other plans.

Two days later, the pure neshomoh of Chaya bas Reb Moshe Dovid ascended heavenward in a storm of tefillos, tears, and the melodies of Ani Maamin, her husband and children at her side.

Chaya, my beloved sister-in-law, is in a better world, a world of truth and purity and goodness. Yet her grieving family, the Bates neighborhood, the greater Monsey community and the entire world is bereft. May her pure, saintly memory be a blessing.

***

 

To my dear Chaya,

There is a tremendous void that fills my heart; the loss is so great. Chaya, you were everything I could have asked for in a neighbor, a shochein tov. Although I was older than you, I learned so much from you. I always marveled at the quality time you gave your children while waiting for the bus—I don’t think I ever saw you on the phone while outside with them. Each time I looked at you, I would think, “She’s are a real Yiddishe mamme.”

Your participation in my simchos with your large family ka”h meant so much to me. On Erev Shabbos before my son’s aufruf, the breakfast that came with a variety of wraps and rolls was so appreciated. You didn’t only partake in simchos—you thought about the baal simcha. There was something so magnetic in your house, my grandchildren felt they were part of your family!

You never missed a Shabbos or Yom Tov coming with your kinderlach to visit my mother-in-law. How she enjoyed seeing you all! I can’t believe I’m writing a goodbye letter to you. While living next door for eight years, I never heard you raise your voice. Your genuine smile and overflowing warmth enhanced my days, and I always admired the quality time you gave your kids, the family outings you took. It was all for your children—you always told me the laundry will wait for you.

You lived a life of emes, focusing on what is truly important. Your essence radiated a shleimus and tafkid that you seemed to have completed so soon. Chaya, you left us with your genuine smile, which has impacted us all. I am sure you will continue to lovingly take care of your family from above.

With love,

Your next-door neighbor and friend.