Mrs. Miriam Weinrib a”h, who left this world at the age of 58 after a difficult illness, was asked from Above to climb an especially steep mountain. Diagnosed with her illness ten years ago, when she was only 48, she had no doubts about what was awaiting her. Yet, incredibly, despite the loss of her ability to communicate, Miriam somehow transcended those limitations. Her entire life was one of shirah – both spoken and unspoken, of appreciating the blessings, great and small, in her life.
These qualities were not developed suddenly during her illness, her friends and family attest. Early on, when Miriam was a young wife and mother, her nobility of soul set her apart. Though she would “sit in a circle” at the bungalow colony, watching her children like everyone else, there was a quality about her that discouraged pettiness and small-mindedness. She would encourage the other women to say Tehillim and learn hilchos shemiras halashon every day, quite an accomplishment in a bungalow colony.
As a close friend attested, “With Miriam around, talking lashon hara was not even a remote possibility. It wasn’t that she constantly reminded us, or made it sound like she was a rebbetzin. Rather, she was so normal, yet so spiritual, that it was incomprehensible to talk about others.”
There is one description, culled from conversations with those close to her, that perhaps describes her best: malchus, or nobility of soul.
Simply put, Miriam was a queen. Her innate royalty and grace were evident throughout the various epochs of her life. The words “harried” and “frazzled” could never describe her, even as a young, busy mother, raising a large family. Somehow, she found the time and menuchas hanefesh to be everything to everyone. She was able to give each of her eleven children the feeling that they were an only child; help her husband, Reb Yonah, a talented artist of Judaica, with his work; and open her home to those in need.
The hachnosas orchim that occurred on a weekly basis in the Weinrib home defies description. Miriam and Reb Yonah, who enjoyed an exemplary shalom bayis, and whose mutual respect for each other was legendary, hosted tens of baalei teshuvah, often for extended periods of time. She was a role model to so many searching young women, providing them with stability and a warm home, and later helping them get married. She taught kallahs – though never officially a kallah teacher – and her powerful hashkafah lessons provided them with lifelong anchors in this turbulent world.
She cooked meals for bikkur cholim and would drive to deliver them herself, her children in the back seat of the car. They grew up in a home saturated with chessed.
Despite her involvement in the n’shei plays, her primary focus was on her home. Even during crunch time, when she spent hours practicing for the plays, there was always a hot supper ready for her children. The laundry was done, homework completed, bedtime stories related. When her children entered their teenage years, these stories and songs evolved into heart-to-heart discussions.
Miriam took such pride in every child’s accomplishments and milestones, both great and small.
How she relished doing the ordinary things that many mothers find tedious. Miriam’s heart would sing as she cooked nourishing meals and did the dishes and laundry, giving every child what he or she needed. She enjoyed living in the moment, making every moment count.
There was no time for complaining or kvetching about ordinary hassles. It was almost as if she sensed that her vibrant years were limited, that she would soon be called upon to serve Hashem in a loftier manner.
When the onset of her symptoms robbed her of the ability to do mundane household chores, she rose to this greater challenge with her usual grace. As she had been in the past, she was now fully present for her family, both physically and emotionally. She taught her children the meaning of being an eved Hashem, of serving the Ribono Shel Olam on His terms, regardless of our own feelings or desires.
It is hard to imagine, let alone describe, the feelings of an active, vibrant wife and mother who is suddenly stricken with an incapacitating illness, who knows that she will soon be unable to interact with people, to give to others, to cook and take care of her family. It is even harder to comprehend Miriam’s reaction to her illness, the kiddush Hashem she demonstrated just by being who she was.
Yet, there is one important nekudah stressed over and over again by those who knew her: Miriam was a human being, not a malach.
Though blessed with extraordinary kochos, she was first and foremost a normal person. Her inability to communicate and to walk was devastating for her. She wasn’t a Pollyanna who smiled all day and acted as if everything was great. Her limitations were real, and so was her pain. Yet, she found the strength to overcome these challenges, to sit back and allow others to do for her as she had done for so many in the past.
Most importantly, though Miriam couldn’t actively help others, she could daven for them and allow her friends to enter her inner world with grace.
Davening with Miriam, a coveted honor that her friends vied for, was a spiritual experience unrivaled anywhere, even in shul during the Yomim Noraim. As Mrs. Rochie Frey, who traveled from Monsey to Flatbush every Sunday morning for years to daven with Miriam, attested, “We felt the Shechinah right there in the room. Our davening sustained me all week long.”
Mrs. Chaya Sarah Fogel, who also davened with Miriam once a week, related, “When I said Refa’ainu, her eyes would express her emotions as she’d look at me with such poignancy, davening for whoever it was who needed a refuah.”
The “davening circle” that took place in Miriam’s home actually had its roots much earlier, when Miriam’s illustrious brother, Rav Yitzchok Isbee zt”l, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 15 years ago. At that time, Miriam’s children were still young, and there was no hint of the devastating illness that would afflict her later on.
“Miriam asked us to start a Tehillim group in the merit of her brother,” recalled Mrs. Miri Kuntslinger, one of her closest friends. “We said Tehillim every morning in my dining room for many years and learned sefer Chofetz Chaim together. After her brother’s petirah, we continued davening for other cholim.”
Though her brother’s petirah was a tremendous loss for Miriam, she accepted this nisayon, as she did everything else, with perfect faith. One young bochur in Rav Isbee’s yeshiva recalled Miriam’s “boruch dayan emes” at the levaya. “She said those words with such conviction, I felt the walls were shaking,” he said.
The Tehillim group, founded a decade and a half ago, is still going strong. Over the years, it has created powerful friendships, including Miriam’s close relationship with Mrs. Sara Malka, who davened and learned with Miriam daily during the past ten years.
Miriam always relished her davening time, never shirking her tefillah even when her children were young. For her, tefillah was a beloved treat, not a chore or obligation. Her relationship with her Father was so real, so vibrant, you could literally touch it.
She had an innate contentment, a solid sense of priorities, yet was completely “with it” and down to earth at the same time. She was also a big Yated fan, and would enjoy reading the news from a Torah perspective.
Even as a young girl, growing up in the Bronx, young Miriam, daughter of Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Hakohein and Chaya Rochel (Rose) Isbee, was a baalas aliyah. Her father was the rov of the Young Israel of Astor Gardens for 33 years and her mother was a renowned baalas chessed, involved with the N’shei of Agudas Yisroel. An only daughter, she shared a close bond with her parents and two brothers, Rav Elozer zt”l, a community leader in Baltimore, and Rav Yitzchok zt”l, rov of Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin in Flatbush.
Miriam absorbed the qualities of her illustrious parents and thrived on learning and growing. While attending seminary in Eretz Yisroel, Miriam was beloved by both mechanchos and friends. She adored an excellent p’shat and would learn Mesilas Yeshorim on her own. Yet, she was still a “normal” girl who cared about how she looked and enjoyed having a good time. Somehow, she was able to relate to those around her on dual levels, using both gashmiyus and ruchniyus to serve Hashem.
“Ein od milvado” weren’t only her favorite words. They were her motto, the values she lived by.
Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, a rebbi at Machon Gold, recalled, “When we learned Tanach, Miriam requested that the teachers impart hashkafah along with the limudim. To her, learning without the hashkafah behind it was merely an empty shell. The whole purpose was to improve, to grow.”
Later, when she married Reb Yonah, a distinguished talmid chochom and Judaica artist, she grew in her role as an aishes chayil. Her close friends and family were in awe of the special shalom bayis they shared. For many years, Miriam helped her husband with the technical part of his business. Reb Yonah was the artist, while she handled the business aspect. Often, when husband and wife work together, it causes friction and difficulties. With the Weinribs, it was exactly the opposite. They were true partners in life, both in raising their family, in doing kiruv long before it was in vogue, and in their parnassah.
During the summers, when Miriam stayed in the Catskills with her children, she would always be ready early on Fridays. Friends recall that she was calm and composed, wearing her shaitel, her children bathed and ready for Shabbos, when her husband would arrive. There was no frazzled last-minute rushing. Miriam was efficient and organized, managing to make it appear effortless. She slid effortlessly into her dual roles, always knowing what was expected of her and what was most important.
Her children were always beautifully dressed, with modesty and refinement. Miriam herself was a tzonuah, a woman who exemplified royal grace, looking her best yet never attracting attention to herself.
She wasn’t the type of mother who made demands, who was critical and medakdek, yet somehow she commanded such respect and love. Without her saying a word of criticism or giving orders, her children scrambled to fulfill her wishes, even when they were young.
“You could tell the children wanted to please her, to make her happy,” said a close friend, who knew Miriam when they were both newlyweds, their husbands learning in the Mir. “She used smiles, hugs and positive reinforcement, not because that’s what the ‘books’ told you to do, but because that was her essence.”
One telling story that was related at the shivah: Many years ago, Miriam went out on a Thursday afternoon, leaving her teenage daughter home with the fish bubbling on the stove. She set a timer to go off and reminded her daughter to turn off the fish when it rang.
Miriam came home several hours later to find the house full of smoke, the pot charred, the fish burned to a crisp. All she said to her sheepish daughter was, “Bubbeleh, it looks like you forgot to turn off the fire, but I’m glad you had a good time.” This was said without a hint of sarcasm, in her usual, loving way. All her children were “bubbele,” and they didn’t mind it one bit.
Did the burned fish and destroyed pot bother her? Probably, but not enough to make a fuss about it. There were more important things in life. She had her priorities straight early on. It was all about dikduk b’mitzvos, about being honest and ehrlich and doing the right thing.
As one friend related, “Miriam never washed laundry on Chol Hamoed, even when her children were small. She would go out before Yom Tov and buy enough clothes for all eleven children in order to be mechabed the moed.” Once again, all about priorities.
These priorities included her children’s milestones, both great and small. When a child (and later a grandchild) made a siyum, there was a party atmosphere in the Weinrib home. A friend recalls coming in on a Shabbos afternoon and noticing a huge cake on the table. “It’s So-and-so’s siddur party,” she was told. Every occasion, even an ainikel finishing the Alef-Bais, was cause for celebration.
She was such a loving, devoted daughter. Friends recall her constant, “You’re right, Mommy,” as she strove to do her mother’s will. Kibbud av vo’eim wasn’t just an abstract, but a reality. In fact, when Yonah’s mother became an almonoh, she moved into the Weinrib home, and still lives with the family.
Miriam was also a loyal, devoted friend, who knew exactly the right thing to say or do. As Mrs. Miri Kuntslinger recalls, “Many years ago, one of my children was hospitalized in NYU with pneumonia. Though I knew how to drive, I was afraid of driving on highways, yet it was very complicated to get rides every day to the hospital. Miriam called me one day and said, “That’s it, we’re getting into the car.”In one day, she taught me how to drive on the highway, so that I could be with my child without relying on others.
“She was also a great cook, with creative and delicious recipes. Her recipe for shnitzel is still called ‘Miriam Weinrib’s recipe’ in our home.”
Though blessed with an exuberant and giving personality, Miriam was an excellent listener, who knew the power of keeping quiet and allowing others to share. It was this quality of listening that attracted so many to her home.
Numerous confused young girls and those searching for meaning in life found their way to Miriam’s door. How many lives she saved and shidduchim she orchestrated! She was a Partner in Torah for many years, learning with Paula Weinberg from Dayton, Ohio, who later “graduated” and became a mentor herself due to Miriam’s influence.
A young couple who grew up in the Weinrib home and whose shidduch she made later joined the Sh’or Yoshuv community and have dedicated their lives to reaching out to others the way Miriam reached out to them.
She didn’t consider herself a counselor, or even an expert in kiruv, but her kiruv and harbotzas Torah activities were a sheim dovor. There were Shabbatons and Chanukah parties, but, most importantly, an open home, a giving heart, and genuine respect for the other person.
Later, when her children were married, she encouraged and supported their kiruv activities, even if it meant that they would live far away. Though she yearned to have her children close by, especially during her illness, Miriam gave her stamp of approval and blessing to their lifestyle. It was merely a reflection of the values she espoused all the years and what was truly important to her.
Several of her married children are involved in kiruv today, whether in Dallas, Phoenix, or Cincinnati. They each built homes that are modeled on the hachnosas orchim and chessed of their parents as well.
“Miriam’s primary concern was that her children should be close to one another and take care of each other,” a close friend said. “During the years of her illness, it was evident that she had succeeded. No matter where they lived, her children shared such a close and powerful bond.
“Miriam was their queen, the matriarch of the family who held it all together. She was the center of every Shabbos table and every occasion. It was obvious how much nachas she had from her family, even later on when it was harder for her to communicate. Somehow, the feelings of pride and gratitude to Hashem shone through.”
Miriam’s close friends were totally devoted to her, setting up a ramp in the bungalow colony and a bulletin board so her children could write messages. Though it wasn’t easy for her to be on the “taking” side, she accepted their efforts with grace.
“There was an aura in the home, an upbeat atmosphere that was impossible to miss,” added another friend. “Whoever came to visit could feel the love and the warmth. If you were lucky, you could take it with you.
“Even when she was in pain, she had the presence of mind to concentrate on her visitor, to ask about their children and rejoice in their simchos. I remember asking her about her son, and she immediately – when she could still type – asked me about my children. She was not a ‘tzadeikes’ because she was sick. She had always been that way.”
The friend recalls preparing Torah thoughts for her visits with Miriam, because that’s what gave her so much joy. “She’d never been a ‘devorim beteilim’ type of person, someone who enjoyed talking about the news or shopping, even when she was healthy. She loved stories of Hashgochah protis, of people transcending challenges. I knew that she wanted to hear a gut vort, an elevated concept, and if I succeeded in sharing that, I considered my visit a success.”
The Weinrib home became a center of Torah learning, as numerous shiurim were held, friendships forged, shidduchim made, and acts of chessed performed there. Many Torah personalities would visit her home to give Miriam chizuk, but it was they who received chizuk in return.
Though Miriam could not communicate in an ordinary way, her eyes told it all. They were so expressive, containing in them all the emotions of her neshamah. She was a living example of chayim birtzono, of making Hashem’s will her will.
As her choshuve husband, Reb Yonah, a talmid chochom and world-renowned artist, affirmed, “The last era of her life didn’t define who she was. It only reinforced the qualities that made her who she was. Whoever came to visit her was transformed.”
Miriam returned her pure and lofty soul to her Creator on the first day of Chanukah, during a week of spiritual ohr. Though she is no longer with us, the lessons she embodied through serving Hashem during challenging nisyonos serves as a lamplight in the darkness.
She is survived by her devoted husband, Reb Yonah, eleven children, seven of them married, all of them bnei Torah or married to Bnei Torah, baalei chesed who follow in her lofty example.
Yehi zichrah boruch.