A QUINTESSENTIAL GIVER
In his stirring tribute, Rabbi Bitton conveyed the grandeur of a woman who never sought the limelight but who inspired others by her sheer goodness and her joyful, giving spirit. Rebbetzin Shulamit’s life journey took her across countries and continents; hardships and widowhood tested her, but her bitochon, simchas hachaim and devotion to others shone through the most trying vicissitudes.
She was a quintessential giver, exemplifying the virtues of an ohaiv es habrios umekorvon laTorah, recalled Rabbi Bitton. Her love for people came from her deepest self, drawing others close to her and to their Father in Heaven.
That nobility of spirit remained a constant in her life, from her childhood in Tunisia to her student and post-marriage years in Gateshead. It reached new heights in Marseille, France, where the couple moved after Rav Bitton zt’l assumed the post of av beis din and rosh kollel there. Far from waning when she became widowed, her ability to nurture others continued to flower as alone she raised and married off her 8 children and then crossed continents in order to give her elderly parents the best possible care.
When she chose to remarry in her sixties, it was to the eminent Dayan Blau zt’l of the Eidah Hachareidis, so that she could once again devote herself to a talmid chochom.
‘THE FORCE BEHIND THE CHAYIL’
Sharing intimate glimpses of his parents’ life, Rabbi Bitton spoke of his drive to translate his father’s unceasing ameilus b’Torah, even in times of illness and hardship, into the living legacy of a mosad Torah. It was only during the shivah for his mother, he said, as thousands of people came to share their memories of Rebbetzin Shulamit, that he gained a fuller appreciation of the profound extent to which his father owed his great accomplishments in Torah to his mother’s devotion.
“She was not just an eishes chayil,” her son noted, “she was the force behind his chayil, she was the one who built him, who quietly and modestly helped him to become who he was.”
“My father was learning in Gateshead Kollel after their marriage and the financial situation was difficult. My mother tried to devise ways to earn some income so my father could continue his learning. She would go to Newcastle, a city near Gateshead and scout out homes that had a mezuzah on the doorpost. She’d knock at the door… ‘Do you perhaps have a child who needs to learn Aleph Bais, or French?’ she would ask whoever came to the door, hoping to market herself as a teacher or tutor.”
“This was not a condition of her marriage. It came from her ahavah, from her deep desire to enable her husband to grow and remain fully immersed in Torah. She was ready to make any sacrifice, even to humble herself to achieve that.”
As Rav Shimon Bitton had undergone major surgeries and was not in robust health, Rebbetzin Shulamit shielded him from domestic responsibilities so that he could throw all his energies into this beloved Torah study.
“He never went to the store, never went to the bank. My mother freed him from all these chores. She took care of everything. She took the family on vacation herself, not because my father couldn’t enjoy a bit of olam hazeh, but because she saw his passion to be immersed in learning.”
HER HOME WAS A MAGNET
The needs of their growing family did not stop Rebbetzin Shulamit from sharing her time and meager resources with young Sephardic girls who had been transplanted to Gateshead but whose families still resided in Morocco. “We were lonely and needed a place to belong,” one of these girls shared at the shivah. “Your mother made us feel welcome. Some of us dropped by every day… She’d make us tea and biscuits. She was like our mother,” the woman said, reliving memories of that long-ago period.
Another recalled how the Bitton home was a magnet for bochurim and yungerleit as well, especially for the Friday night Shabbos seudah. There were times when there was not enough food to feed all the guests. “Make believe you’re eating a regular portion,” Shulamit would urge some of her children or a close friend, giving them chicken wings to munch on so that she could serve the guests full portions.
Her generosity extended well beyond the Gateshead community. At a seudas preidah for Rebbetzin Shulamit before they relocated to Marseilles, almost 500 women came, far beyond the number of women in Gateshead itself. 150 had come from towns and cities nearby, where Rebbetzin Shulamit had performed untold acts of chesed, making a bris…arranging a simcha… gifting others with her friendship and trademark warmth.
In Marseilles, Rav Bitton served as av beis din, overseeing gittin and kashrus and paskening shailos. He also assumed the post of rosh kollel, learning diligently with theyungeleit. As he spoke Spanish, English and Yiddish but no French, he relied heavily on his French-speaking Rebbetzin to translate shailos for him. Together they worked to strengthen Yiddishkeit in the city. This period was tragically cut short by Rav Bitton’s untimely passing when he was only 49.
Left alone with 8 orphans to raise, Rebbetzin Shulamit was devastated. The first Shabbos after his petirah, a neighbor came over on Friday night to make kiddush for the family. One of the children began to cry but with a supreme effort, my mother calmed her. “It’s Shabbos, children, we have to be happy, we don’t cry on Shabbos!” she whispered.
But shortly after the shloshim, her own grief overcame her. Years later, she recalled rushing outside the apartment, giving vent to her despair and bewilderment at the tragic turn her life had taken. “Hashem, why? Why?” she cried. For a year she did not return to her job in the kiruv-style cheder she taught in, her son recalled in his hesped. Her teaching came from her neshomo, from her deep reservoir of emunah and bitochon. But her grief had upset her equilibrium and only after she strengthened herself and recaptured her unquestioning faith was she able to resume giving chizuk to others.
As her children grew up, Rebbetzin Shulamit focused on finding shidduchim for them, sending them to America and to Israel where there were more opportunities than in Marseilles. “Given the circumstances, each shidduch was kiryas yam suf. But she succeeded with Hashem’s help and merited to see true Yiddishe nachas from all her children. ”
She had immense pride in her children and was an enthusiastic presence at every simcha. Time and distance were not obstacles when it came to family members celebrating milestones. Seeing her children feeling close and connected with one another despite the distance that separated them gave her the greatest joy. Zichron Binyamin, built to honor her husband’s legacy, held a special place in her heart. She davened there every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and flew in from Eretz Yisroel to attend every special event connected with it.
DEVOTION TO PARENTS
While still residing in Marseilles, her elderly parents living in Eretz Yisroel informed her that they were considering moving into to an old age home. Rebbetzin Shulamit made a dramatic decision to move to Eretz Yisroel to care for them herself. Later, with her father suffering from Alzheimer’s however, and her elderly mother coping with her own medical issues, caring for her parents became all-consuming. She herself was an only child and there was no one with whom to share the burden.
“My grandfather’s condition made life very difficult. He was convinced that every day was Shabbos. He had to wear his Shabbos clothes, make Kiddush and say hamotzi. If someone turned on a light, he berated them for chilul Shabbos. My mother just humored him, she had endless patience and never got upset or raised her voice. My grandmother would have outbursts and shout in Arabic, but my mother never answered her back,” Rabbi Bitton recalled, describing the challenges of those years.
“We felt it was too much for her but for her Kibud ov v’aim overruled all other considerations. She wanted to be there for them. She drove herself to the limit. Her own needs didn’t matter.”
THE AUTUMN YEARS
Some years after the death of her parents, Rebbetzin Shulamit married her zivug sheini, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya Blau, dayan in the Eidah Hachareidis and rov of Sanhedria. In consenting to the shidduch, she agreed to relinquish many of the conveniences she was accustomed to, including driving a car and residing in a spacious apartment where she was able to host her married children.
She moved into her new husband’s small, one-bedroom apartment where she could no longer have sleep-over company and handed the keys to her car to one of her daughters. Her family and friends were amazed at her ability to alter so many aspects of her lifestyle – something difficult even at a much younger age. But the sacrifices were worth it to her. Once again she could devote herself to a talmid chochom. Once again, she could fall asleep to the sound of her husband learning Torah.
Her ahavas haTorah and simchas hachaim infused the elderly Rav Blau with new strength, a grandson of his testified. After the death of his first wife he had felt too weak to continue writing seforim. But his marriage to Rebbetzin Shulamit seemed to rejuvenate him and he published two more seforim in the 7 tranquil years they had together.
With typical modesty, Rebbetzin Shulamit talked not of what she gave to her husband but the good she received. After Rav Blau’s passing a little over a year ago, she described him as “a wonderful and special person. Even with his tremendous gadlus b’Torah and strenuous learning schedule, he was very caring to me and to my children.”
She was quick to appreciate and compliment and never publicized her own good deeds, close friends testified at Rebbetzin Shulamit’s shivah. It was only at the shivah that her family first learned of some of the myriad kindnesses she had done for others which she had never spoken about, and the way her warmth and caring had bonded people from different walks of life to her. They heard inspirational stories of how their mother had used her koach hatefillah in her later years to give brochos to people and how in many cases those brochos were niskayem.
The shivah drew thousands of people from many different epochs of her life, including gedolei Torah. Hespedim were given in Eretz Yisroel and after the shivah in Lakewood by Rav Yerucham Olshin, her sons in law, R’ Moshe Jacobowitz and R’ Avrohom Jaffe and her son, R’ Yosef Bitton.
A separate asifa was held in Lakewood for women at which family and close friends from Rebbetzin Shulamit’s early years in Gateshead offered divrei chizuk. The speakers included Rebbetzin Solomon, Rebbetzin Gelley, Rebbetzin Reisman, as well as her daughters Mrs. Aliza Jacobowitz and Mrs. Miriam Jaffe.
Their many testimonies and reminiscences about Rebbetzin Shulamit’s ahavas HaTorah, simchas hachaim, her bitochon and tefillah as well as her devotion to others presented a profound testament to an extraordinary eishes chayil, mother and friend who will be deeply missed.
The aveilim include Rebbetzin Shulamit’s 8 children; R’ Nissim Bitton, Mrs. Naomi Maimon, R’ Chaim Bitton, Mrs. Aliza Jacobowitz, Mrs. Miriam Jaffe, Mrs. Ruti Grama, R’ Yosef Bitton and Mrs. Avigayil Cohen. May they be granted true nechoma for their irreplaceable loss.