I hail from a long illustrious line of storytellers. From as far back as I can remember, my father would regale us with stories from his childhood growing up in Crown Heights and of his family members who have since passed. And I’m sure my father’s father did the same thing. It’s a gift, being able to accurately and articulately give over your family’s mesorah the way they did. It was their way of keeping their ancestors’ memories alive and of handing down the stories held near and dear, so that one day we could pass down those stories to our children and future generations.
Mind you, telling a story that lasts for longer than five minutes could be tricky when among 35 family members, a majority of whom are 13 years and younger. But the minute my father started talking about the story of his great-grandmother and the fact that it was her yahrzeit over Shabbos, I knew it was one I had to hear.
He spoke of two amazing women. One was Bubby Zusha, whose yahrzeit was commemorated this past Shabbos. As my father spoke, he was reminded of the story of Esther, Zusha’s shvigger, and her fascinating story. A story that probably started out like that of most other women her age took a slight detour along the rocky road of life with its occasional sharp turns and unpredictability.
Esther was from a small town in Belarus and had gotten married, like many girls her age, only to suddenly lose her husband to a cholera epidemic at the age of 22. She had no kids yet, and upon consulting the town rav, he informed her of the unfortunate likelihood of her having to wait for her husband’s brother, who was a three-month-old baby at the time, to do chalitzah.
You see, the halacha states that when a couple marries and has no children when the husband passes away, the widow is still bonded to the family of her husband and therefore needs to be freed of that bond by a living brother on her husband’s side.
The brother of her husband at this time was a baby. Esther traveled to their Rebbe with her parents (for a second opinion, if you will) certain there was some type of exception that could be made, maybe a loophole of some sort. But when the Rebbe echoed the town rav’s same sentiment, she realized that there was a strong likelihood that she’d be waiting for this baby boy brother-in-law of hers to come of age and free her from this predicament.
At first, this seemed like too tall an order for a woman of her age. A woman who had suffered through an unimaginable tragedy at such a young age, when I’m sure she felt like things were just starting out for her and her husband. The promise of a future and a family she always wanted with the man she chose to want those things with. And then to be told that not only would it not happen for her with him but that she’d have to wait at least 13 years (until her brother-in-law’s bar mitzvah) to look to remarry and start again?
I know how I would react if I were told that I’d have to go through something impossible to wrap my mind around. Probably because I’m living through a different but still unimaginable loss at this very moment.
I bet she begged and pleaded for some way to make things better.
But what the Rebbe was able to do was promise her the nachas of future generations she dreamed of if she held on and waited the way she was meant to.
So she did something she probably never anticipated having to do. While the women around her built their families with their husbands, she waited. While they shot her looks of pity and likely felt terrible for Esther who was stuck in this limbo for so long, she waited. Fourteen years. She sacrificed 14 years of her life to do what she felt was right and intended by G-d.
She waited because she didn’t take that promise of the Rebbe lightly. She waited because she had faith that this was her journey and it was meant to be this way. She waited because she had complete emunah that things would work in her favor in the right time.
She waited until she was 36 years old and her brother-in-law was 14, and when he was able to do chalitzah, she was finally freed and able to move forward. She got remarried and had five sons, one of whom was my great-grandfather, Yochanan.
As I sat there after my father told over the story, I felt a swell of pride for the strength of a woman I never knew but for whom I have tremendous admiration. I wondered if maybe one day I’d be lucky enough to be in the same position, in years far beyond my life. To have my great-grandchildren sit around a Shabbos table and speak about the times in life that weren’t ideal, but in which choices were made that still resulted in the happiness of children and grandchildren and future generations to come because of a belief that sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d want them to.
But that doesn’t mean you stop living. Or hoping. It doesn’t mean your faith has to wane. It just means that you have to dig deeper and strongly stick to your convictions. After all, in the end, some things turn out to be worth the wait.
Malkie’s husband, Moshe, a’h, passed away at the age of 40. She has been sharing her thoughts and emotions with readers on her Instagram page @Kissthekoshercook. We are privileged to share her writings and reflections with our readership. May Moshe’s memory be a blessing for Malkie and her beautiful family.