(A ba'alat or ba'al chessed is a person who excels at acts of loving-kindness, compassion, and generosity.)
Let’s call this baalat chessed Malka.
Elegance with Chessed & Simple Living
Slightly stooped with age, she swayed elegantly on her Queen Anne heels as she made her way through the streets.
Neither of us knew she would end up shattering a bunch of my assumptions – one of which was that a big baalat chessed flits around at lightning speed in order to accomplish her many acts of kindness.
Not Malka. Always graceful and refined, Malka accomplished so much while never moving faster than a swan floating over a calm lake.
Her children then married with families of their own, Malka lived with her white-bearded husband in a cramped apartment in the city. It was as clean as you could make an old run-down place, with crocheted or embroidered doilies draped all over dark furniture.
Across one wall of the living room, a line of tall bookcases displayed photo albums and mammoth folders.
The albums not only held photos of her family, but photos of weddings she hosted in her small backyard.
That was my first surprise with Malka.
Matchmaker, Couples Counselor, Caterer...
Malka also provided the food.
She hosted a wedding anywhere from once a week to every couple of months, depending. Noting her age and her slow rhythm, I asked her how she managed to cater the weddings (from her rundown narrow kitchen).
“They aren’t big weddings,” she explained languidly. “Just the friends and whatever family is here.”
Yes, except that Malka wasn’t doing simple foods – meat-stuffed zucchinis, for example, take time and skill.
“When neighbors stop by,” she said, “they see what I’m doing and offer to help. Sometimes, I ask them if they wouldn’t mind helping me in the kitchen while we chat.”
“It doesn’t bother them?” I asked.
“No,” she said, her eyes widening slightly over her smile, “they’re happy to help.”
She also specialized in re-marrying divorced couples and took extra satisfaction in that. She described how she introduced them to mitzvah observance and gave them in her own brand of pre-marital counseling (though she didn’t call it that), explaining that there usually weren’t very serious problems, but that these couples divorced because they didn’t know what else to do.
They were decent people who simply didn’t know how to get along.
She also felt that a lack of Torah values was a serious problem in the marriage and that by getting couples to observe halacha and proper Jewish hashkafah, they could end up with a successful marriage.
“See this?” she said tapping long her rose-manicured fingernail on one kallah’s very low neckline. (The kallah’s face was covered in a veil so I couldn’t see her.) “I was concerned about this under the chuppah – especially with Rav Mordechai Eliyahu officiating.”
I frowned. Though still new to the frum scene in Eretz Yisrael, I’d already heard of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu and couldn’t imagine that such a big and important tzaddik was being mesader kiddushin for some impoverished barely-frum couple in someone’s untended backyard.
I still wonder if my memory is playing tricks on me. But I have clear memories of her referencing the rav several times in conversation and also seeing photos with him in front of the couple with his eyes glued to the page in front of him as he went through the Kiddushin.
Anyway…she continued, “But the rav said that I shouldn’t say one word!”
She made a stern face and slashed her finger through the air in recollection of his firmness about the issue.
“He reassured me that he would just keep his eyes down so not to see anything he shouldn’t and that I should continue to be mekarev them. Eventually, he said, the kallah would realize on her own.” Her eyes widened and her eyebrows arched as she looked at me. “And you know what? That’s exactly what happened! This kallah” – she tapped the low neckline again – “this kallah now wears her neckline up to here” – Malka indicated just under her chin – “and she covers her hair too. Just like the rav said would happen. So I never tell them anything. Patience. That’s what people need. Just be patient and keep working with them and they’ll get there on their own.”
In addition to making shiddichum, and hosting and catering weddings, Malka also provided these couples with furniture and a couple months of rent.
And not just for these couples either.
A One-Woman Gemach
Thank you so much, Malka, for the 200 shekels! It really helped us out in a pinch.
Thank you, Malka, for providing the family with much-needed beds. (from a social worker)
Malka, thank you SO MUCH for the cart full of groceries! You literally saved us!
Money, groceries, beds – page after page showed that those were the items Malka provided most.
I scanned the shelves full of thick folders exactly like the one on my lap.
“Where do you get all that money to give all this to people?” I asked.
She gave a ladylike laugh and an elegant shrug. “Oh…just here and there…”
I never did find out how she was able to finance all this.
The Hidden Underground of Jerusalem
This dainty, elegant petite Moroccan lady with her Queen Anne heels and her unhurried pace and serene smile – tending to the emotional, spiritual, and financial needs of people who were desperate, lost, broken, living in miserable circumstances, or just needed a hand.
I shadowed her when I could, spending a couple of Shabbats with her and accompanying her on her rounds.
One time, she took me around to different hovels.
I had no idea there was this whole underground in Jerusalem. Old Arab hovels made of stones – and no plaster or paint on the inside either. Just an old stone edifice. They’re easy to miss because to access them, you need to turn off the sidewalk into a grassy, pebbly area until you reach a flight of stairs leading down to the door of the hovel.
From ground level, you just see the roof, which looks like a pile of stones or an abandoned hovel (which it is).
But one flight down into the ground stands the door.
Equipped with a basket of tea, food, and a thermos of hot water, we stood at one door as Malka knocked.
But she kept knocking until Malka decided to open the door a crack and peeked in, telling the person who she was and that she’d brought a friend. I was scandalized by this breach of etiquette. What was Malka doing? She gestured for me to come in with her and whispered reassurance that this was definitely okay.
So I hesitantly followed her in.
I just remember slate gray stone all around when we entered into what seemed like a very narrow kitchen. The kitchen opened up into a narrow room with a bed upon which lay a person with an arm over the face.
Malka spoke in a quiet neighborly way as the person tried to sit up, then fell back again, then sat up again. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. The person had extremely cropped salt ‘n’ pepper hair and wore a T-shirt and sweat pants over a pudgy non-descript body. The voice could also belong to a high-pitched man or a low-pitched woman.
I tried to catch the person’s name when Malka made introductions, but it was also something ambiguous like “Yonah.”
Inwardly, I grimaced with discomfort.
Because Hebrew pronouns and verbs are either masculine or feminine with no gender-neutral form, I couldn’t say a word to this person for fear of getting the gender wrong and causing offense.
Malka seemed perfectly at home and offered tea, to which the person replied there was no electricity. With a smile, Malka held up the thermos and proceeded to make tea for all of us.
The person seemed very grateful for Malka’s visit and the tea, and as I strained to hear how Malka addressed the person, I realized it was a woman. A very butch-looking woman.
Having roused herself to sit up in the bed chair, she invited Malka to sit down and graciously invited me to take a seat in the only chair. Malka perched herself on end of the mattress.
Then Malka started chatting and the woman brightened up. She mentioned that she wasn’t well and Malka responded with sympathy. But our “hostess” included me in the conversation too and I wondered at the transformation from impoverished homeless neglected nebbuch to a hostess with guests and dignity.
Here we were, three ladies taking tea and making polite conversation – in an abandoned underground hovel with no electricity or indoor plumbing.
Removing My Rose-Colored Glasses
“These people are drug addicts!” he said. “How can you go to their homes? That’s so dangerous!”
That had never occurred to me. “I didn’t see any sign of drugs,” I protested.
“Well, their children then,” said my husband. “Even if those people are okay, their children could just show up.” He got shaky again.
Then he explained that in Israel, it was very odd to have an older person abandoned to living in a primitive hovel. There are family, friends, social services, and the like. Why can’t the person avail herself of these resources?
“Because they don’t have them,” said my husband. “Either their children want nothing to do with them after all they put them through or their children are addicts and criminals who don’t care about their parents – and if so, why did those children turn out so badly? Who let’s their mother or father live in such conditions?”
And regarding social services and health funds, etc., my husband pointed out that there must be a reason why these people to don't use these services. Maybe they want to stay under the radar? Maybe they have unsavory reasons?
(And now Malka’s confidence at entering uninvited made sense. The person indeed wanted her company and her goodies, but wasn’t able to rouse herself to respond.)
Yet everyone was so lovely and sympathetic as seen through Malka’s eyes!
Yet I had to admit that my husband’s points made a lot of sense.
Also, growing up in secular America, it’s perfectly natural to find older people neglected and ignored by their offspring, so I didn’t think anything of it.
While there are many dedicated adult offspring in the US, I’d noticed the vehemence with which many adult children wanted to rush their aging parents into a home. Yeah, of course it’s often necessary, but these adult children do so without much sympathy or compassion for what their aging parent is facing. And once shut away, some people rarely talk to or visit their parents.
Too many adult children seem all too ready to pull the plug on aging parents in hospitals under the faux compassion of not “wanting them to suffer.” And after the funeral, your sympathy is met with a blithe, “Well, it was just her time to go!” or a cheery “Well, she’d been deteriorating anyway, so it was better this way!” – with cheerful music blasting in the background.
So I didn’t realize that abandoned parents might be the sign of serious dysfunction in the parent or criminal activity on the part of the children.
The Secret to Real Chessed: Humility
But she didn’t view herself as better than these people, just luckier. And I think that’s the secret to being a truly humble baal chessed. It has to come from inside, that you don’t approach such people as a queen lowering herself to extend largess to the needy.
I’ve noticed that other baalei chessed are the same; they feel lucky not superior. They just feel like they could be in the same place as these people, except they were given better lives.
Yet how had Malka found these people?
She just noticed, she said. She’d see these hovels and go to investigate. Or people noticed and told her.
Nurturing Runaway Girls
In fact, several decades earlier when she was raising teenagers herself, she got calls from the police in the middle of the night:
“We found this Jewish girl wandering around the Muslim Quarter and she refuses to give her name or say where she lives. She doesn’t want to go home. Can we bring her to you?”
Malka always said yes.
(If a teenage Jewish girl in Israel prefers being among Arabs in the middle of the night, then her home is BAD.)
Malka and her family lived in a larger home back then and she set up chairs and sofas in an alcove off the main living area. When the cops dropped the girl off, Malka led her to the alcove, where the girl would huddle up with her head down and not speak or eat.
Fortunately (yet unfortunately), she wouldn’t be the only girl there.
Malka explained how she just let them sit there until they realized there were other girls around them in the same position. Slowly, they started talking to each other:
“Do you live here?”
“No. I was brought here by the police.”
“What? You were? So was I!”
“Really? What were you doing?”
“I was wandering around the streets in the middle of the night because I didn’t want to go home and I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Really? Me too.”
“Really? You too? I thought I was the only one who felt that way. Why didn’t you want to go home?”
And hesitantly, they started talking about what was going on at home.
“Really? That happened to you too? I thought it was just me!”
These girls teetered between their silent huddled positions and raising their heads to lean forward and whisper with their fellow traumatized girls.
After 3 or 4 days of this, they were able uncurl themselves and come out of their lethargy, at which point Malka could approach them.
Malka nurtured them into becoming frum. She taught them how to run a home by allowing them to become full participants in running her home. They stayed for 2-4 years, depending. Eventually, she found them shidduchim and married them off.
“How did you find husbands for them?” I wanted to know.
“They needed sensitive boys, of course,” Malka answered. “Understanding boys. But boys from a background like theirs, boys who also hadn’t grown up frum, but became religious later. So that’s who I found for them.”
“And these boys didn’t mind marrying girls from such a dysfunctional background?” I said, still perplexed because this flew in the face of what American society said and stereotypes about frum people.
Now Malka looked as stern as she was able. “It’s not the girls’ fault,” she stated. “These are very nice girls! It’s not their fault how their fathers were.”
“Of course it’s not their fault!” I rushed to defend myself against the misunderstanding. “And I’m really glad for them that they landed in your home and that you did so much for them.”
But then I needed to know if they became functional mothers and wives.
“Yes,” said Malka, cocking her head to one side and looking totally mystified by the question. “Why not?”
And she emphasized again how these were very good girls who just needed a leg up, girls who wanted to cultivate warm homes and loving families of their own. And were just fine once they were given the skills to do so.
“How many girls did you do this for?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t remember exactly…” she said. “Ten? Twelve?”
“You had ten or twelve traumatized teenage girls living in your home?” I said.
“Well, not all at one time,” she said. “It was spread out over the years.”
“Okay, but still!” I said. “How did you do that?”
Her eyes widened at the question, then her face her lovely smile expanded over her face. “We had a large home,” she said.
“Okay…” I said.
But as we all know, a large home is not enough to explain chessed on this level.
You need so much patience, empathy, insight, and wisdom to nurture profoundly traumatized teenagers back into good emotional health.
So I kept probing to discover where she had the emotional and mental resources to do all this for so many girls for so many years, but she honestly did not understand my mystification.
So she just kept repeating the following:
“Well,” she said, “our sons didn’t live at home, so that wasn’t a problem. We sent them to learn in yeshivah abroad to avoid the draft…”
“They were basically good girls who just needed a good home and some nurturing.”
“It’s easy to understand them after all they suffered. I never judged them.”
“Hayah lanu bayit gadol – We had a large home.”
And her husband was okay with everything. Heck, he financed the whole thing!
The Making of a Baalat Chessed
And even if it can’t be remedied – like maybe the androgynous woman living in a hovel will never get her act together – it’s still important to be kind and compassionate.
Also, Malka wasn’t just empathetic, she was an empath.
She intuited what people needed, even people who were very different than herself. And while I think empathy can be cultivated, I also think that her special depth of perception is a gift. And she used it well!
Throughout all this, I imagined that Malka grew up with a very special mother. But when I asked her about her parents, she immediately denied that her mother was the source of influence and described their family life back in Morocco:
“My mother sat all day on silk cushions eating bon-bons,” she said. “Merchants came to the home to display different fabrics from which she could choose to have yet another dress made.”
Then her face lit up as she said, “But my father…! My father was a wealthy man who kept two boxes by the back door. One was full of clothes and the other was full of money. We weren’t ever allowed to answer that door. When someone knocked, my father hurried to answer it. He opened it a crack and asked what the person needed. If they said clothes, he sank his arms into the box of clothes and heaved out a pile of clothes while closing his eyes tight and he thrust his armful of clothes through the slightly open door to give the person the clothes. If they needed money, he sank his arms into the box of money and passed handfuls of money through the opening. If they still needed more, then he gave them more.”
She paused. “He never saw to whom he was giving. He never knew who received the money and clothes.”
In this way, her father kept the dignity and privacy of the recipient, as per the laws of tzedakah.
Malka’s face glowed as she spoke of her father’s chessed.
When they came to Israel, Malka was fifteen and ended up being the oldest of 10 children. In severely reduced circumstances, her father did what he could to keep his wife as close as possible to the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. He toiled at more than one job, including that of a streetsweeper.
Malka balked at her respectable formerly successful father sweeping the streets. She even voiced her objection to him working so hard and at such menial jobs – only to keep her mother in the role of pampered princess.
“I prefer sweeping the streets of Yerushalayim to being a businessman in chutz l’Aretz,” he declared. Then he explained to Malka that he felt it was his duty to care for his wife in this way, explaining that the reduction in circumstances was a lot to ask of her.
“But you’ve made the adjustment!” Malka protested.
Yes, her father said. But he felt he was man enough to take it.
I think that also, without the servants they’d had in Morocco, a lot of the housework and childcare fell on Malka. Plus, if I remember correctly, the indulging of the mother came at some expense to the other family members.
Achieving Spiritual Perfection in an Imperfect Life
There weren’t many committed religious boys to choose from at that time and he seemed a good prospect. And indeed, Malka’s husband remained committed to Torah and mitzvot and raised their sons to become yeshivah bachurs, which was an impressive feat in those times. (Apparently, sending them to yeshivah abroad was indeed the saving of them.)
But he was never Malka’s equal in middot or wisdom and he never achieved much in Torah. When I knew him as an older man with a white beard, he clearly wasn’t a knowledgeable Jew either.
(If you’re wondering how that can be when he originally learned chevruta with a budding gadol hador, I can tell you that a more skilled partner can carry the chevruta. Meaning, one partner is doing most of the learning and explaining while the other listens – but doesn’t necessarily retain.)
And that was another remarkable thing about Malka: She went through life with a partner who was not close to her level and didn’t have much to give her spiritually, as ideally there should be within a Jewish marriage. But certainly, he deserves credit for financing Malka’s chessed activities and for hosting a dozen runaways in his home over the years.
Focusing on Spiritual Beauty
Also, there are more stories to tell. But this is enough for now.
But for now, I just wanted to share with you the knowledge of a real baalat chessed. There’s so much negative stuff in the world and the corrupted baddies always make it to the front page of the news, but it’s so important to look at the people who ARE doing things right.
People who sincerely internalize Torah values tend to operate under the radar, but really, we need to shine some light on their deeds to give us chizuk and hope, and to remind ourselves of the true exaltedness of a neshamah in action.