By Rabbi Avrohom Brashevitzky – Chabad of Doral, Florida
You may have known her. She’s the lady who when she went out, even to do routine shopping – she was happy. Yes, it was like an excursion for her. She was so excited to get out. She didn’t have much. She almost never went on a real vacation. Going out, even to the corner store, was a cause for excitement.
She didn’t keep that happiness to herself. She greeted everyone and anyone. Even if she didn’t know you, “she knew you.” If you never met her before, she seemed to be the happiest person in the world. If you really knew her, you would be amazed at her ability to live, even enjoy her life.
Perhaps some remember her sitting on the top step of the front of her building, greeting passersby and hunting for conversation for people to engage with. Always with a smile, with excitement, happy for the opportunity to socialize with others. In the later years, as she was challenged by mobility, these moments were like going on a two-week cruise or lavish vacation.
However, if you never knew my mom, I want you to get to know her. At least just a little bit. Why? Because her life story will certainly inspire you.
As a young girl growing up in communist Russia, it wasn’t easy. Her parents hailed from Chassidishe Nevel. In order to live under the radar to allow them a relatively quiet Frum life, they resided in a small suburb of Moscow. Father would leave early in the morning on the commuter train to earn a meager living.
He traveled almost three hours in each direction to the total opposite side of Moscow (this was the only job, where he could ensure Shmiras Shabbos). Typically, he’d return late at night. However, there were times he’d stay overnight in the factory, as it was too late to go home and get back in time for his morning shift. Sometimes he wouldn’t make it home for Shabbos, spending the holy day in a strange place far away from his family, physically and spiritually.
Still, life was good. After all, that’s all she knew; it was normal. Then something happened, something very dramatic that will change the course of her life forever.
Little Rochel Leah, only 6 years old, came down with a severe illness that threatened her life. From what she related to me, it was Meningitis; others in the family argue it was Polio. In any case, after undergoing surgery, she was alive but left paralyzed on the entire left side of her body.
She would have almost no use of her left hand and would limp severely for the rest of her life.
Imagine a little, normal girl standing in the schoolyard, not able to throw a ball any longer nor skip around with all the school children. Imagine the psychological and emotional pain she endured.
She once shared with me an incident that tore my heart to pieces. She was with her mom on the way to school, and dad was already walking in the other direction towards the train station. A passing non-Jewish neighbor called out to her “cripple.” Before she even realized what had happened, her father had spun around and managed to leap back and land a hefty smack over the wicked, nasty girl who dared to insult his daughter.
My Bubby was extremely nervous all day. After all, they were literally one of the only Jewish families in the entire village. Her worries were laid to rest that evening when the grandmother of the young perpetrator knocked on their door. She had her little granddaughter apologize to my mom and promise never to repeat that type of behavior.
Fast forward. The greatest yearning of every person, especially a Frum Yid, living in the Soviet paradise, was to leave. The Rubashkin family was certainly no different. However, Avraham Mendel fell seriously ill. Buried in nearby Malachovke, he will very soon have the merit of finally leaving with the coming of Moshiach.
Now handicapped and orphaned, the only option was to get out of Russia. By mid-1967, Nachama and her daughter were on their way to Eretz Yisrael. Two weeks later, they arrived in the USA, where they were warmly received by the entire Gtzel Rubashkin family.
Against all odds, Rachel Leah got married in 1969 (12 Tishrei 5730). I was born in 1970. Eventually, she would give birth to a total of nine healthy children!
She didn’t have it easy. Never do I remember any cleaning help. The only time we temporarily had any help was a week or two after births, courtesy of the government aid. Of course, she made sure the “help” was served a hot cup of coffee or tea, which accompanied a hearty breakfast. Yes, you guessed right, mom made the breakfast and served it. So much for the help…
So, with use of only one hand, no help, no mother-in-law nor mother, she took care of her castle. We were poor, literally. Everything was very basic and simple. But everything was spic and span. I recall, after many years, the linoleum (remember that?) was totally worn out, in some spots you can see the wooden slats, but the floor was so clean that you can literally eat off the floor.
I can never recall a day without a freshly cooked dinner. Our clothing and even bedding were always freshly laundered and pressed. Even though we wore hand-me-downs, which we received from others, they were always shining clean and fresh.
I can still feel the taste of her made-from-scratch meatballs and Gefilte Fish (remember those days when you went to the fish store, and bought some ground pike, carp and white fish?). Remember, no help, no assistance. She really worked hard, very hard.
Life was not easy for her. She was very smart and understood things very well. Although she never ever discussed these feelings with us, I do have a strong sense that she was very well aware of her challenges, socially and culturally. It must have hurt her to no end, but she didn’t show it. She made sure to always be happy and smile.
She loved going to Simchas and mingling with people. She did not allow her status (or lack thereof) to interfere. She loved to be with people, to chat and laugh.
There was so much sadness in her life. It seemed as if a new problem popped up when an old one managed to somehow fade away. Yet, if you didn’t know what’s going on in her life, you would think she’s having the best day of her life.
It’s not like everything was perfect at home. We were not the lovey-dovey family. Things were not always tranquil. There were many, too many, stresses and upsets. Yet, we received love from my mother, she gave it to us the best way she could. She gave every ounce of strength she had to take care of us. SHE DID THE BEST SHE COULD, and then some.
For purposes of privacy, I won’t go into intimate details. It’s not relevant. What is important is that she always did her best. As a neighbor of hers put it today, “she took what she had and in spite of it always did the best she can.”
As life seemed to finally be getting on track. Finally, it looked like she could rest a little and enjoy the fruits of all her hard labor. The children were beginning to get married, now she can enjoy some Nachas. And then her third son, the one who wasn’t going to make it when he was born and spent many weeks in the NICU, got killed in a car accident. Crushing. Devastating.
But she managed to live life, even after that. She still found a way to laugh, to smile. She pushed herself to enjoy Simchas, to celebrate life. If she shed tears, no one knew because they were congealed inside her soul.
Living alone is not easy. But after all her children married, that’s what she did. Over time, she became more and more limited in her ability to get around. Still, she pushed and pushed to live life, to enjoy and celebrate it. She found little moments such as Shabbos dinners at a neighbor to express her joy of life, her refusal to allow anything to stop her from being alive. I was astonished over and over again at how much it meant for her to spend time with others, to celebrate a Simcha or visit with family. There were times when she seemed unable to even walk, yet when it came to a Simcha or an opportunity to travel to her children, suddenly she had strength like a lion, she became alive with renewed energy.
Although she was never officially appointed for the role, she became the Bubby of her building. In fact, she was the Bubby of the whole block. She would greet everyone and anyone who passed by with a warm smile and kind words. She loved seeing people. As for her own biological grandchildren, she always seemed to become reborn again every time the Einiklach would visit. No matter how sick or fatigued she was, she would host them with an abundance of energy, making sure that each one received a hug and Bubby Candy.
Rachel Leah (Rubashkin) Brashevitzky had a very, very difficult life. Yet, she managed to enjoy it, make the best of it and bring happiness and inspiration to all who knew her. Now that you know her, I hope she inspires you to live life happily and joyously, always be the best person you can be, especially for your children, and never allow the difficulties in life to pull you down. She managed to do it, despite everything, and raised a beautiful family of wonderful children, grandchildren amd great-grandchildren who bring good and happiness to others.
P.S. Five and half hours before she passed, her middle daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. By the time the week was over (30 hours after her passing), she already had a grandchild named after her.