This letter about Mrs. Jeanette Deutsch z”l, mother of CTN’s Rabbi Doni Deutsch, was written by a former CTN student, now living in Jerusalem.
Today, I was speaking to a friend whom I just met last year and I said to her, “Ima passed away.” She immediately gave me a hug and said, “Oy, the one who gave you that Siddur (prayer book)?” As with any Ima story, I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, I said, my Rabbi’s mother.” And then I stood there thinking: A friend who has only known me for a year knew exactly whom I was speaking about. It was such a testament to the impact that Ima had on my life.
I didn’t know until yesterday that Ima was 97 years old. I knew she was old, and my family always asked me how old she was, but to me, that was an insignificant detail. Ima wasn’t defined by her age, like another person may have been. She certainly exuded wisdom and knowledge that I’m sure came with her age; yet, she was so lively and happy, and had such an ability to meet you at your level. Though clearly my elder, Ima was really my friend.
I will always remember when I first met her. I came to the Deutsches for the first time; it was my first time going to an Orthodox Rabbi’s house for Shabbat. I remember expecting to see an old, overweight Rabbi with a long white beard. I was so nervous. Instantly, my nerves disappeared when Esti opened the door. I had never received such a warm hug from a stranger. And then I saw Rabbi Deutsch, quickly tying his shoes before running out to Synagogue. I was confused, wondering who that man was, until Esti introduced him as her husband, the Rabbi. He came over to introduce himself and I thought, “Wow, first such a warm hug and now such a big smile?” That was the biggest smile I had ever received from a stranger, let alone a Rabbi. As I settled into my room downstairs, I clearly remember thinking “could this get any stranger? Could all my stereotypes be wrong?”
My friends and I came back upstairs and Esti took us over to the Shabbat candles. We quickly lit, said a blessing and sat down on the couch. Esti excused herself, and when she appeared again, she was linked arm in arm with Ima. “This is my mother in law,” she said, “Everyone calls her Ima.” Ima smiled and said a quiet Hello. They slowly walked to the windowsill, and Ima stood in front of her prepared Shabbat candelabra.
Once she had found her balance, Esti came to join us on the couch. My friends and Esti began to get to know each other. I was in another world. Ima’s every move captivated me. I watched how she slowly moved her hands over the candles and covered her eyes. She said a quiet blessing, and then sat down in front of her candles, where she remained for quite some time. I think Esti noticed my staring, and explained that Ima was praying for her children and grandchildren.
What a sight! “THIS is my heritage,” I thought. I felt like I was watching an old, dramatized movie come to action. Yet this was neither old nor dramatized; this was a real Jewish woman who opened my eyes to the reality of my heritage.
From then on, I came to the Deutsches quite often. I grew through their advice, encouragement, but mostly through their example. Although every single member of the family impacted me deeply, my eyes were always glued to Ima. I loved to watch her interact with her granddaughter Rachel. I loved how Rachel always brought her a pillow and gave her a good Shabbat kiss! Ima was such a part of the Shabbat table. She listened, asked questions, and with a lot of effort, ate some Shabbat food. My favorite was seeing how Ima dressed on Shabbat. She always had the most beautiful jewelry on and made sure to look fancy. I always commented on her outfit choices, and she commented on mine! Recently, another granddaughter – Malka painted her nails and she kept the polish on for a while. Week after week, I told her how much I loved her nails!
Nevertheless, Ima wasn’t showy. She was so modest and refined, and whenever I would tell her how much I loved her outfit she would gently blush. She taught me so much about being modest. As our relationship grew, I was privileged to visit her in her bedroom once in a while. Even there, on a weekday, she always made sure to put on a robe for a visitor.
Many times, when the Deutsches went out of town, I was blessed to “Ima-sit.” Ima used to laugh when I said that! She didn’t want to stay in the house by herself, so I came to sleep over. For me, it was the biggest privilege. I would always be in the middle of writing a college paper, so I would bring my work to the kitchen table next to her room, and sit there for hours typing away. Ima would constantly come out to check on me! She would ask me what I was writing about, and would tell me that I had to make sure to get some sleep!
One of my favorite parts about Ima-sitting was her pre-planning. Unlike many of the Deutsch’s, Ima didn’t like last minute details. For days before a trip, Ima would call me on my cell phone to arrange times and dates. I loved those phone calls, and always took her schedule very seriously!
Another memory from the kitchen table was from Friday before Shabbat. I would come often to make Challah and other Shabbat goodies. Esti would yell into Ima’s room “Sharona’s here!” Ima would come out and ask me what I was making, how it was going. She would compliment my challah braids and we would talk about what she used to cook back in the day. While our small conversations were taking place, the Deutsch house was flying! Esti was in the middle of three million things and Rabbi Deutsch came in and out with cups of coffee. Grandson Shlomo would be downstairs banging away on his drums and Rachel would happily be making cranberry kugel. I would have expected a woman of Ima’s age to ask for some peace and quiet. But when I asked Esti if the Friday commotion was too much for her, Esti laughed and said “Ima loves it! She asks for Shlomo to play the drums as loud as he can because she loves to hear him!”
Ima’s grandsons would also come into her room around this time to give over lessons from the Torah before they went back to Yeshiva – their school. She had such respect for Torah! I remember once when I came to visit and she was listening to a tape. “What are you listening to?” I asked, and she said “Rabbi Deutsch’s class from this week.” She so appreciated her son’s Torah that she asked him to tape his classes so she could listen!
And of course, when I picture Friday at the Deutsch’s, I also see Joanna chopping apples in between heeding to Ima’s calls. Joanna was Ima’s part time caretaker, but because of Ima’s appreciation for her, she became part of the family. I have thought of Joanna a lot in the past few days, how hard Ima’s passing must be for her. Once, I came to visit Ima and she was wearing a beautiful robe. Ima told me Joanna bought it for her! They had such a beautiful relationship, one in which I learned about Ima’s ability to show kindness and gratitude.
Ima also loved to play board games. Whenever Deborah came, she and Ima played scrabble. I was so impressed that Ima liked to play such a hard game. And recently, Rachel played Rummikub with her for over an hour! Even though this game was hard for Ima, she wanted to push herself and exercise her brain. She also didn’t succumb to memory loss. Shabbat after Shabbat, she prayed for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren purely from memory. Ima had such an appreciation for the intellect. Many times, she and I discussed articles that we read together. She was so smart! Yet, even more than articles and intellectual topics, Ima used her brain for prayers. She asked Esti to say her blessings out loud, to yell them into her room, so that she could say “Amen.” And watching Ima say Tehillim (special prayers) was such a beautiful sight. She was so connected to G-d and always prayed for so many people. When I was dating, I always asked her to please pray that I find my husband. Esti tells me she didn’t take my request lightly. Her joy at finding out about my engagement was so beautiful! I always told her it was because of her prayers. It’s no surprise that when I left for Israel, she gave me a beautiful Siddur (prayer book) with my name inscribed in the front. She said to me “I’m not giving this to you because it’s your birthday, or because you graduated, or because you’re leaving, but because I love you.” I cried like a baby in front of her when she said that!
I also loved that when I was engaged and I called Ima from Israel, she asked me what it was like to be in “kallah (bride)–land”. Like I said, she was able to place herself at my level. Being far from “kallah-land” herself, she listened to me go on and on about my wedding plans. Aside from her spiritual efforts, Ima also made physical efforts to be there for her family and friends. Though she rarely left the house, she came to my wedding. I feel so blessed. And recently, when she was in the hospital and unable to speak, she drew up her courage to type a message to my husband. She slowly and deliberately typed the letters, “L-U-C-K-Y.” She was so funny, too!
Ima really became like a grandmother to me. For the past two days, I have been remembering story after story and lesson after lesson. I have been praying that I should just make her proud, and be able to emulate her softness, her sincerity, her love for Torah, her joy, and so many more of her beautiful qualities. I love her dearly and know that I always will. I miss her so much already. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to know her and be close to her.
Sharona (Sernik) Nordlict