“Mommy’s outside, waiting to pick us up,” he told me, “and she’s in a hurry.”
That didn’t sound good. It was a ten-to-fifteen-minute walk home, and there was usually no need to pick us up from the synagogue at the conclusion of the Sabbath. The last time such a thing had happened, Havdalah was followed by a rushed drive to the ICU to visit my ailing mother, Simha Wyckoff. What in the world was going on tonight?
I nervously gathered my five sons and led them outside, where my wife awaited us in our family’s SUV. She was visibly shaken; after quickly urging everyone into the vehicle, she raced down the familiar streets of our neighborhood. On the way home, she answered our curious children’s relentless questions with an uncharacteristic annoyance. Before long, she hastily parked in front of our house and then quickly instructed the children to exit the vehicle. Something was wrong, very wrong.
In our bedroom, with the door locked and no children present, my wife dropped a bomb. “Your mother died last night. I’m sorry.” She then left me alone and allowed my shocked mind to absorb the horror that I had just heard. The four and a half months that my mother’s frail body had spent fighting illness after ruthless illness had finally come to a bitter end. I broke down in tears and then turned on my phone to call my father, stunned by the magnitude of our loss.
As Jews, we are taught not to forsake “Torat imecha,” the “Torah of your mother.” Although fathers are obligated to teach their children the facts and logic that comprise the incredibly vast body of the Written and Oral Torah, the Jewish mother is responsible for creating a home environment that fosters a Torah-true life. The mother provides her children with an indispensable experiential knowledge in her warm and loving Jewish home. In this regard, my mother was – and remains – an unparalleled success. She was my first and best Torah teacher.
In my earliest memories, my mother filled our home with the sights, sounds and scents of a vivid, meaningful and true Jewish life. I called her “Mama.” The smell of her freshly baked challah (bread baked in honor of the Sabbath) and cooked chamin (a Sabbath stew cooked overnight, known in Ashkenazi communities as “cholent”) tantalized me every Friday afternoon and Sabbath day. My mother casually sang songs about Jerusalem and the Kineret as she walked around the house, tending to domestic matters. The lucid images of her lighting the weekly Sabbath candles and of her helping my brothers and me to kindle our Chanukah menorahs every year will always remain with me. She taught me the melodies that I still use for the Friday night Kiddush (Sanctification of the Sabbath Day) and for the Passover Seder. Further, she ignited my yearning for Jewish knowledge by telling a myriad of fascinating stories, including tales from the Tanach (the Jewish Holy Scriptures) and accounts of great individuals from Jewish history. Every year on Passover, she brought the Exodus from Egypt to life. And I will never forget my mother’s anecdotes about the deeds of her righteous parents; although poor, they attended diligently to the needs of people more destitute than they.
A descendant of the Moroccan Jews who had founded the Jewish community of Tiberias in the nineteenth century, my mother was raised in the home of Rabbi Machluf and Rivka Koubbi. She was the youngest of eight children, and grew up with a deep faith in our Creator and an abiding commitment to righteousness and Jewish scholarship. She was born before the outbreak of World War II. As a child, she observed her father standing by the mezuzah (a scroll containing scriptural passages and placed at the doorway of a Jewish home) every morning, tearfully supplicating on behalf of the Jews who were being brutally persecuted and murdered in Europe. After the war, her parents excelled at the Jewish trait of kindness, opening their modest home to numerous Jewish refugees from Europe who had nowhere else to go. A multitude of guests were hosted and treated well in the Koubbi family home every Sabbath and holiday. Her parents perpetually gave charity to the poor, and Machluf studied the Torah without a stop.
My mother made formal Jewish education as important as the experiences that she provided in the home. She excelled at the top institutions in Tiberias and Jerusalem, and later brought her wealth of knowledge and wisdom into the classrooms of Jewish schools in order to teach the next generation. After spending a number of years at schools in Israel and in England, she followed her adventurous spirit to tame the Jewish badlands of the San Fernando Valley. In 1970, she moved to North Hollywood, California, to accept a full-time teaching position at a new Jewish day school, Emek (Valley) Hebrew Academy. The traditionally religious Jewish community in the Valley was quite small in those days, and Jewish education was a difficult challenge for many parents. My mother was instrumental in bringing Torah knowledge to children who otherwise would have had no opportunities to learn their people’s traditions. Not long after moving to the Valley, she met and married my father. Emek was my first school, and will always occupy a special place in my heart.
Financial struggles made it difficult for my parents to provide a continuous religious Jewish education for my brothers and me. With a heavy heart, and feeling forced by unbearable financial pressures, my mother withdrew us from Jewish day school. I finished my elementary school education in a public school setting, and attended public middle and high schools. After-school religious educational programs were available, but they were poor substitutes for day school.
Although I did not make many close friends in public school, my mother saw to it that I survived that experience with a healthy, intact self-esteem. She consistently reassured me that, no matter what came my way, I had worth, lots of worth. I was loved. I mattered. And I had every right to hold my head high; my mother built me up in ways that no other person on Earth could. I felt privileged to have a mother like her (along with an equally loving and devoted father).
My mother’s most prominent, defining characteristic was her inner strength. She was remarkably tough, and had more guts that anyone else I knew. When I was in my late teens, a stationery store that my parents had run jointly for over a decade failed. A couple of real estate investments went poorly, as well, when my parents’ renters simply refused to pay their rent. My mother was hungry for a new challenge, and she chose an intellectual one. She would return to education, this time taking on the task of teaching children with special needs. To do so, she required a degree from the American university system. The first step was to tackle the local community college. She flew through the Associate of Arts program in record time, taking many courses at once. From there, it was on to a California State University, where she quickly completed her B.A. degree and then progressed to a Master’s Degree in Special Education. None of the common excuses and rationalizations stood in her way; she pursued her goals with fierce grit and determination. Whenever she set her mind to something, my mother could be described by only one adjective: unstoppable.
When I was a university student, my interest in learning the Torah, along with traditional Jewish life and practice, was reignited. It was an interest that had, at worst, grown dormant within me, but had never been fully extinguished, over my years of secular education. My mother bragged to friends about my plans to travel to various English-speaking yeshivot (religious schools) in Israel in order to enhance my Torah knowledge. She was elated by each of my decisions to take the observance of a mitzvah more seriously. Throughout the 1990s, I steadily increased my Jewish knowledge and practice, to my mother’s delight. She took great pride in my achievements, reveling in the awareness that Judaism in our family was to continue.
I rarely saw my mother happier than on the day that I announced to her my engagement. Janna was a charming, wise young woman who called my mother “Imma,” the Hebrew word meaning “mother.” After devoting herself tirelessly to raising three sons, my mother was now being rewarded with a daughter. At our wedding, my mother stood by me under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) and cried tears of joy. She could now add a beautiful daughter-in-law to her well-earned arsenal of bragging rights.
An expanded family in Los Angeles meant even more devotion. My mother supported us in every possible way throughout the births of six children, and participated actively in their upbringing. She cooked and baked for us, watched our children, carried them around while speaking to them in Hebrew and singing Hebrew songs for them, and bought them gifts. She prepared massive meals in honor of Jewish holidays, sometimes celebrating them with us and sometimes sending food to our home in order to enhance our celebrations. I will never forget the joy that she expressed at the brit milah (circumcision) of our fifth child, Eliyahu, who was named after her saintly grandfather, the Moroccan-born Torah sage, Rabbi Eliyahu Yiloz.
Ultimately, her family was the only thing that mattered to my mother. Her passing not only ruptured our familial structure itself, but threw our entire dynamic off track. Nearly every month of the year, someone’s birthday was celebrated at her home, with a delicious meal, birthday cake, gifts, and the type of entertainment that only grandparents can provide. The Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah celebrations of our two eldest children were only the beginning of a long cycle of rewards reaped for my mother’s selfless dedication and her efforts to provide a Jewish home. She loved to attend our younger children’s siddur (prayer-book) parties, our elder children’s graduations, and the annual Purim meals at our house. Imma, you left us too soon.
Against all of my better hopes that I was simply dreaming a horrible nightmare from which I would soon awake, the dreaded day finally arrived. I was scheduled to get on an airplane and fly to Israel, where I would accompany my mother to her final rest in her hometown, the holy city of Tiberias. She would now share a commonality with the Rambam and the Tanna Rabbi Meir. On the morning of my flight, Janna faced the formidable task of consoling a husband who lay in bed, sobbing uncontrollably.
“It’s not goodbye forever,” she said to me, exhibiting her typical sagacity. “Some day, we will be together with Hashem (G-d).”
She was right, of course. The concepts of the eventual Resurrection of the Dead and the World to Come are integral to Jewish belief. As is generally true in Jewish philosophy, these principles have sound rational bases. The human being is a combination of body and soul; although the needs of the soul are primary, the body is also destined to receive its just reward for having enabled the soul to carry out its Divine purpose during a person’s Earthly existence. The eventual reunification of body and soul on Earth will coincide with the Messianic Era, described in our daily prayers with the words, “On that day, G-d will be One, and His Name will be One.” (Zechariah 14:9) Imma, I pray fervently for that day to arrive very soon. I miss you.