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An Ordinary Woman

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

My friend Rivka was an ordinary woman. How did she become so great?

My friend Rivka was an ordinary woman -- a Valley girl, an "A" student, the only daughter of an assimilated Jewish family. When she was 17, fresh out of high school, Bev (as she was known in those years) married her friend Terry. It was 1954, the era of the dormant fifties, when most young women's heroines were Betty Crocker and Miss America, when most young wives' goals were to bake the perfect cake and have kitchen floors so clean they could see their own reflections.

Bev, too, loved baking and homemaking, but this most ordinary of young brides was galvanized by an extraordinary drive to learn and grow, to improve not only her surroundings, but herself.

Terry volunteered for the U.S. Coast Guard. In the unlikely setting of a navy base in Millington, Tennessee, a good decade before the notion of "spiritual paths" dropped into common parlance, Bev chose for herself a sparsely traveled route to inner development: Torah Judaism. The problem was that that route did not veer through Millington, Tennessee. Undaunted, Bev made the hour's drive to Memphis every week in order to study with an Orthodox rabbi.

"There was no Jewish pre-school in El Cajon, so she made one. Then she had to have an Orthodox synagogue, so she made one of those."

By the time, a few years later, they moved to El Cajon, California, the Rakovs had two children. "Rivka needed a Jewish pre-school," Terry recalls. "There was no Jewish pre-school in El Cajon, so she made one. Then she had to have an Orthodox synagogue, so she made one of those."

In 1964, the family moved to San Diego. Now the Rakov children, who would eventually number five, were older. They needed a Jewish day school, but San Diego had no such institution, so Rivka helped start the Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School. Forty years later, it's still thriving.

It's common for dynamic women to focus their accomplishments on the outside world, usually at the expense of their families. For Rivka, despite her active involvement in Jewish organizations, her family always came first. Every day the family sat down to eat dinner together at six o'clock. This family time was sacrosanct. Anyone who showed up at six thirty didn't get dinner. Rivka also insisted upon the annual family vacation: one or two months of camping out all over North America -- from California to Newfoundland to Hawaii.

In San Diego, Terry opened a motorcycle store. As Paul Vann, a young Jewish sailor stationed in San Diego, recounts, "Terry sold me a motor scooter and then took me home to dinner. That was pretty common. Everyone always had dinner and a place to sleep at the Rakovs'. I used to worry that Beverly would be personally responsible for the extinction of the chicken."

A glimpse of Beverly in those years is recorded by Dr. David Luchins, who was a director of the NCSY (an Orthodox youth group) summer camp in the Sequoia National Park:

It was Visitors Day, and this vivacious sprite on a motorcycle from San Diego was trying to convince me she was the mother of four of our campers, rather than a hapless counter-culture dropout who'd taken a wrong turn home on the way back from Woodstock.

Each Vistors' Day over a course of four years, a more Torah-sophisticated Bev Rakov showed up in camp… And each year Bev Rakov was asking more questions.

Learning and growing were Rivka's life-long passion… but not her only one. She loved to eat, to cook, and to serve culinary masterpieces of her own creation. She loved ice cream. Her best friend Ethel Adatto recalls how, upon meeting Rivka and Terry in London one winter, Rivka immediately whisked her off to Baskin Robbins for ice cream. Rivka's motto was, "You never know a city until you find the Baskin Robbins store."


At the age of 39, Rivka was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, and survived, but from that time on she regarded every day of life as a free gift. When, two decades later, Rivka succumbed to cancer, Terry's rejoinder to her distraught friends was: "She got 20 extra years." Rivka loved life, but she never felt she got too little of it.

Eight years later, the breast cancer recurred. Again surgery and chemotherapy. Rivka became proactively involved in her own treatment. She kept up with every medical journal she could find, and informed her doctors of the latest cancer treatments she had read about.

Meanwhile, Rivka, always moving forward spiritually, had outgrown San Diego. The Rakovs made aliyah to Israel in 1978, moving into an Absorption Center in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. There Rivka, her zeal to learn undiminished by the years, inaugurated a weekly Torah class for English-speaking women, inviting a different speaker each week. Twenty-six years later, the weekly Gilo class is still meeting.

It was time to buy an apartment. Rivka aimed at the bull's-eye, the world's holiest spot -- an apartment directly across from the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City -- and she got it.

Terry started a laundromat, to be followed by a deli, in the Old City's Jewish Quarter. The children grew up, married, and had children of their own. Rivka became the penultimate "savta" (grandma). "She read us stories, played games, took us on trips, stayed with us when our parents needed a break, let us into her Jacuzzi, knew our friends, our likes and dislikes … For some of us, she was also our best friend, a person with whom we could share our biggest secrets."

Rivka's generosity was legendary. It extended not only to Shabbat meals and hospitality, but even to the clothes on her back. Honey Weiss, a pensioner who attended the Old City synagogue where Rivka prayed, recalls one Shabbat when Rivka, chic as ever, was wearing an elegant black velvet vest with braided trim and brightly colored stones. "Tasteful, but not gaudy," was Honey's assessment. "Oh," she exclaimed to Rivka, "that's just the sort of thing I'm looking for. Where did you --?"

Rivka interrupted her. "Why buy one? I'll lend you mine, with pleasure! How many of these do we need in one neighborhood?"

Rivka's zeal for movement was not confined to inner growth. She loved to travel. In 1994, they flew to Africa with two other observant couples. Rising to the challenge of keeping kosher in the hinterlands of Africa, they arranged for the native guides to meet them with all new pots and pans, and cooked all their meals over an open fire. Micha Fox relates one episode from their African adventure:

One image stands out so clearly: Rivka in Victoria Falls, wearing a life vest and crash helmet, ready to go white water rafting. She gave precise instructions to a couple of us cowards who stayed behind: "If anything should happen to me, be sure to ship my body to Jerusalem."

The boat overturned, and the people in it were swept into the foaming water, but were retrieved. When the ordeal was over, a happy Rivka enthused, "This is really something to tell my grandchildren."

A young woman stopped dead in her tracks and asked, "Your WHAT?"

"My grandchildren."

The young women stared at Rivka in consternation and stammered, "You mean you have children who have children?"

"Yes," replied Rivka. "I have 14 grandchildren."

The young woman looked incredulously at her and exclaimed, "My grandmother would never do anything like this!" Then she added, "My mother would never do it either."


The last decade of Rivka's life was a hurricane followed by a blizzard, but somehow, incredibly, she kept moving forward.

The sages tell us that there are times in life when it's impossible to move forward, when the gale force winds blow so hard against a soul that the most one can expect of oneself is not to fall back. Standing one's ground is itself a victory.

The last decade of Rivka's life was a hurricane followed by a blizzard, but somehow, incredibly, she kept moving forward.

In 1989, tragedy struck with the sudden death of Terry and Rivka's youngest son, 29-year-old Matthew. The death of one's child is probably the hardest of life's tests, but those of us around Rivka never noticed her slackening her forward stride. Her faith in God's goodness was absolute, and her joy in life was merely augmented by the specter of death.

At the age of 56, the Angel of Death caught up with her again; Rivka was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

While she submitted to all the conventional therapies, the treatment Rivka put most stock in was prayer. She asked her friends to divide up the Book of Psalms and collectively recite the whole Book every day for her recovery. When, a few months later, she received a favorable report, she attributed it to the power of prayer.

While waiting for the reports about the state of her cancer after each series of chemotherapy, Rivka could not stand to "sit around." God had created an amazing world, and she might not have much more time to see it. She and Terry made a trip to China and, a year later, planned a motorcycle tour of New Zealand.

When I heard about the motorcycle trip, I was flabbergasted. How could a person fighting metastasized cancer ride a motorcycle around New Zealand? Dismissing everyone's misgivings, Rivka went-on the motorcycle-and had a fabulous time.

From the upbeat way Rivka always acted, I wondered if she understood how dismal her prognosis was. Then, one evening, I was sitting next to her at a Bar Mitzvah. She was giving me a glowing report about a gourmet glatt Kosher Thai restaurant in Jerusalem. "We're going to take all the kids and grandkids there to celebrate my 60th birthday next month."

It took me a moment to register the discrepancy. "You're not going to be 60," I corrected her. "You're going to be 59."

She chuckled at having been caught. "I know, but this restaurant is too expensive to take everyone for anything less than a major milestone. So I decided to celebrate my 60th birthday this year since I may not be around for it next year."

Perspicacious Rivka. She never lived to see 60.


While a protracted illness can make one self-absorbed, Rivka's hallmark during the final phase of her life was her unremitting concern for other people. A divorced woman who moved into the Jewish Quarter eight months before Rivka died recalled how solicitous Rivka was to make sure that she was never alone on Shabbat. When Rivka, whose body was declining rapidly by that time, could not host her herself, she made phone calls to friends to place the solitary woman for Shabbat meals.

Nomi, a neighbor from the Old City, relates the following story from this period: Nomi had gone to downtown Jerusalem to shop when she suddenly was overcome by a sick feeling. She made her way to the bus stop to catch the bus to the Old City, and there was Rivka, also waiting for a bus.

I told her that I was feeling very weak, and wasn't sure if I could make it home. Rivka immediately got us into a cab, helped me walk all the way home [a five-minute walk from the parking lot of the Jewish Quarter], and tucked me into bed. Concerned by the fact that my husband was out of the country and that I was momentarily all alone, she patiently waited for my daughter Yael to come home from school. She also called my married daughter to let her know that I was not well. Then Rivka made sure that I called a doctor, and confirmed that he would indeed be coming to see me soon.

The image is searing: Nomi, who was suffering from a virus that would last a week, being attentively cared for by Rivka, who was suffering from terminal cancer.

During the final phase of her illness, Rivka had trouble breathing because of fluid build-up in her abdomen. She had to go to the hospital periodically to be drained. Once, after such a draining, Rivka had to wait around to speak to a doctor. Never wanting to waste a moment and oblivious to her own weak condition, Rivka took the hospital elevator up to the geriatric ward to see if she could help. It was lunch time, so she set about feeding the patients. She saw an elderly Russian woman who could not feed herself. Rivka sat on the edge of her bed and spoon-fed her. In the next bed was a 90-year-old American woman who had lost all interest in eating. As she fed the Russian woman, with whom she could not communicate, she talked to the American, trying to convince her to eat.

Every day she would ask herself: "What did I do today to bring me closer to God? What did I do today for others?"

When all her coaxing failed, Rivka thought of a new tactic. "You should eat," Rivka told her, "because it will make you look prettier. It will make your cheeks pink and give a glow to your skin." To accentuate the importance of looking pretty, Rivka took a lipstick from her purse, cleaned it off, and applied it to the nonagenarian's lips. Rivka then held up a mirror, so the woman could see how nice she looked. The woman ate.

Telling me this story later, Rivka was pleased that she had managed to use her time optimally by feeding two patients at once. Time was precious to her, even before it started to run out. Every day she would ask herself: "What did I do today to bring me closer to God? What did I do today for others?"

Rivka continued to attend Torah classes until her body gave out. And she continued to integrate what she learned into her life, ever striving to be a better person -- until the very end.

I could barely look at Rivka during that period without crying. She became skeletally thin, and lost her eyesight in one eye. But whenever anyone asked her, "How are you?" she replied with a broad smile and a buoyant, "Thank God!" And she covered her blind eye with a pink eye patch decorated with sequins.


A friend said of Rivka, "She always saw the donut, not the hole." Indeed, Rivka did more than see the donut; she ate the donut, relishing every last crumb.

Exactly two weeks before Rivka's death, I was privileged to be allowed to see her for the last time. When I entered her bedroom, she was on her way from the bathroom to her bed. At first I was shocked to see her, so shrunken and emaciated, without the wig and makeup that had served to cover up her true condition. My horror melted as soon as Rivka greeted me with her usual broad smile.

Instead of lying down on her bed, Rivka sat on the edge, bent over, and started rummaging through a drawer beneath the bed. She was looking for hats to give me. Her position certainly could not have been comfortable; I begged her to stop. No, she had to find three hats that matched the outfit I was wearing, lest she bequeathed to me hats that didn't match my wardrobe.

We spoke about food, recipes, spices. Her zest for living had not abated, even while she was dying. Food was life. Just because she could no longer partake in it did not diminish her interest in it.

Then she told me she had chosen Terry and her three sons-in-law to give the eulogies at her funeral. "You're planning your own funeral?" I asked in consternation.

"Of course. Do you think I would give up control before I have to?" she replied, and laughed.

"Have you thought of what you will say when you see the Holy One, blessed be He?" I asked.

"I already feel so intimate with Him," was her pensive reply.

When I left, she gave me a hearty farewell hug. I was high for a week. The Baal Shem Tov said that death is like going from one room to another. For Rivka, it took more planning and preparation than that, more like going on a trip to Africa or New Zealand. She planned her excursion to the Next World with the same good cheer, fearlessness, and open anticipation that she had planned her This World journeys.

Rivka had spent her whole life perfecting the skill of moving forward. When the time came to cross the threshold into the Next World, she blithely skipped through.

My friend Rivka was an ordinary woman. How did she become so great?

And if she could do it, what about me and you?

For the aliat neshama of Rivka bas Emmanuel, on her seventh yahrzeit, the 2rd of Av.


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