Holywoman: A Roadmap

May 9, 2009

14 min read


Climbing the ladder of spiritual attainment.

An excerpt from Sara Yoheved Rigler's new book, Holy Woman: the road to greatness of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer (Artscroll Publications).

Slovakia: 1932

What started as a juvenile altercation ended in Ivan's death. The villagers of Rapide called it murder. They said that the Jewish girl, eight-year-old Chaya Sara Weiser, had murdered the 15-year-old Christian with her curse.

Mendel Yosef Weiser was on his way home from work -- his shoe store in nearby Chenegiev -- when he heard the church bells ringing. The church bells rang on a weekday only to announce a funeral.

"Who died?" Mendel Yosef asked a non-Jewish neighbor. He was not aware that anyone in their village had been sick.

"The Chelnov boy. Ivan," came the terse reply. "Your daughter killed him."

Mendel Yosef paled. Was this some kind of blood libel? Anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe in 1932, and pogroms occasionally flared. The Chasidic Weiser family would be an easy target. Mendel Yosef hurried home, his long red peyos (sidelocks) bobbing beside his beard as he ran.

At home, little Chaya Sara, blustering with righteous indignation, was only too happy to tell her father what had happened. She had gone to the communal chestnut grove on the outskirts of the village to collect the chestnuts that had fallen from their three trees. Each family in the village, including the seven Jewish families, had been allocated three trees. She was being careful to pick up only the chestnuts under the trees belonging to her family.

Suddenly Ivan had accosted her and accused her of stealing chestnuts that belonged to the Christian families. "You Jews are always taking what belongs to us!" Ivan had charged.

Spunky Chaya Sara was not one to be cowed. "These chestnuts belong to my family," she retorted, as she continued to pick up chestnuts and deposit them into her basket.

"You dirty Jew!" Ivan scoffed. He pushed her down. Chaya Sara's face reddened with anger. "You should drop dead today!" she cried.

"You dirty Jew!" Ivan scoffed. He pushed her down. The village children watching the scene laughed.

Chaya Sara's face reddened with anger. "You should drop dead today," she cried. "Today! You should drop dead today and they should bury your body in the ground where the worms will eat it!" Then she raced home, before he could strike her again.

Her sister, 17-year-old Raizel, continued the story as she had heard it from the neighbors. Later that afternoon Ivan's parents drove their wagon into town, leaving Ivan home with his little brother. The boys began playing with their father's gun, which they did not realize was loaded. Somehow the younger brother shot Ivan. The older boy collapsed and lay motionless in a pool of blood. His brother ran for help, but by the time they returned Ivan was dead. The village children who had witnessed the fight in the chestnut grove blamed Chaya Sara's curse.

Mendel Yosef gazed silently at his youngest daughter. Finally he spoke: "If you have the power to curse, you have the power to bless."

* * *

Israel: 1985

I was in Israel, hot on the trail of a hidden holywoman. I had only an address and a name -- Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer. Her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Kramer, was considered by Israel's greatest rabbis to be one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim, one of 36 hidden holymen whose good deeds sustain the whole world. "Rebbetzin Chaya Sara is as great as he is," my source Elisheva Chanah had told me.

As the bus pulled out of Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, I settled in for a long ride, grateful for the time to think. I had been in Israel for barely two months, learning about my Jewish background. Having spent years living in an Indian ashram, I had many unresolved issues with Judaism.

My major obstacle, which I called "Issue Number One," was accepting the Jewish emphasis on having children. For many years I had invested myself in a celibate path, having been taught by my guru that intimate relations dissipated spiritual energy and that children were little noisemakers who made it impossible to meditate. I believed that children and spiritual practices were mutually exclusive, and that if I pursued the path of Judaism, all my spirituality would end up in the diaper pail.

My "Issue Number Two" was a sense of spiritual alienation from most of the other Jews I met in Israel. I could not see how I, a modern American woman and a feminist, could ever adopt the lifestyle of the long-sleeved, head-covered, religious women I met in Israel.

When I finally arrived at Rebbetzin Chaya Sara's small rural community, I made my way to the home of Naomi Bohbot, who had arranged the meeting.

Naomi filled me in on Rebbetzin Chaya Sara's life. Born in the Carpathian Mountains, she had been taken to Auschwitz at the age of 20. Her parents and sisters were murdered there, but the young Chaya Sara had been kept alive to be experimented upon by the notorious "angel of death," Dr. Mengele.

"I see her almost every day, and she is never without a smile. I still can't figure out what she has to smile about."

After the war, she made her way to Palestine, where she married Yaakov Moshe Kramer, also a Holocaust survivor. The couple never had any children, although they raised many unwanted, brain-damaged children who were left on their doorstep, including one impaired boy who, 35 years later, was still living with them. They lived in abject poverty, eking out a meager income from raising poultry and a few dairy cows.

"Through it all," Naomi concluded, shaking her head in wonder, "Rebbetzin Chaya Sara is always smiling. I see her almost every day, and she is never without a smile. I still can't figure out what she has to smile about."

The next morning, Shabbos, I attended the service at the community's simple synagogue. I was the only one sitting in the women's section, a gallery overlooking the unadorned sanctuary below, except for two young girls who ran in and out several times. Suddenly the door swung open, and a stout woman wearing a quilted kerchief and two housedresses, one atop the other, walked toward me, smiling broadly, her arms outstretched. She greeted me with a bear hug, like a long-lost daughter. I knew immediately that this was Rebbetzin Chaya Sara.

As I stared at her, she took my new siddur from my hand. She leafed through it until she found the "Ethics of the Fathers," aphorisms by the Sages of two millennia ago. Handing the siddur back to me, she pointed to a passage, and asked, "Have you ever seen this one?"

As I read the words she was pointing to, I broke out in goose bumps.

As I read the words she was pointing to, I broke out in goose bumps. Here was a rejoinder to my Issue Number One: "Rabbi Shimon ben Yehudah says... Beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom... and children -- these befit the righteous and befit the world..."

While I stood there dumbfounded, she took my siddur again and turned a few pages. Handing it back to me, she pointed to another passage and asked, "And have you ever read this one?"

Staring at me were the words: "Hillel said -- Do not separate yourself from the community." Issue Number Two in stark rebuttal.

I looked up in consternation. The holywoman laughed, then turned and left.


Later that afternoon, I followed Naomi's directions to Rebbetzin Chaya Sara's home, which looked like a shack from a Chasidic story. I came upon Rebbetzin Chaya Sara as she was setting out a dish of food for the cats. She greeted me with a beaming, gap-toothed smile and invited me in.

The interior of her shack was even more dilapidated than the outside. The rough concrete floor was not covered with flooring -- not even ballatot, the cheap stone tiles de rigueur in all Israeli dwellings. The walls too were naked of plaster or paint. The front room had a corrugated tin roof. Its only furniture was a rickety wooden table and a few unmatched chairs.

Soon we were engrossed in conversation. We spoke Hebrew, a language that I barely knew, but somehow I understood everything she said.

She asked me about my background. I told her about the ashram. Then I asked her about her experiences during the Holocaust, a subject that had always obsessed me. She described how, on that first night in Auschwitz, a veteran inmate had pointed to the smoke issuing out of the chimney of the crematoria and told her, "That's your parents."

Nevertheless, she asserted, "Auschwitz was not a bad place."

What? I must have misunderstood. I asked her to repeat her statement.

"Auschwitz was not a bad place," she repeated clearly. "There was a group of religious girls there. We stuck together. And all the mitzvoth [commandments] that we could keep, we did keep. For example, one girl kept track of the days, so we always knew when it was Shabbos and whenever possible, we avoided doing any forbidden work. We recited blessings over our food, meager as it was. And every morning, when the guards weren't looking, we prayed the morning prayers."

She had just turned my whole reality upside down.

The holywoman fixed me with her pale blue eyes. "A bad place is a place where Jews can observe the mitzvoth, but don't do them. For you, the ashram was a bad place."

She had just turned my whole reality upside down. A bad place had nothing to do with bad things happening to you. No matter that the Nazis had murdered her whole family. No matter that Dr. Mengele had experimented on her and probably sterilized her. All that really matters is what issues from you.

In a flash I realized how my mind was so busy evaluating the content surging through the inbound pipe into my life that I paid scant attention to the outbound pipe -- the thoughts, words, and actions that flowed from me. The holywoman, on the other hand, evaluated her life only according to the outbound pipe.

No wonder she was always smiling, despite her barrenness, despite her poverty, despite the grueling hardship of her daily life. She was performing mitzvoth. She was bonding with God. She was projecting her own light, both now and before, in the darkness of hell.

I had met many holy masters in India. I had sat at the feet of great swamis and had waited in line for hours to place a garland around the neck of Anandamaya-ma, a woman venerated by millions. But sitting in that bare room with its tin roof, eating cucumbers and farmer's cheese across a rickety table from Rebbetzin Chaya Sara, I felt like I had just emerged from a whole lifetime spent through the looking glass. I had been seeing everything in reverse. Now here I was at the top of the rabbit hole, awakened from the dream, my eyes squinting at the brightness of a world of total spiritual clarity.

I looked long and hard at Rebbetzin Chaya Sara. She gazed back at me, and laughed.

* * *

The problem inherent in biographies of spiritually great people can be illustrated by a story: A tourist got lost in the hinterlands of Maine. He saw a farmer pitching hay in a field, drove up close to the fence, got out of the car, and called, "Can you please help me? How do I get to Craigsville?"

The farmer leaned against his pitchfork, pondered the question for a few long minutes as he chewed his tobacco, and then replied: "You can't get there from here."

Too often when we read biographies of spiritual luminaries, we are left with a sense of, "You can't get there from here." The level of altruism, dedication, kindness, joy, and humility that these great souls achieved seems so far beyond our grasp that we are left admiring them with no hope of emulating them.

Every person, by starting on the rung where he or she presently stands, can ascend as many rungs of the spiritual ladder as Rebbetzin Chaya Sara scaled.

The Talmud makes an astonishing claim: that every person is capable of becoming as great as Moshe Rabbenu [Moses, our Teacher]. This does not mean that every person can become the leader of the Jewish People, but rather that every person can attain his or her maximum spiritual potential. In other words, Judaism equates greatness with fulfilling one's unique potentials, and this greatness is available to all.

The purpose of the present biography of an astounding contemporary tzaddekes [holy woman] is to inspire its readers to follow her up the ladder of spiritual attainment. Everyone reading this book can become as great as Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer. Everyone reading this book, by starting on the rung where he or she presently stands, can ascend as many rungs of the spiritual ladder as Rebbetzin Chaya Sara scaled.

This book is intended as a roadmap. A good map makes clear where the highway we're traveling on intersects with a different highway, and which direction to turn in order to reach our destination.

Rebbetzin Chaya Sara's journey was full of intersections, where she was required to choose her course. Looking back at a life so exquisitely lived, we might be fooled into thinking that her road was a single, unbranching line from childhood powers to mature greatness. No such life exists. Every soul faces challenges, temptations, and the fatigue of the journey. While we cannot presume to know the inner workings of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara's conflicts and struggles, we can be sure she repeatedly made difficult choices. By noticing the different routes open to Rebbetzin Chaya Sara at every crucial junction, the reader will recognize when similar crossroads appear in his or her own life.

For example, every human being regularly encounters a fork in the road where the choice must be made between being a taker and being a giver. A thief may have to choose whether or not to take someone else's money. A tzaddekes like Rebbetzin Chaya Sara may have to choose whether or not to be happy when she gives away the entire sum she was saving for a hot water heater to a total stranger.

People in between those two extremes, people like you and me, may have to choose whether to give to a worthy charity as much as we can afford or a little less or a little more. Although the level of the test is different in each case, the difficulty of the test is the same. It is as hard for a Rebbetzin Chaya Sara to be joyous as she gives away her only chance for running hot water as it is for a thief to walk away from the cash he notices lying in an open drawer. The purpose of this book is to show the reader, through dozens of inspiring true stories from her life, that just as Chaya Sara Kramer passed her tests, so can we. Not that we can pass her tests, rather that we can pass our own tests.

A guide hiking at night carries a light to illuminate the path for those walking behind. Rebbetzin Chaya Sara was not a guide; she rarely told people which way to proceed. Rather, she herself was a light. (Even physically, her face looked as if a 500-watt halogen bulb was turned on beneath her skin.) By following her glow, may we all succeed in reaching our own highest potential.

Click to purchase a copy of Sara Yoheved Rigler's new book, Holy Woman: the road to greatness of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer (Artscroll Publications).

Sara Yoheved Rigler will be making her first American lecture tour in June. To find her speaking location nearest you, click here.

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