Henny Machlis’ Secret to Spirituality
Henny personified the real meaning of “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Henny Machlis once went to Rav Elyashiv, Israel’s greatest rabbi, with a predicament. She and her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis hosted as many as 150 people – university students, backpackers, homeless people, tourists from every country, yeshiva students, widows, mentally ill people, etc. – in their modest Jerusalem apartment for every Shabbos meal, 51 weeks a year. They were also the parents of many children. Some people criticized Henny that it was not fair to her own children to make their private home such a public space.
Rav Elyashiv responded to Henny: “I don’t understand this. There are seven days in a week. Six days you give to your family and the seventh day you give to Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish People). What’s the problem?”
The Machlises, at their wedding.
Rabbi Machlis, recounting this episode after his wife’s death at the age of 57 last November, commented, “She mustn’t have listened that well, because she gave Klal Yisrael much more than one day of the week.”
Henny gave the Jewish people much more than one day of the week.
It started as soon as they got married in 1979. Although both Mordechai and Henny were Brooklyn-born, their two most cherished ideals were to make aliyah to Israel and to share Shabbat with the whole world. They planned to leave for Israel three months after their wedding. In the interim, they rented a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Why two bedrooms? So they could have guests!
Once the Machlises were ensconced in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Maalot Dafna, the guests came to eat – on Shabbos or during the week, then found a listening ear in their young hostess Henny. Many people twice Henny’s age started to call her “Ima” – Mother.
Who were these guests? As Rabbi Machlis would later describe them: “People who were challenged, people who had difficult situations in their married life, people going through divorces, people who had religious struggles, new immigrants, anyone. I invited home poor people I found at the Kotel, or people asking for donations in shuls.”
Someone’s In My Bed
Yocheved, the oldest of the Machlis children, remembers coming home one day and finding a man sleeping in her bed. She said to her mother, “Ima, there's someone in my bed.”
Henny responded, “Yes, it's somebody who has no place to live. He's very tired. He had no food to eat, and he came here this morning and I fed him, and now he's sleeping. But don't worry. When he wakes up, he's going to leave and then we're going to change your linen.”
Not all of the guests left so fast. Some stayed for weeks; some stayed for months.
Some 20 years ago, a drunk Russian immigrant in his fifties named Sender* showed up for Shabbos. “He was the only person who ever came to this house who could not sit on a chair,” remembers Rabbi Machlis. “He sat on the floor because he was stone drunk and couldn’t balance himself on a chair.”
One day Sender asked to live in the Machlis home. Henny consented if he’d stop drinking.
Sender was homeless. He lived in synagogues. He spoke no Hebrew, only Russian laced with Yiddish. After coming for many Shabboses, one day Sender asked to live in the Machlis home. Henny consented to allow him to live in one of the two basement rooms they had dug out and furnished. Sender refused. He considered himself one of the family and wanted to live on the same floor with the rest of the family.
Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis
Henny agreed, with only one condition: He would have to stop drinking. Sender stopped cold turkey. The first night, Sender was shaking so badly that Rabbi Machlis thought he was going to die. Henny, however, insisted she knew what she was doing.
A worried Rabbi Machlis called a local doctor who told him what danger signs to watch for, but Henny indeed knew what she was doing, and successfully managed the whole process. Sender completely stopped drinking.
Then Henny announced, “We have to get him a job.” She called her connections and got him a job. “This guy,” recalls Rabbi Machlis, “went from being a dirty, smelly alcoholic to a respectable, well-groomed man. He bought himself an attaché case, and dressed in a suit. He was so proud of himself. He went every single day to work. He lived here on our couch for many months.”
Love and Attention
An American man named Shimon had a history of mental illness. He used to wear a towel on his head and emitted a very strong stench. Wherever he went, people asked him to leave. Miraculously, in the Machlis home, his odor seemed to fade considerably. Henny let him take showers there and gave him clean clothes to wear. She also gave him the use of all the perfumes and colognes in the house. The Machlises treated Shimon with a dignity that he received nowhere else.
A seriously ill man named Oren spent much time in the closed ward of mental hospitals where Rabbi Machlis regularly visited him. Oren often came for Shabbos at the Machlises. During one Shabbos meal, Oren punched Rabbi Machlis in the chest. Nevertheless both Rabbi Machlis and Henny always treated him with endless patience and love. Henny spent countless hours listening to him. He had a great sense of humor, and composed his own jokes. Henny would encourage Oren, “Tell me a joke.”
“What do you call the birds at the Kotel? Birds of pray.”
Henny would laugh uproariously.
“Not all people need food, but all people need love and attention and someone to listen to them.”
“Henny had a very high tolerance level,” remarks Rabbi Machlis. “She had a lot of things going on in her life, but Oren could be here for hours talking to her, and she always made him feel important and loved. Not all people need food, but all people need love – love and attention and someone to listen to them.”
Henny Machlis, with her mother, at her daughter’s wedding.
A well-dressed Australian man named Herbert used to come all the time to the Machlis Shabbos meals. He would sleep there on Friday nights, and stayed over even on Saturday nights. One time Herbert came on a Friday afternoon, and the house was a wreck. The Machlises were, as usual, expecting 300 guests for the Shabbos meals, and no one in the family had had time to clean up. Herbert asked, “Can I spend Shabbat?”
Henny answered, “Of course.”
Then he asked, “Is there anything I can do?”
“You really want to help?”
“Yes, I’ll do anything.” Henny handed him a broom and asked him to sweep.
That night at the Shabbos meal, Herbert got up and said: “These people are so disgusting. I came to the house, so tired, so broken. And what did they do? They handed me a broom! And I had to sweep their floors! That’s the way you treat a guest?”
Incredulous at this story, I asked Rabbi Machlis for an explanation. Like a Nobel prize winner explaining the rudiments of chesed to an amateur, he patiently expounded, “People who are in need very often are not in a position to offer assistance. Even if they offer, their need is so great that they really can’t give. And they are coming to a place where they are pampered. They don’t want to take on responsibility. They need to be taken care of. And people who are very troubled and very much in need don’t necessarily look that way, don’t necessarily dress that way. If you saw him on the street, you’d never know how deep his need is.”
The Height of Spirituality
Rabbi Avraham Willig, Henny’s son-in-law, declared after her passing, “Rabbanit Henny Machlis understood that the height of spirituality is asking someone if they ate breakfast or feeding someone dinner.” He went on to tell this story:
One night, a man showed up at the house and said, “I want very hot soup.” Henny, already sick, wasn't in the kitchen. One of her daughters said, “Uh, sorry, there is no very hot soup here.”
He demanded, “So what should I eat?”
She said, “I don't know. Why don't you help yourself to the fridge?” Of course, this in itself is a level of giving that would boggle the minds of most of us.
Henny, however, heard this from her bedroom in the back of the house. She ran into the kitchen and whispered to her daughter, “What are you doing? Who knows when’s the last time this person ate?” She then addressed the man, “Come, sit down. I'll get you very hot soup.”
Henny looked at problematic people and saw their inner potential.
How did she do it? Henny Machlis was able to look at people who were so broken and even hostile, and see the Divine image in them. As her widower explains, “She was a visionary. She looked beyond what was immediately visible. She looked at problematic people and she would see who they could be, the next step. Before plastic surgery, the doctors show people what they’ll look like after the surgery. Henny had that kind of mind. She could see the potential underneath it all.”
As one of her daughters recalled during the Shiva:
We would say, “Ima, this smelly guy is a creep.” She wouldn’t even hear the word. She’d say, “You don’t know what he went through in his life.” And she’d tell us, “This man, he was put in an orphanage when he was five years old. And his parents died. And he's an orphan, and if you knew what he went through in his life….” She had this amazing compassion for every single person she met. She truly believed that every person is a tzelem Elokim (created in the image of God). She loved every person.”
We are used to reading stories of great people who lived in distant times in distant lands. Henny Machlis was a 21th century, Brooklyn-born Jew. If any of us had told her, “Henny, I could never achieve even a fraction of the spiritual greatness you achieved,” she would have been the first one to assure us: “You’re not seeing your own tremendous, holy Divine potential.”
*All names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Sara Yoheved Rigler is writing the authorized biography of Henny Machlis, to be published by ArtScroll/Mesorah. Dedication opportunities are still available. For more information, write to email@example.com. Anyone with a story about Henny, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.