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Henny's Secret

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

There is no limit to how much love and compassion can emanate from one human heart.

Henny Machlis's kitchen is an apt metaphor for her heart. A glimpse into the kitchen, less than half the size of a normal American kitchen, leaves one wondering how 200 Shabbat meals a week can issue from such a room. Similarly, one wonders how so much love and compassion for literally thousands of individuals can issue from one human heart.

Not the amorphous love the rest of us feel for all humanity as long as we don't have to put up with them eating in our living room, sleeping on our couch, showering in our bathroom. No, Henny's love is concrete and specific. It encompasses the lonely widows who have nowhere else to go on Shabbat, the homeless who sleep on the Machlises' couch and shower in their bathroom for weeks at a stretch, the lost souls who spend hours sipping coffee and pouring out their hearts at Henny's dining room table (the kitchen has no room for a table), and the unkempt, incoherent, often reeking paupers who come to the Machlis house for both food and love. [ See "A Taste of Heaven."]

The 44-year-old Henny looks a decade younger. Although she wears no make-up, her lineless complexion appears like the face of a woman of leisure, rather than the busy mother of 13 children.

How can she cook for, serve, and clean up from 200 guests every Shabbat, 51 weeks a year, without burning out?

I have come to Henny's modest apartment in Jerusalem's Maalot Dafna neighborhood to solve the mysteries that intrigue me about this open, ingenuous woman: How can the mother of so many children always appear relaxed and cheerful? How can she shop for, cook for, serve, and clean up from 60-100 guests every Shabbat night and every Shabbat afternoon, 51 weeks a year, without burning out? How, contrary to all the childrearing literature, can she devote so much time and attention to helping strangers and still raise children who turn out to be sweet, modest, kind, and – why not just say it? – angelic? What supernatural ingredient does she put into her food so that scores of people, upon eating one of her Shabbat meals, are forever changed? And – this is the question I really want to answer – how can a woman who never goes out to dinner maintain such a high level of joy?

A friend added another question to my list: With so many strangers passing through the Machlis apartment constantly, don't they have a problem with theft? As soon as I enter their living room, I perceive the answer. There is nothing to steal. The family owns no computer, no television, no objets-d'art, just lots and lots of holy books, which line every available wall. Hardly a temptation to thieves.

Rushing to make my appointment with Henny, I have forgotten my tape recorder. Henny offers me the use of theirs, and asks her four-year-old son Eliyahu to go downstairs to one of the basement bedrooms and bring it up. Henny and I sit on one of the two slip-covered red couches – the only furniture in the living room except for two dining tables.

Minutes later Eliyahu stumbles into the living room and throws the tape recorder onto the rug. I emit a gasp, and manage – after all, he's not my child – to suppress a storm of expletives: "What are you doing! You'll break it!" Henny, unruffled as if she had a supply of new tape recorders in the back room or the money to buy them (she has neither), says softly to her son: "You have to treat machines more gently. Otherwise, they can break."

Sara Rigler: I would have blasted my kid for doing that!

Henny Machlis: Of course, we all lose it sometimes, and we all have our struggles. In our home, we try not to yell or hit. Rabbi Hirsh wrote that if you have a choice between being rigid and educating your children in all the values and behaviors that you cherish, or being loving and educating them without anger and not getting everything you want, it's preferable to educate without anger. I always had a dream that I would have a peaceful home. Then it was just a matter of attaining it, with God's help and tefilla [prayer].

SR: And a lot of effort and self-control, I imagine. How do you have time to raise your children well when you're devoting so much attention to other people?

HM: The success that we have in bringing up our children is up to God. It has to do with Divine providence and lots of prayer. We definitely have to put in our maximum --psychologically, physically, emotionally – but our success depends on Divine blessing.

Although we devote most of our Shabbat to guests, there is plenty of opportunity for private, quality time between Saturday night and Friday afternoon. Every day during the week we try to have either lunch or dinner with the children. Also, we schedule the Friday night meal late, to give people time to walk in from different parts of Jerusalem. So immediately after evening prayers, we have a dinner alone with the children, before the guests arrive. Then the children have a chance to give their divrei Torah [words of Torah] and sing their songs.

I have been a full-time mother since the birth of my sixth child. When a mother is around and available to her children on a constant basis, then she's there for crucial educational lessons to be given over and many, many heart-to-heart talks about things that are troubling her children. The Satmar Rebbe commented on the verse: "All day he gives and lends, and his children will be blessed." [Psalm 37:26] He said that you would think that someone who is busy helping other people won't have enough time for his children, but there's a special Divine blessing that protects them.

When a child learns to care, think, love, and give to the other, he matures quicker and builds his character to be a more responsible and effective human being.

One can also postulate that much of a child's inability to deal with himself and the world comes from egocentricity. When a child learns to care, think, love, and give to the other, he or she actually matures quicker and builds his or her character to be a more efficient, responsible, and effective human being in society.

This is also an argument for having more children, because the more siblings there are, the more types of personalities children learn to deal with, and the more social skills they develop in terms of tolerance, patience, sensitivity, and love.

SR: By letting homeless, mentally ill, and drunken people stay in your house, aren't you endangering your children's safety?

HM: Unquestionably, our children's welfare is our primary concern. Every dedicated parent must use discretion. In the more than two decades we have been doing this, we have not, thank God, had a single bad incident. Of course, if there is someone who is emotionally or psychologically disturbed to the point that it could threaten the children, we relegate them to sleeping in our van, or deal with them in some other way.

SR: Can you tell us about your background?

HM: I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My parents were also American-born. My father, Murray Lustig, of blessed memory, was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University. I studied pre-med at Brooklyn College. My dream was to get married and have 20 children and teach the whole world about Judaism, and to learn about genetics on the side! When I realized that I couldn't do everything, I switched my major to dietetics. I got a B.S. in education plus a Hebrew teaching degree from Yeshiva University.

SR: When you were growing up, who was the greatest influence on your life?

HM: My parents were very hospitable, very warm, good, and loving. I always viewed my mother's chesed [deeds of kindness] and compassion – the way she treated the cleaning lady, the fix-it man, the carpenter, with such kindness and respect. I was one of five children. My mother (Edith Lustig) never sat at the table; she was always up serving us. As you get older, you realize how much of what you are is from your parents.

My father was so generous and kind. One time, the daughter of my parents' friends got hurt. She was 16 years old, and was riding her bike, and somehow hit a tree. She went into a coma. As soon as my father heard about it, he rushed to the hospital. He went over to his friend, handed him a blank, signed check, and said, "Don't spare any medical expense to help your daughter." We heard about this story only years later, after my father passed away, when his friend told us.

Two of my rabbis in school, Rabbi Teichtel and Rabbi Reuven Fink, also had a major impact on my worldview.

SR: How long does it take you to shop for and cook these massive Shabbat meals you serve?

HM: I spend one morning a week ordering food by telephone. Then I start cooking either on Thursday night or early Friday morning. With three of my daughters helping me, it takes us about eight hours to cook. This past week, six or seven of our children were helping. Everyone was peeling vegetables and was actively involved in the excitement of Shabbat preparations.

SR: That doesn't seem like very much time to prepare gefilte fish, chicken soup, chicken, four kinds of kugel, several different salads, and four kinds of cake enough for 200 people.

HM: I've become much more organized over the years. Now we have a system. But it's very intense. We work very high speed. Kind-hearted young women sometimes join us in the cooking.

SR: How many hours does it take you to clean up?

HM: It used to take till Tuesday, but three years ago my husband hired a worker who washes up all the pots, pans, serving utensils, and trays, and puts away the chairs and tables. Now it's all done by late Saturday night.

SR: How often a year do you take a break?

HM: We used to take off a few weeks a year, and we would inform the people in advance. A couple of years ago, my married daughter had a baby boy on a Shabbat, so the bris was the following Shabbat, in a different city. Whoever called during the week, we told them not to come, but there was no way to announce it to our "regulars." Just in case, we arranged for a rabbi to be here to conduct the meal and I cooked a little, and we left challah, salads, drinks, and provisions. I thought maybe 20 people would come. Well, 80 people showed up that Shabbat night, and 65 people the next day for lunch.

So now, if we want to go away for Shabbat, we inform people that Rabbi Machlis won't be here to give divrei Torah, but that there will be someone else to run the meal. And I cook the food anyway. Fifty-one weeks a year.

Only on Pesach we don't have guests, and we go away, because of the special Biblical mitzvah to teach your children on Seder night. So we concentrate exclusively on the children and attempt to celebrate the holiday in a private family setting.

SR: Do you ever feel a need for a break more often than that?

This is our raison d'etre. This is holiness. This is happiness.

HM: Not really. This is our raison d'etre. This is holiness. This is happiness. In my former years, maybe I would have wanted more time off, but as time goes on, and I get into a system, and I get more dedicated to the idea, I think God has withdrawn some of the pitfalls, and it runs more smoothly.

They say that in Jerusalem of old, when people would eat, they would hang a tablecloth outside their door. If anyone would see the tablecloth, they would know they could come in and eat. So I'm hoping for the day when everyone will hang out a tablecloth so that people can just come in. If all people would just open their doors, it would really be a brilliantly shining Jerusalem.

SR: Do you ever feel like having some time alone without your husband and children?

HM: In recent years, I have felt that way. I go to the Kotel [the Western Wall], or I'm alone with God in my room and read, or say tehillim [psalms].

I think one of the most important things in life is to pray for success.

I think one of the most important things in life is to pray for success. We have no independent success. It's all God's blessing. I enjoy brisk walks, and try to use the time for creative introspection and meditation.

SR: What makes you so happy?

HM: To be living in the holy city of Jerusalem, the holiest place in the world. It makes me happy to be married to a wonderful person, who is wise and learned. It makes me happy to have my beautiful children, and to see them growing up to be holy, healthy, happy, giving, loving, sensitive human beings. It makes me happy to be very connected to God and to be able to share that connection with all humanity. Shabbat makes me very happy. I love Shabbat. And I love to share the joy and the thrill of the holiness of Shabbat.

SR: I have to say that I think something metaphysical is going on here. Many Jews who are committed secularists or who are even practicing a different religion have been turned on to traditional Judaism after just one Shabbat meal in your house. What's your secret?

HM: I read a long time ago that the wife of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, before she cooked, would pray that the people who eat her food would imbibe yirat shemayim [awe of God] and do teshuva [repentance]. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that when you cook, the energy that you cook with goes into the food. So if you cook with a lot of anger, you can give people food poisoning. But if you cook with joy, you can give them good health.

So, we pray before and while we cook: "May the food have the taste of Gan Eden [paradise]." We say tehillim while we're cooking. And we pray that the people who eat this food should love Shabbat and love God, love Torah and be in touch with themselves and that the food should be for the honor of God and for the honor of the holy Shabbat.

SR: What would you say to women who hate to cook and do domestic work?

HM: All giving is a little bit of imitating God. Giving builds one's character, and makes one more God-like. I think one should view domestic responsibilities as a means to grow as an individual, to become more giving and loving and sharing, to get out of oneself and into the other, and to become more God-like. Of course, there's nothing wrong with hiring help for domestic duties, as long as one knows that it's important to overcome a certain level of this discomfort in order to be as giving as can be.

SR: What would you say to women who are conflicted between career and staying home with their children?

HM: I used to go out to teach Jewish subjects to adults. Even now I sometimes go out to lecture. For a few years, I ran a series of lectures in the neighborhood, where I taught Jewish philosophy to women. I really think that everyone should be an emissary of God and teach whatever they know. Every woman is blessed with her particular qualities and interests. Everyone should be encouraged to maximize her singular form of expression. But it's very important that every woman should know that there is no one else in the whole world who can be a mother to her children except for her, nor a wife to her husband except for her. Women's priority should always be first and foremost to give to their families. This is their most unique and important contribution to the world, that no one else can do. No one else can give over my particular psychological, emotional, spiritual self to my children, except for me. I encourage women to use all their potentials and talents and education to give to society as much as they possibly can, but always remember that their first priority is their home, to build a Jewish home. Let's not forget that all spirituality in the world comes from the Jewish woman. It is her strength and her values that will build her children and the world around her, and will pave the way for the ultimate redemption.

Visit the Machlis website at

In memory of my mother,
Gloria Degenstein Philipson -
Gittel Chana bas Mordechai

The beloved Henny Machlis passed away on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015/Cheshav 3, 5776. May her soul be bound with the bonds of life.

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