Crowning Glory: An Appreciation of Chana Twersky Feuerman A”H by Ruchama Feuerman
Reprinted from Mishpacha Magazine
After I got married, I didn’t fall in love with my mother-in-law — at least not at first. I was suspicious of her sweetness, of the presents she gave for every occasion, and … just because.
When she came to visit — after calling days beforehand to make sure it was a good time — she brought foil pans of baked chicken, plastic containers of compote, brownies and blondies, and the sweet potato frites she knew I loved. Was it real or put-on, all this kindness? When would I meet the real her?
She spoke with a soft British lilt in her voice, an echo of her childhood in World War II England. She always had the most pleasant expression, receptive and calm, a gentle, unhurried way of gesturing, greeting, of going about her day. Then why was I so — not quite wary, but on guard? Was it because she was always so nicely turned out, in her twinsets and tailored skirts and coordinating shoes and matching purses? Was it because she was too beautiful? Her with the high cheek bones and pale skin of a young woman and those vivid green eyes. She looked and acted like a princess.
The world suspects beauty. Shlomo HaMelech wrote, “Sheker hachein, beauty is deceitful” for good reason. Eyes deceive. We think if someone looks good, they are good. But then we get tricked again and again — in marriage, in business, in life — by appearances. I couldn’t quite trust what I was seeing. Too good to be true and all that. I kept waiting for her to slip up, but she never did.
Not to say we didn’t have our skirmishes. Most of them centered around my sheitel. I bought one, didn’t I? (Actually, my mother-in-law had bought it, as was the custom.) But did that mean I had to wear it? I had fallen in love with the ease of snoods, just coming into popularity at the time, even if some of mine looked like stretched-out head socks. She never said anything when I put on a snood, but I could tell that it pained her ever so slightly. Her eyes lowered a little, her face didn’t come at you as gladly. It pained me that it pained her. And when I put on a sheitel — oh how the sun came out on her face; her whole being stretched out to encompass me. For her, a sheitel meant, “You’re dressed.” This was how a rebbetzin comported herself.
She had worn a sheitel back in the late 1950s when it was rare. Certainly, back in 1960, when my father-in-law was a principal at a day school in Los Angeles, no one was wearing a sheitel. It cost $750 — more than a tenth of her husband’s yearly salary, and believe me, it didn’t look like much, but it never occurred to her not to don one. This was what her mother had done, and her mother before that, each generation covering her hair, going all the way back to the first rebbetzin, Sarah Imeinu.
In her own way, my mother-in-law was a pioneer, same as her husband, Rabbi Chaim Feuerman, the education pioneer, although she never would’ve thought of herself that way. She was too unassuming to regard herself that way.
Interesting how her two daughters, while not married to rabbis, also possess that elusive rebbetzin quality: Ruthi with her irresistible warmth and refinement, and Malka with her chesed and outrageous devotion to the klal.
I didn’t want to be controlled — not that my mother-in-law was trying to control me (maybe a little) — so sometimes I wore a sheitel, sometimes a colorful scarf, sometimes a hat or snood. Sheitels bothered me. Mine never sat on my head quite the right way. It tilted, it wilted, I was always too aware of it. After a few years, I decided the trouble was that mine looked too poofy, too glamorous for Kosher Konnection shopping. I would buy a short one I could put on and look normal wearing in a grocery store without gobs of makeup on. I thought she’d be happy.
She did like it. She really did. It was a great cut and it framed my face and wasn’t overdone. Now I was “dressed.” But she quietly yearned for it to be just a tad longer, more feminine. Sometimes she dropped hints about how wonderful I had looked in my old sheitel — the one I’d never worn. The poor woman couldn’t help herself. I ignored the hints. I looked good enough, what did she want? But Good Enough was not in her vocabulary. She wanted me to look beautiful. Not Notice Me, not Pay Attention to My Outfit, not, Be the Prettiest in the Room, never that. But Look Lovely and Your Best and Always Appropriate.
I recall a story my husband tells. It happened when President Nixon was getting impeached and the entire world was riveted by the scandal. My mother-in-law, as the story goes, pointed out Nixon’s wife standing at his side. “Do you see how Pat’s dressed? Look how long her sleeves are, how her skirt covers her knees,” she said approvingly. “Like a rebbetzin.”
It struck me then: My mother-in-law’s was not a selfish beauty. She wanted everyone to be beautiful along with her. She wanted a world full of well-dressed rebbetzins who knew that exact line between Chic Modest and Whoops — you just lost your dignity there. She had followed her husband in the often lonely and difficult (not to mention poorly paid) journeys of a mechanech. He built schools, built communities and teachers, and she was at his side, as they went from California, to Atlanta, to Montreal, to Kew Garden Hills. And then later, when he developed his education consulting business (he was dubbed “the principal’s principal”), she went with him to Switzerland, Yerushalayim, Venezuela, and all four corners of America. She knew that if she was dressed nicely, if she looked attractive and composed, it would make her husband happy, no matter what he was going through.
I realized: Dressing and looking nice was her avodah, her way of serving Hashem. The problem was, I couldn’t relate to it. Maybe I even inwardly scoffed at it. I preferred the joys of crafting literary tales, of decoding a Rashi or Ramban.
Fortunately, we found other ways to relate. We shared recipes and health tips, talked about children and world trends, and discussed our favorite books. How we loved analyzing what was wrong and right with frum literature. Her comments were astute. Her sweet nature did not make her vapid. Happy is the daughter-in-law and happy is the mother-in-law who can relax and enjoy each other.
Then everything changed.
My mother-in-law used to say, “If you ever see me without makeup or with my sheitel askew, take me to a doctor — you will know something is seriously wrong.” A few months ago, Malka, her daughter, was out shopping with her mother, when she took one look at her mother’s face, and, after noticing other symptoms, brought her straight to the emergency room. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma.
My youngest daughter gave her bubby her Dora doll, and she took it with her for every hospital visit, every surgery. Nothing helped. My precious, gentle-souled mother-in-law was dying of the most vicious and swiftest cancer of them all, after having beat off two other cancers. No one could believe the eviscerating speed of the illness, like some fast bullet train. Within two weeks, she could barely walk. Then she couldn’t sit up. Her eyes lost the capacity to see. She was paralyzed on the right side. It seemed like some horrible trick.
The family rallied, steadfast, nobly, and unbowed. Not a single day passed that a family member wasn’t there, often for hours and hours, holding her hand, massaging her feet, coordinating the aides, cooking food, running errands, dealing with the insurance companies. My father-in-law watched over her heroically, like a hawk. We all took turns spending Shabbos in Queens. No one should be alone.
About three weeks ago, I wanted to share some news with my mother-in-law. After eight years, I was finally allowing myself to buy a new sheitel. It might seem like a trivial thing, but I thought she would want to know. But she was in and out of a coma, could she even hear me?
I bent low and grasped her parched hand. “I’m getting a sheitel, Ma.” Her hand miraculously pressed against mine. She was happy. She could barely move her mouth to swallow food, her body was shutting down inch by inch, but she would acknowledge this effort on my part to look good. Strangely, so close to death, her skin still glowed like that of a 30-year-old.
But back to my new sheitel. Turns out, the short one I’d just bought looked dreadful on me, very wiggy. It actually added years.
Fortunately, the wig place was graciously willing to let me exchange it. That Shabbos in January, while out on a walk, I poured out my sheitel saga to my friend. “After all these years, I’m finally buying the sheitel my mother-in-law would’ve liked. It goes to my shoulders. But now it’s too late,” I said, choking up. “She’ll never see it.”
“Shush, you can’t talk that way,” she said.
“I meant, literally, she can’t see — she’s blind.”
After Havdalah, we got the call from her daughter Ruthi, who had spent Shabbos there. For a split second, it was horribly silent. Then, “It’s over!” she moaned.
I felt walloped in the throat.
Her soul had left her body just before 10 a.m on Shabbos.
At the funeral, her cousin, the Novominsker Rebbe, with his eyes painfully closed shut and in a voice full of heartbreak, spoke of his memories of her. “She was an exceptional, dignified, great woman,” he ended.
The Talmud writes how Rabi Eliezer fell sick and Rabi Yochanan went to visit his friend. Rabi Eliezer was crying and Rabi Yochanan asked why: Is it because of Torah you didn’t study? Some learn more, some less. Is it because of money? It’s not for everyone in this world to get rich. Don’t waste tears because of this. Is it because you didn’t have many children? I myself had ten children and buried them all. Rabi Eliezer said, No, I cry because of your beauty — I cry because the day comes, as beautiful as you are now, the dust will swallow you up and bury you and your beauty. Rabi Yochanan said to him, “Over this you can cry. This is a good reason.” And they both cried together.
I don’t think I will ever again see a woman so lovely, so dignified, and so modest again, all in one person. What a recipe for modesty you revealed to us. My daughters, all your granddaughters and great-granddaughters, got to see this. We all saw there was no sheker to your chein, not a whit of deceit. It was all to bring honor, to lift up the house, to be dignified, to make a husband smile when he came home. Sometimes there really are people who are too good, too beautiful to be true. And for this, we all cry.
My husband reminded me of a story I’d forgotten. It was my wedding and a makeup artist had been hired for all the ladies. But the time had run out and there was now time left to make up only one more person, my mother-in-law or my mother. Can you already see a disaster in the making here? I wasn’t there but my mother said her machateineste insisted that my mother take that last makeup session. And so my mother had her face done and fell in love eternally with her machateineste, my mother-in-law.
You did the beautiful thing, Ma.
And you were right, this sheitel style suits me a lot better. I’ll wear it, maybe even to the Kosher Konnection.
A Life of Majesty
Born in London, just before World War II, Chana Feuerman née Twersky was the granddaughter of both the Trisker Rebbe and the Tiferes Ish, the Rebbe of Novominsk. Her father, Rav Avraham Twersky had the unusual situation of his father-in-law also being his uncle.
Due to economic collapse in post-World War England, he and his wife Shifra (Perlow), moved to New York with their two daughters, Eva and Chana. His father, the Trisker Rebbe, was fearful that his “own grandchildren would become embarrassed” of him — that they would assimilate upon leaving the shtetls of Europe. Fortunately, his fears did not come true. In fact, Rav Twersky’s two daughters married talmidei chachachim (Moshe Greenes and Chaim Feuerman), and all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — by now in the hundreds — have stayed Torah observant, vibrantly religious Jews, with many Torah scholars, rebbetzins, oskei tzibur, therapists, and educators among them.
Chana studied social work in college before becoming a full-time homemaker. Beginning in 1960, she and her husband, the famed educator, Chaim Feuerman, embarked on a path of mesirus nefesh to spread Torah and build yeshivos and day schools. At times they were one of three frum Jews in a community. When her husband was struck down and nearly killed by a drunken driver in Queens and was unable to work for a year and a half, she overcame her shy, home-bound nature to join the workforce and heroically support the family. Later, when her widowed father became too elderly and infirm to live on his own, she and her husband lovingly took care of “the Zeideh” in their Queens home until his last day.
Her cousins include the Skverer Rebbe, the Chernobler Rebbe, the Novominsker Rebbe, to name a few, and a slew of roshei yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, in particular her close relative and cousin, Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein of the illustrious Yad Aharon yeshivah. The family’s dear friends, Rav Dovid Cohen and Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, were among those who eulogized her at the funeral, and the hundreds of present and former students, principals and educators, as well as relatives and friends, connections forged through the years, were present that day.
To quote her children, she always conducted herself “as a bas kedoshim, with an incredible grace that came from the simple recognition that she was daughter of rebbes and an eishes chaver.”
I don’t think I will ever again see a woman so lovely, so dignified, and so modest again, all in one person