Reviewed by Rivki Rosenblatt
For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, I had the incomparable zechut of knowing Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky personally. I first met her in 2005, the year I spent learning in seminary in Israel. One Thursday night, a friend and I were walking down a street in Bnei Brak when we inadvertently (there are no accidents) walked into Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s apartment. She greeted us like long-lost friends although we had never met before, and we stayed for about two or three hours. As she personally escorted us out, she and her assistant, Yael, invited us to come back—not the following Thursday, but every Thursday. There was no doubt that the invitation was sincere, and we took her up on her gracious offer. We returned, week after week, until the end of the school year. When I returned to the States, I would call Yael (Rebbetzin Kanievsky did not have a phone) almost every Thursday to wish her and the Rebbetzin “Shabbat shalom.” Three years later, on a visit to Israel, I went to see Rebbetzin Kanievsky. She recognized me immediately (my “official” name was Rivki M’America), and greeted me lovingly. I spoke to her almost every week until a few months before she passed away.
When I heard that a book on the Rebbetzin had been published, I was overjoyed and comforted—overjoyed because I thought people should be able to “meet” the Rebbetzin if they hadn’t had the opportunity to do so when she was alive; comforted because it would give me an opportunity to fill in all the details I didn’t know about this extraordinary woman.
It has often been noted that biographers of Torah personalities seem to exaggerate, attributing mythical qualities to their subjects.
And, in this regard, Rebbetzin Kanievsky: A Legendary Mother to All does not disappoint. I savored every page detailing the Rebbetzin’s wonderful qualities and holy practices. The book is a treasure trove of information about her life, filled with many interesting stories. The first few chapters discuss the backgrounds of Rebbetzin Kanievsky and Rav Chaim: the storybook Torah homes in which they were raised, the details of their shidduch and other insights about their life together. The ensuing chapters focus on the Rebbetzin and her exemplary character.
Reading the biography, I was flooded with countless memories of her love for me and for everyone with whom she interacted. She had a love of people—all people—and a passion to help everyone.
The book, however, does have a deficiency. It has often been noted that the biographers of Torah personalities seem to exaggerate, attributing mythical qualities to their subjects. About other such biographies I cannot comment, but I noted, with some displeasure, that this book on the Rebbetzin’s life has its share of hyperbole. A few events and anecdotes are related in the book that I witnessed firsthand, and in which I participated. And the retelling of those events, at times, has been ever so slightly changed or distorted. No disrespect was intended, I’m sure, and the enhancements or embellishments are relatively slight.
However, the Rebbetzin needed no embellishments. Our Torah giants’ lives speak for themselves. And the danger of such distortions is obvious: If we fail to attribute human characteristics to Torah personalities, we lose the opportunity to identify with them and are forced to give up our dreams of aspiring to be like them. I don’t think the Rebbetzin would have wanted that.
Despite this minor flaw in the book, the 500 or so pages flew by. It provided me ample opportunities to laugh along with the Rebbetzin’s wonderful sense of humor and infectious simchah shel mitzvah, to cry with her as she shared the anguish of her beloved Am Yisrael and to fall in love with her all over again. The book is a fine tribute to a giant of a human being. If you didn’t have the zechut to know Rebbetzin Kanievsky while she was alive, getting to know her by reading this book is the next best thing.
Rivki Rosenblatt lives in New York City. She works for OU Press, the publishing arm of the OU.