WRITTEN IN MEMORY OF DORIS LEVINE, SALHA BAT ELIYAHU
My father’s second wife, Doris Levine, passed away this morning. She was eighty-nine years young. Although she entered my life after I was already married and busy raising my own children, during the over thirty five years that she was part of our family, I grew to love her and yes, admire her.
Doris grew up during the Depression. Her family was part of the very close knit Sefardi community in New York, where everyone was related to each other and the only question was, how?
The last time I spoke with her, she was extremely weak and in a lot of pain. Yet, her voice was warm and full of life. When I asked her how she was doing, she gave a short laugh and responded, “All right,” and then turned the discussion to me and my family. “After all,” she explained, “it always makes me happy to hear about people I love.”
During that last conversation I reminded her of a story that she had told me years ago, one that I often tell to my own children and grandchildren. Doris and I were sitting opposite each other in the two off-white recliners that dominated her living room. As she spoke, her hands were busy organizing one of the desk drawers.
She had been telling me about a man who always showed up at synagogue just in time for the oneg Shabbos. The other members of the synagogue were upset; this guy was obviously a schnorrer. But Doris always went out of her way to make sure that he received a heaping full plate of the best delicacies, “After all,” she explained, “that might be the only real meal he eats all week, and the rest of us certainly don’t need all that high calorie food,” she added with a laugh, looking down at her more than ample figure.
“During the depression,” she began, “everyone – or at least almost everyone—struggled to make ends meet, including, of course my parents. Originally from Egypt, they had moved to Manchester before I was born, and eventually immigrated to New York where there was a large, established Sefardi community. The stock market crashed just as they were beginning to get on their feet financially, and they, together with millions of other Americans, were plunged into poverty. But although our family was very poor, we always had food to eat. In those days, before refrigerators and freezers, my mother would shop each morning for that day’s food. Without all the modern appliances and convenience foods that we have today, it took several hours for her to prepare our family’s supper.
“Early one afternoon,” Doris continued, “my mother and I were alone in the house when our upstairs neighbor stopped in to borrow something and then stayed to schmooze. She confided that her husband was out of work, and that they barely managed to pay the rent each week. ‘It’s been weeks since I cooked my family a real meal,’ she said, her eyes brimming with tears. ‘For the last two weeks we’ve had nothing but day old bread and jam for supper.’
“Later on that afternoon, my mother sent me on a special errand — to deliver a hot cooked meal – our hot cooked meal–to the upstairs neighbor. That night, we were the ones who ate bread and jam for supper.
“None of my siblings ever realized why we didn’t eat a proper meal that night. My mother served the bread and jam with a flourish. With a huge smile on her face – and a wink to me – she announced in a big, booming voice, ‘Look everyone! We’re having a real treat tonight. Bread and jam for supper! Nothing could be more delicious.’ And they believed her.
“And that,” she concluded, “is the way we’re supposed to help our fellow Jew.”
Debbie Shapiro is a widely published author and a longtime Jerusalem resident. Her latest book, Women Talk, is a compilation of interviews with great Jewish women — and all Jewish women are great! For more information, please click: Women Talk or visit: http://www.artscroll.com/Books/womth.html
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.