The year was 1994. I had recently moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn after graduating from college in San Diego, California. It was quite a change for me, the geographical shift from the beaches of La Jolla to the noise and cold of New York being the least of it. More so, I had left my politically correct, and extremely liberal college environment to immerse myself in intensive Judaic studies and try to get a glimpse of understanding into the life long question, "Who am I?"
I had left my politically correct, and extremely liberal college environment
Although spiritual knowledge was something I was seeking, eating was also one of my needs, so I immediately started to look for a job. I soon heard that a woman was in need of a gymnastic teacher. Having done gymnastics for years and coached during college, I was thrilled to discover that there was a small gym program being held in this woman's basement for little five year old Chassidic girls. I was ecstatic. Granted, it was not a gym like I was used to, but I knew I could improvise, and just wanted an opportunity to work with children and teach them the very things I loved so much.
Little did I know who would be teaching whom.
My first day teaching I was a bit nervous. I had never lived in an "Orthodox" community before and was quite new to such a lifestyle. But having just spent a year in Israel and learning in yeshiva there, I felt like I had a pretty good idea as to what I was in for, until I started roll call.
There were twelve girls registered in my class. I began to read the names: Mushka, Chaya Mushka, Mushkie, Moussia, Chaya Moussia, Mussie…I kid you not, all twelve girls had different versions of the same name. At first I thought that perhaps there was some law or rule I hadn't yet learned about. I couldn't possibly fathom how every single girl had the same name. (And, needless to say, we immediately decided to call the girls by their last names…)
When I asked them what their name meant, why they had been given those names, they all excitedly explained that they were named after the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe's wife. Even though they were only five, they were filled with beautiful stories of who this woman was and why they were so proud to carry her name. As I watched these little kindergartners speak, there was a pride and power that they had when talking about her, and it was immediately clear that this was a very special woman.
These girls were of the first of thousands of girls to be named after her. Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka had passed away the twenty second of the month of the Hebrew month of Shevat, in 1988.
My little group of Chaya Mushka's would be the beginning of my learning process
I was awe struck. I had heard little of the "Rebbetzin," as she was called, but clearly she was a woman whose influence and spirit permeated all who knew her or knew of her. While I hadn't been fortunate enough to meet her in her life, I knew that my little group of Chaya Mushka's would be the beginning of my learning process of discovering who she was and what she embodied.
The first thing I was shown was her picture. Unquestionably, she was a very beautiful woman. She was stunning. And yet, there was something about her that was so graceful, so royal, so holy. It spoke to me through the photograph as I stared at her face and looked into her eyes. She embodied the concept that is often attributed to her, Kol Kevuda Bat Melech Penima, "All the honor of the daughter of the King is within." This is not to say that externally she was not also beautiful, but that true beauty shines from within and illuminates all that is outside of itself. Furthermore, those who don't deserve honor often seek it. Those who are truly honorable in the recesses of their souls, need nothing external to validate that.
The Rebbetzin did not have an easy life and yet she was not known to complain about it. Being married to the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the world, meant that her husband did not belong to her alone.
Sharing the man you love is never easy, and yet it was something she chose to do and encouraged. She recognized his potential, his role, his ability and the way his Chassidim needed him, and made that her focus. For many, when they spoke with her or met her, they were completely unaware of who she was. She wanted it that way.
She was also extremely intelligent, cultured and well read. She studied literature in university after she married, at the same time when the Rebbe was studying. And she was an avid reader. To her many friends she was Chaya Mushka. To the rest of the world, she was the Rebbetzin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's wife.
And yet, she was careful not to abuse the power that title gave her. It was not flaunted. She did not seek special privileges or treatment. Rather, she was a very private and unassuming woman, never desiring to draw attention to herself. When she would identify who she was, it was always as "Mrs. Schneersohn from President Street."
She allowed the Rebbe to be Rebbe--someone who influenced and changed world Jewry
She would avoid shopping or going to public places. It is understandable given the reputation and status that she had. Yet what is most fascinating, most powerful, was her reason for not going. Unlike the common situation where one would not want to deal with the attention and people pestering, for Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka the reason was quite the opposite. She didn't want to make other people uncomfortable. She knew that people would want to please her and give her special attention, and not only didn't she want or need that, she didn't want anyone else to feel the need to attend to her.
Though she didn't want respect and acknowledgement, she most certainly received it. For all who knew her and knew of her, knew how much she deserved the utmost treatment. She allowed the Rebbe to be Rebbe--someone who influenced and changed world Jewry on a scale that we cannot possibly measure. The Rebbe was able to be who he was because of who the Rebbetzin truly was.
And while she endured the test of biological childlessness, she most certainly had and has countless children who consider her their mother in so many ways. Not only those named in her memory and honor, but the numerous educational institutions around the world that proudly bear her name. It was known that when she would be asked if she had any children, she would respond, "The Chassidim are my children." Not only was this true then, but in some ways it is even more true now.
Almost thirteen years have passed since I taught that gymnastics class. And I am still seeking to understand on a deeper level, "Who am I?" I hope to spend my life trying to know the answer. And those twelve little Chaya Mushkas are not little girls anymore. They are now nineteen year old young women who are entering their adult lives as powerful women who can make a difference in this world. Young women who carry the responsibility of a name and the legacy of a woman who has helped me understand how I want to answer my question. For the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka taught me, taught us all, that true beauty stems from within, and that those most worthy of respect, honor, acknowledgement and awe, are those that do not seek it nor want it.