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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Going Where Hashem Leads You Bina 2010

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Editors note:

Title: Going Where Hashem Leads You
Subtitle: Debbie Shapiro interviews Tova Silverstein
Lead in:

Mrs. Tova Silverstein is a woman who has experienced tremendous changes in her life. Born in Charlaroi, Belgium in 1938, she spent the years of the Nazi occupation hidden in a monastery and later on with non-Jewish farmers. Then, just a few years after being miraculously reunited with her parents and older sister, she was uprooted from everything that was familiar to her when her family moved to the United States. As an adult, she and her husband moved to Yerushalayim, and she was faced with adjusting to an entirely new culture. The biggest change, however, occurred three years ago, when, as a result of a spinal infection following surgery, she was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Binah: Tova, you've experienced so many changes in your life, so many new beginnings. How do you find the inner strength to begin anew each time?

Mrs. Silverstein: We never begin anew; we just change directions. A person carries his past — his education, his outlook on life and, of course, his middos — into every new situation. So the question is really: How do I use my kochos to cope with new challenges? The key lies in realizing that we are not control. The challenges that come our way are not the result of random chance. Hashem runs the world, and therefore there is reason and purpose to everything that happens to us, for good as well as for what we might perceive as bad. If we succeed in fully internalizing these ideas, we will be able to cope with each individual situation that we encounter.

I was only three and a half when my parents hid me and my older sister, Manya, in a monastery. I became Therese, and she, Matilda. After two months, my mother took us out and placed me with a childless couple. When the situation became too dangerous, the couple sent me to their relatives on a farm, where I remained until the end of the war. Small children live in the moment. Because they're incapable of comparing the present to the past or of hoping for a better future, it is easier for them to adapt to change. I have very few memories of the years that I was in hiding, although I am positive that I was very well taken care of. One of the few things that I do remember is that the non-Jewish family gave me a plastic doll that I became very attached to — this was when plastic had just been marketed and owning a plastic doll was a big thing. Someone — perhaps it was my mother, I really don't know — knitted the doll a little red cape with a hood. I played with that doll constantly.

Meanwhile, my parents were running from one hiding place to the next as they tried to evade capture by the Nazis. Despite the incredible danger, every few months my mother would come to me. But I didn't really understand who she was; I just thought of her as a nice lady. After all, how could I possibly develop a real relationship with a woman who I only saw for a brief visit every few months? On the other hand, I was too young to realize that I was missing anything, so I didn't feel deprived.

I was seven years old when my parents took me back in 1945 — just a kid, and kids, by nature, easily accept new situations. So I just accepted the fact that I was living with a new and different set of "parents."

My parents lost four of their six children — three before the war, and one, my sister Sarah, during the Holocaust. As a result, they became shells of their former selves. They were wrapped up in their pain, which, of course, had an impact on their relationship with me. But since I didn't experience maternal warmth while living with the non-Jewish farmers, I had no idea that I was missing anything.

We moved to the United States in 1949, when I was ten years old. I don't remember the adjustment as being difficult. It didn't take me long to learn English and to settle into my new surroundings. I was privileged to attend Bais Yaakov of Williamsberg and gained tremendously from the teachers there. They were humble, gentle people who lived a full Torah life, and that — their essence — had a much greater impact on me than any of the material that we studied.

My father always dreamed of living in Eretz Yisrael and he finally fulfilled his dream in 1963 when he and my mother moved to Yerushalayim. Several years later my husband and I followed them. By then we had six children.

At the time of your move, life in Eretz Yisrael was very different from what it is today. How did you cope with the tremendous change in the standard of living?

We made the move because it was something that we really wanted to do, and when a person really wants to do something, he doesn't let the little things, the narishkeit, bother him. I think it was harder for my children than it was for me. They had to get used to new schools, an entirely different curriculum, and a whole new set of friends. And then, of course, there was the language barrier; imagine trying to learn biology in Hebrew! It was really a matter of sink or swim, and, baruch Hashem, they all succeeded in "swimming."

It's a real zechus to live in Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land. The country is permeated with kedushah, and this kedushah impacts anyone who lives here, which, of course, includes me. After moving here, I grew in ways that I never thought possible. I view the world differently; my values changed. Silly, superficial things don't bother me the way they once did. Because the standard of living here is so much simpler, I don't desire the many of the things that I once felt were essential. I've learned that I can be very happy without them.

What about the government bureaucracy? Forty years ago Israel was a bureaucratic nightmare!

I'm an easygoing person, so although it was, for example, difficult to wait half a year for a telephone, it wasn't the end of the world — and besides, everyone was in the same boat. When we finally did get a phone, we were one of the few people who had one, so we felt extremely privileged. It was that way with everything; the endless running around to take care of every little thing was a shared problem, one that we just learned to live with, and even joke about.

Living in chutz l'aretz, I viewed myself as a Jew who happens to reside in New York. But once I came to Eretz Yisrael, I realized how much New York had become part of me. When I first moved here, for example I made a point of reading an American paper once a week. It gave me an illusion of being connected to the States. But after two years of living in Eretz Yisrael, I didn't feel that need anymore. I stopped viewing myself as an American residing in Eretz Yisrael, and saw myself, rather, as a Jew living in his home.

Parnassah is also a difficulty when moving to a new country. Did you work out of the home?

Actually, it was while living in Yerushalayim that I discovered my creative talent and developed it into a profession. One day I asked a friend how to measure a sweater. She told me to just follow the basic measurements of a T-shirt and then go on from there. That gave me a sense of freedom, and as a result I was able to concentrate on the stitches and colors, rather than on the construction. From there, it just took off.

I started designing bridal headpieces after visiting a bridal salon and seeing how the headpieces are constructed. I realized that the basic design is very simple. Once I was confident that I understood the basic construction, I just played around with the different materials. Eventually I succeeded in creating some really stunning and original pieces.

In the early eighties, when my children were already grown, a friend and I opened a hat shop in the center of Jerusalem. I was in charge of design, while she took over the business aspects. We opened our store as friends. Ten years later, when we closed the store, we were extremely close friends, and today, we are still friends — and believe me, anyone who has ever been in a business partnership will realize that that is rare! Our store was popular; our customers liked our designs. Running my own business was a wonderful experience.

Bina: Can you tell us about the transition from being an active, fully functioning business woman to being paralyzed?

Several years after closing the store, I developed an infection of the spinal cord following minor back surgery that left me paralyzed. For the first year I was so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed, and had to be lifted and turned. I was completely dependent on others for all my needs. I slept most of the time and the days — the weeks — the months — passed in a haze. People came to visit, I'd talk to them, and then when they'd leave, I'd close my eyes and go back to sleep. I really lived from moment to moment and spent much of my awake time praying that the all-encompassing pain would subside. I couldn't think beyond the agony. It was only once I began to feel better that I started asking myself, What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

I came to the conclusion that although I could not control my body, I could still control my mind. I decided to look for the positive in the things around me, and focus on that, rather than on the negative. When a person almost dies, all the silly things — all the superficialities — fall to the side. If he is an emesdik person, he will end up focusing on those things that are real, that have eternal value, such as yiras Shemayim, middos, family. Being sick really brought home to me that Hashem is running the world, and it is He who gives me the freedom to choose how I will respond to my challenges.

Could you tell me about those challenges?

I had to learn not to let the limitations of my body control my essence. Yes, I am paralyzed. Yes, I cannot do many of the things I did before, but I am ALIVE! To fight the desire to crawl into myself and become depressed, I try to keep myself extremely busy. I have many friends who come to visit me and they bring me lots of great books to read. I used to love to knit, but now I can't — even after physical rehabilitation that helped me slowly regain use of my hands, my hands don't work together properly. So instead, I taught myself to crochet. I've crocheted dozens of beautiful things. I also needlepoint Tefillin bags as bar mitzvah presents for my grandsons. I'm presently working on my eight-year-old grandson's Tefillin bag. I'm hoping to be able to give it to him personally at his bar mitzvah.

I used to wear a shaitel, but now that I'm sick, it's impractical, except, of course, for special occasions. To supplement my physical therapy, I exercise my arms with creative tichel-tying! I've received many compliments and even ended up teaching a tichel-tying course to a group of newly married ladies!

I used to take great joy in setting a really elegant table — you know, the type that you see on the cover of Binah magazine. Before I was sick, community centers or women's groups would often invite me to give workshops on home decorating. Today, although I am not able to set my own table, I can still give workshops. I can still teach! Even if I'm now incapable of doing many of the things I once loved, I am still a contributing member of society.

Nowadays, I live in a nursing home, and most people would say that living in a nursing home is far from pleasant. My roommates are completely out of touch with reality, and, other than my guests and the staff, there is no one here that I can communicate with. Despite the depressing surroundings, I made a conscious decision to continue being happy — to look at the flowers and enjoy the little things, such as how the morning sunlight reflects against the Jerusalem stones. I work at it; happiness is like a muscle, and I must keep on stretching it if I don't want to lose it. Since I actively look for those things that will make me happy, baruch Hashem, I am successful!

This stage in my life has taught me new things about myself — about my personality and talents. After all, it's never too late for self-discovery! Throughout the years I was never what you'd call a "people person." I was always busy with my family and crafts and had very little time for friends. When I became sick and lost the ability to do many of the things I loved, I learned to enjoy people and became an extremely friendly and outgoing person. Although that aspect of my personality was there all the years, I never expressed it until I ended up in a nursing home and really needed the social interaction.

Hashem sends us unique challenges at each stage of our lives, and then it's up to us to stretch ourselves and grow into them. It's not easy, but it's the only way to be truly alive. One of the strange results of the illness is that I, Tova Silverstein, have written a book — something that I never, ever wanted to do, which makes it a perfect example of “never say never!” The book is called Alive to be Thankful, and the title expresses exactly how I feel about my life! But although I am now an author (and hopefully, a soon to be published author!) I still prefer knitting to writing! 

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