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In Love with Life

Leah Gebber

Rebbetzin Zipa Lopian a”h was a woman as unexpected as her laugh. Eminently down to earth, yet utterly idealistic, she dispensed wisdom and friendship to the thousands who crossed the threshold of “number 30,” the home in Gateshead, England where she lived with her husband Rav Leib Lopian, rosh yeshivah of Gateshead Yeshivah and one of the foremost European gedolim of the previous generation

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A pristine white dress hangs in the wardrobe; a frothy veil, wrapped in white muslin, lies on the night table. A knock on the door. Leah Levy, Zipa’s mother, enters her bedroom and sits next to her on the bed. She speaks to her eldest daughter in rich Yiddish. “Tomorrow you are going to the chupah,” she says. “You must not cry as you circle your chassan, lest the world think you are sad or scared to marry a ben Torah. You must walk with joy and dignity, and, as always, make a Kiddush Hashem.”

Make a Kiddush Hashem. The theme of Zipa Lopian’s life. A goal that infused meaning into casual conversations, trips to the store, and standing erect and proud under the chuppah. Eyes trained on this goal, she could unleash the power of her personality to fall in love with life again and again.

The small seaside town of Portsmouth, England, where Zipa was born in 1916 was no bastion of English Jewry. Her parents, Reb Chaim Moshe and Leah Levy, were the only Torah-observant residents. Reb Chaim Moshe owned a factory there, producing rubber blocks that were the forerunners of Lego.

Zipa grew up without Jewish schools or Jewish friends. Education, however, there was in abundance. Every morning, Reb Chaim Moshe learned with the children before he left for work; in the evening, he tested them on what they had learned. Reb Chaim Moshe also paid for rebbis from London to live with the family so his sons would be educated.

When Zipa was fifteen, she was pulled out of school to help her mother run their large, busy household. Students were permitted to quit school at fifteen for employment, but leaving school to stay home was illegal. Reb Chaim Moshe was summoned to court. His line of defense: “Why is working outside the house valid, while working to educate and bring up children in one’s own home not?” The case was dropped.


A Partner in Yiddishkeit

When Zipa was twenty-one, Reb Chaim Moshe approached the prominent Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky for a two-fold recommendation. Not only did he need a rebbi for his children, he was looking for a chassan for Zipa. Dayan Abramsky immediately recommended his chavrusa, Reb Leib, son of the mussar giant Reb Elya Lopian. 

It is testimony to the Levy’s ahavas haTorah that they sought to marry their beloved eldest daughter not to a doctor or a lawyer, but to a ben Torah, especially in an era where the concept of kollel was virtually unknown. It is testimony to the Levy’s chinuch that Zipa — who was brought up in a wealthy home and given the finest British education with Shakespeare, Mozart, dance, and art — saw the fulfillment of her dreams in Reb Leib, a brilliant, pious, and penniless talmid chacham who barely spoke a word of English.

But then, Zipa had so much more than her secular studies. She had blossomed through the Chumash lessons she delivered in the bedroom-cum-classroom every morning; through the plays, stories, and songs she’d been teaching her younger siblings every Shabbos; through the pact her father had forged with her when she turned bas mitzvah: “You, Zipa, are my partner in bringing the joy of Yiddishkeit into our home.”

After Reb Leib and Zipa married in 1937, the couple lived in Portsmouth, where Reb Leib acted as a rebbi to the Levy children. Zipa was one of a handful of woman in England who put on a sheitel. One ben Torah who wanted his kallah to cover her hair brought her all the way to Portsmouth to see Zipa’s example.

In 1942, Rav Dessler and Reb Elya invited Reb Leib to join the newly minted Gateshead kollel. Although there were just a few individuals learning in Gateshead, the idea of a kollel was revolutionary. “Hair will grow on my palm before there will be a kollel in England,” was an accurate reflection of the general sentiment.

Within a few days of receiving the Gateshead offer, Reb Leib was also offered a prestigious rabbinic position in London. “What is the right thing for our ruchniyus?” Zipa asked. The answer was obvious. And so, despite the naysayers and despite the considerable distance from her family, the Lopians packed up their three small children — Gershon, Dovid, and Sarah — to travel to Gateshead.


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