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Head to Head: A paean to my mother-in-law Rebbetzin Chana Twersky Feuerman a”h

Ruchama Feuerman

After I got married, I didn’t fall in love with my mother-in-law — at least not at first. I was suspicious of her sweetness, of the presents she gave for every occasion, and … just because. When she came to visit — after calling days beforehand to make sure it was a good time — she brought foil pans of baked chicken, plastic containers of compote, brownies and blondies, and the sweet potato frites she knew I loved. Was it real or put-on, all this kindness? When would I meet the real her?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

wig in front of mirrorShe spoke with a soft British lilt in her voice, an echo of her childhood in World War II England. She always had the most pleasant expression, receptive and calm, a gentle, unhurried way of gesturing, greeting, of going about her day. Then why was I so — not quite wary, but on guard? Was it because she was always so nicely turned out, in her twinsets and tailored skirts and coordinating shoes and matching purses? Was it because she was too beautiful? Her with the high cheek bones and pale skin of a young woman and those vivid green eyes. She looked and acted like a princess.

The world suspects beauty. Shlomo HaMelech wrote, “Sheker hachein, beauty is deceitful” for good reason. Eyes deceive. We think if someone looks good, theyaregood. But then we get tricked again and again — in marriage, in business, in life — by appearances. I couldn’t quite trust what I was seeing. Too good to be true and all that. I kept waiting for her to slip up, but she never did.

Not to say we didn’t have our skirmishes. Most of them centered around mysheitel.I bought one, didn’t I? (Actually, my mother-in-law had bought it, as was the custom.) But did that mean I had to wear it? I had fallen in love with the ease of snoods, just coming into popularity at the time, even if some of mine looked like stretched-out head socks. She never said anything when I put on a snood, but I could tell that it pained her ever so slightly. Her eyes lowered a little, her face didn’t come at you as gladly. It pained me that it pained her. And when I put on asheitel— oh how the sun came out on her face; her whole being stretched out to encompass me. For her, asheitelmeant, “You’re dressed.” This was how a rebbetzin comported herself.

She had worn asheitelback in the late 1950s when it was rare. Certainly, back in 1960, when my father-in-law was a principal at a day school in Los Angeles, no one was wearing asheitel. It cost $750 — more than a tenth of her husband’s yearly salary, and believe me, it didn’t look like much, but it never occurred to her not to don one. This was what her mother had done, and her mother before that, each generation covering her hair, going all the way back to the first rebbetzin, Sarah Imeinu.

In her own way, my mother-in-law was a pioneer, same as her husband, Rabbi Chaim Feuerman, the education pioneer, although she never would’ve thought of herself that way. She was too unassuming to regard herself that way.

 

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