Not many people are privileged to have four grandmothers. And I can’t imagine that there are many who have two Lithuanian grandmothers and two Yemenite grandmothers. But I did. Sadly, one of my Yemenite grandmothers passed away last month at the age of 90.
Rabbanit Bracha Kapach was unique in so many ways. Of course she wasn’t only my grandmother, she was a mother and grandmother figure to thousands of people, including a small minority who were her biological descendants.
I first met “the Rabbanit,” as she was called, one summer afternoon about five years ago, when my friend Shoshi called me up and told me she was taking me to meet a holy woman.
Of course I had heard of the rabbanit’s hessed (loving-kindness, charitable) projects, of the Passover packages she provided to approximately 5,000 people every year, of the hallot, chickens and dried goods she distributed to so many Jerusalem residents on a weekly basis, of her clothes gemach (free-loan program) and the summer camp she organized for underprivileged children every year.
With some surprise I discovered that the person behind all this was tiny in stature, with skin that had weathered an abundance of storms, but eyes that twinkled when she greeted you, and a presence that led you to believe there was strength enough in this woman to overcome walls and obstacles of any sort to achieve a goal.
Toward the end of our visit (which was punctuated by people collecting charity or making donations, grandchildren popping in to say hello and numerous telephone calls with varied requests), I asked the rabbanit if there was any way I could help her with her projects. “Can you come at 7 o’clock tomorrow? We need help distributing food packages,” she said.
“With pleasure!” I replied. It was only while walking out the door that I realized, 7 o’clock means 7 in the morning. A Friday morning. As in, the only morning I ever get to sleep in. Oh well, too late to back out, I’ll come along tomorrow and after that see if I can be of assistance at an hour where my eyes will be open.
So I set my alarm for 6:30, and, the next morning, after a 7-minute walk from my apartment in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood to hers, I arrived to find a center buzzing with activity. I was put to work putting the hallot, which had been delivered about an hour previously from a local bakery (a donation), into smaller bags. All foods where donated, and every donation had a story behind it, as did the people who received them, and the volunteers themselves.
And as much as the people had stories, so did the rabbanit’s home. One wall of her modest, three-room home was covered with certificates, letters and awards, including the 1999 Israel Prize, letters from Jerusalem mayors and photos of those she had helped over the years.
Another wall had a massive, beautiful painting.
When I asked where it was from she told me of the orphan boy she had adopted at a young age. The child was about to be kicked out of yeshiva as he was not behaving. The rabbanit went to talk to the yeshiva head and promised to oversee the boy in the time he was not in school.
Through her influence, he grew up to be a diligent student and a talented artist, who painted the wall hangings as a sign of his appreciation.
Below the house was the study of the late Rav Yosef Kapach, grandson of the leader of the Jewish community in Yemen, and himself a leader of the community in Israel and a dayan sitting on the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. The rabbanit was a cousin of the rav and they married when she was 11 years old to prevent him from being taken away by the Muslim community when he was orphaned, as was the law at the time. The couple made aliya when she was approximately 13 years old, and by the age of 20 she was a mother of three.
Yosef Kapach received the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies in 1969. They were the only married couple to both be awarded the Israel Prize.
At the end of that first early Friday morning, I sat down with the other volunteers and the rabbanit over a cup of coffee and a zalabye (traditional Yemenite doughnut), which the rabbanit had made at 4 that morning) and we were all regaled by the rabbanit’s stories.
She told how she had been brought up from a early age to help others, how her grandfather had sent her to take food to the poor of Yemen from the age of six, how she and her family made aliya, traveling long distances by land and by plane, the hardships they encountered on the way (such as when her mother had to use the gold bar she was carrying to bribe their guide to take them to the border), and the difficulties they had to deal with on arrival in a strange land with strange cultural and political influences.
At the end of that first meeting the rabbanit said to me, “So we’ll see you back here next week?” “Of course!” I replied without hesitation.
And so it continued for more than three years.
I looked forward to the early-morning freshness, the opportunity to end the week and go into Shabbat doing hessed, and most of all for those coffee breaks with the rabbanit. Her sense of humor came through at all times, as when she told me of a trip for about 80 women she organized to the North.
“How did you find all those people? Are they friends of yours?” I asked.
“Friends of Hakadosh Baruch Hu [‘the Holy One, blessed be He’],” she replied with a wink.
She showed me pictures of the traditional Yemenite wedding gowns she had taken to exhibit all over the world on behalf of the Culture Ministry, and shared her experiences from places such as Argentina, France, Egypt and even South Africa.
She told of how she organized numerous weddings in her yard for young couples with no means of funding the celebrations.
She explained how one of her first projects had been to start an embroidery business for about 30 Yemenite women, thus empowering them to move out of the cycle of poverty and integrate into Israeli society.
When I left her home after volunteering, she would take my right hand and give me a blessing – “bracha [‘blessing’] and haztlacha [‘success’], fear of Heaven, grace and mercy in the eyes of Heaven and in the eyes of man. May Hashem give you a husband (with a house and a car!).
May you come in peace and go in peace, and may you have only good health.”
One special incident I witnessed was on a Friday night after the rabbanit had just had a heart operation. I went to visit her in the hospital after candle-lighting, just as the nurse was coming to give her medicine. As the nurse was about to leave, the rabbanit took her hand, thanked her profusely for her care and gave her a blessing to be successful in her work and life. The rabbanit cared so much about every person she met, and gave them whatever she was capable of giving, whether material or emotional.
When I took my fiancé (who happens to be Yemenite) to meet her, she winked at him and said, “See, now she’s one of us!” Over the past year, after I got married and moved out of the neighborhood, I only went a few more times to see the rabbanit. As the year progressed, she became weaker and more reliant on people to help her, but every Friday morning she made the effort to move to the couch and oversee the proceedings. “This is what gives me strength” she said.
On Tuesday morning, I got the call that the rabbanit had gone to Olam Haba (“The World to Come”), to be reunited with her husband the rav, and to continue to influence from on high the hessed and bracha that she brought into this world.
The funeral was a reflection of the many, many people she had touched over the years. I recognized the faces of those who had volunteered with her, funded her projects and been the recipients of her goodness. They came from all sorts of backgrounds, were of all ages and cultures, coming together to pay our respects to the rabbanit, my Yemenite grandmother, grandmother of Israel.