Interviewing the interviewer: A 'real talk' with Hadassah Chen

Hadassah Chen, who spends a good deal of her time quizzing the famous and the not yet famous on her Real Talk show, now gets quizzed herself.

 Hadassah Chen (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hadassah Chen
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Hadassah Chen, the popular Israel National News interview host of Real Talk with Hadassah Chen and Magazine columnist, sits in the dining room of her spacious Jerusalem apartment, espresso in hand, with a puzzled expression on her face and confesses, “This is a totally different feeling. I’m usually the one interviewing.”

“This is a totally different feeling. I’m usually the one interviewing.”

Hadassah Chen

For the next hour, the tables are turned, and Chen, who spends a good deal of her time quizzing the famous and the not yet famous on her Real Talk show, discusses her childhood in Italy, her passion for journalism and film, her family, the life and tragic death of her daughter Nava Ruth, and how she manages to maintain her frenetic pace.

Chen was born and raised in Milan. Her mother was born in Italy to parents who went from Poland to Italy before World War II, spent the war years in Switzerland, and returned to Italy after the war. Chen’s father, Yitzchak Minkowitz, came from a large Chabad family with Russian roots that had moved to Montreal. While traveling through Italy, he stopped in Milan and stayed at the home of the Chabad shliach (emissary) in Italy, Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik, whose wife suggested that their Canadian guest might be an appropriate match for Ilda Zippel. In 1974, they were married, and Hadassah, their first child, was born in 1975. The family went to the Chabad movement’s center in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, for two years to enable her father to finish his studies, and then returned to Italy.

Upon their return to Italy, Chen’s father entered the Zippel family’s fur business, and Hadassah enjoyed a pleasant childhood in Milan with her four siblings.

“I grew up with the best of both worlds,” she says. “I came from the Zippel family, which was a respected and known family in Italy, but I grew up with the children of the shluchim (Chabad emissaries), such as the children of Rabbi Garelik and everyone who came after him.”

 HADASSAH AS a newborn in Milan held by her mother, with grandparents Zippel and Minkowitz. (credit: Zippel family archive) HADASSAH AS a newborn in Milan held by her mother, with grandparents Zippel and Minkowitz. (credit: Zippel family archive)

The Milan Jewish community flourished under the influence of the Chabad community and included a Jewish school and a Jewish summer camp.

Chen felt an allegiance to the Chabad traditions of her father but also treasured the Italian culture and way of life that she inherited from her mother and her grandparents. English and Italian were spoken in her parents’ home, and she is fluent in both, though her Italian accent becomes more pronounced when she mentions Italian foods like pasta and pizza.

From a young age, Chen dreamed of studying film and journalism.

“I remember when I was a young girl in Italy,” she recalls. “My parents would host frequently, and we would have people passing through. On Friday nights, we would have a beautiful table. I was always coming up with difficult questions for the guests, and my father would say, ‘Hadassah, you can’t ask that question!’ I guess it was in my system that I wanted to do this, and I didn’t know how to channel it. It took about 30 years until I eventually found myself.”

When Chen turned 15, her parents sent her to London to study at a Lubavitch high school for girls. At first, the adjustment from Italian to English was difficult, but ultimately she succeeded, both academically and socially. Despite her rigorous and strict Torah education, she retained her interest in studying film and journalism.

Some in her circle discouraged her from pursuing her dream because they said that her responsibility was to get married and have children. Her parents suggested that they table the matter until after she finished seminary. “Then we’ll talk about it,” they said.

Off she went to Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood to attend Beit Chana, the Chabad seminary for girls.

“I remember the first time I came to Israel,” she recalls. “I hated it. I was staying in Geula, and there were roaches on the floor. I didn’t like pita and falafel. I wanted my pasta. I just didn’t connect to it.”

Chen somehow survived the year and, when she turned 17, again asked her parents about attending film school. Her parents replied that it was not realistic for a 17-year-old girl, and told her that once she got married she would work it out with her husband.

“Of course, it took much longer for me to get married because I wasn’t following the typical path,” she chuckles.

Chen studied languages at a language interpreters’ school in Italy and also worked for Lehman Brothers financial  services in Milan.

“I think that the ambiance of working in the non-Jewish world strengthened me and shaped a lot of my personality,” she notes. Working in Milan, she was still unmarried at the age of 22.

Chen’s parents felt she was getting too comfortable living at home in Milan and sent her to Crown Heights to find a match. Her younger sister had already gotten married, and another sister was about to get engaged.

“Those were tough years,” she recalls. “Many of my friends were getting married, were already married, or were having children. I was missing the train.”

 IN THE Arutz 7 studio.  (credit: Arutz 7) IN THE Arutz 7 studio. (credit: Arutz 7)

Finally, at age 27, on one of her annual summer visits to Israel, she was introduced to a tall, handsome Chabad IDF officer from Kfar Chabad named Yossi Chen, a major in the Home Front Command. Despite her promise to herself that she would never date anyone from Kfar Chabad, she married him.

Smiling, she says, “It was like those stories where the girl falls in love with the soldier and the uniform – the whole thing definitely played a big part.”

Hadassah and Yossi were married in 2004 in Milan. Shortly after their wedding, they returned to Israel, and her husband resumed his duties in the IDF.

For Chen, adjusting to life as the wife of a soldier in a new land was not easy. “He was in the army. I was waiting for him, trying to learn the language by watching Israeli TV.”

She missed her native Italy, where “you go from coffee to coffee, and from pizza to pasta.”

She had grown up in sophisticated Milan, a well-known fashion capital, where beautiful models strutted on fashion show runways and where her father sold luxurious furs.

“Suddenly,” she recalls, “I found myself married to a soldier. We were sleeping with a gun under our bed. In the morning, I had to make sure not to step on the gun. It was two totally different worlds.”

Elkah, their first child, was born in 2005, followed by their second daughter, Mussya, in 2008. In 2010, their third child, Nava Ruth, was born.

WHEN NAVA was 16 months old, Chen took her to the doctor for a regular checkup. The doctor immediately told her to bring her to Shaare Zedek Medical Center. The staff conducted several tests on Nava, and Chen was placed in a room where she anxiously awaited news about her daughter.

Finally, a young doctor wearing a knitted kippa came in and told her in Hebrew that her daughter had a tumor. Chen had difficulty understanding him because she wasn’t familiar with the Hebrew word he used and because of the emotional stress of the moment.

“I couldn’t even talk,” she says. “Nava Ruth had neuroblastoma, a lethal cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body, which most commonly affects children ages five or younger.

She couldn’t reach her husband that day because he was in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. When he arrived at the hospital later that day, she recalls, “He said, ‘I never want us to cry in front of our child. We should always make a happy face.’”

Encountering the fifth-floor children’s oncology ward was a shock for Chen. She recalls seeing children with gray skin whose hair had fallen out. “I remember saying to myself, ‘My child is not going to be like this.’ One of the parents looked at me and said, ‘You’re new here.’”

At that point, Chen fainted. “My husband picked me up and said, ‘We cannot break down. We have to be fighters.’” Chen told her mother that she had come to the place that was the farthest away from God.

At the hospital, Chen appreciated and valued the close relationships that developed between the families of the children, Jewish and Arab alike. “Your support becomes the other parents. You don’t want to see anybody else because the other parents understand what you’re going through. I would share Shabbatot with children from the nearby villages, and we were all together and we supported each other. There was no difference anymore – Jews or non-Jews; we had the same doctor. It was so intense. In the eyes of my doctor, who was Jewish, we were all exactly the same. We were somebody to be cured and to be helped.”

She also recalls her friendship with a haredi mother whose child had leukemia and their deep discussions during the long nights.

“On Shabbat, recalls Chen, “the haredim would sing their nigunim [melodies], and we would sing ours, and the Arabs would be on the other side of the corridor praying to their God, and everything was fine. That year completely changed us as parents.”

Elaborating on her last comment, Chen adds, “We were lost at the beginning. I almost didn’t want to be a parent. I remember asking my mother, ‘What’s the point in getting married and having children if you can face so much suffering? I should have stayed single, had no children, with no worries, no love and no pain.’ Only much later, we both realized that these huge, terrific moments with a lot of pain and suffering are surrounded by a lot of love. They make and build who we are today – strong people with faith and a love for the other children.”

Nava underwent surgery, and she was able to leave the hospital. On Sukkot of 2012, she suffered a relapse, indicating that the cancer had returned. Nava died that year on the first night of Hanukkah.

Chen mentions that the two initial letters of her name, Nava Ruth, which form the Hebrew word ner, or “light,” are related to Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

After her daughter’s death, Chen changed her mind and told her mother that the hospital was the place closest to God because after living there for one year, one could truly see the hand of God in terms of those who survived and those who did not. “You basically live in the hospital and become close to other kids. You come back a day after, and the bed is empty. There were some children I thought would never survive, and they lived.”

The symbolic meaning of the initial letters of Nava Ruth’s name is not lost on Chen.

“She literally was a light, and she left a light,” says Chen. “She changed our life; and as much as it was a tragedy for us, we got so much from what she left. I decided that I was going to take everything I could and live as much as I could.

“During the long nights at the hospital,” explains Chen, “I would hear the parents talking through the curtains. I would hear the conversations – ‘Do we have enough food for Shabbat? Do we have money to buy diapers?’ I had been helped by my parents and my husband’s parents. We were surrounded by help, but there were families who were not. When you have a sick child, both parents stop working. If you don’t have any other means of income, it’s impossible. I wanted to spoil my daughter, buying her clothes and toys, and they were looking for money to buy diapers.”

Chen told her husband that she wanted to help families who did not have enough money to survive during their child’s illness.

“People don’t have money to buy food,” she says.

Chen and her husband started working in conjunction with Zichron Menachem, an Israeli nonprofit organization that assists families of children suffering from cancer. The Chens give money and raise money for families with children or parents who are seriously ill.

Hadassah and Yossi initiated a project called Israel Chai – Project Nava Ruth, which provides financial assistance to families in distress who are bearing the responsibility of caring for a seriously ill family member. (Additional information about the project can be obtained by writing Chen at [email protected])

AFTER THE death of Nava Ruth, the family had to get back on their feet. “We had to start again from scratch. We had nothing, and my husband was not working. My parents helped us, but we had to start again from the beginning.”

After serving for 12 years in the IDF, Yossi retired and worked for the government for two years before opening a business creating and designing custom-made clothing for men. Hadassah has had two more children – Sarah, now eight, and Chaim, who is seven.

When Nava Ruth became sick, Chen began writing on Facebook to help cope with the stress of her situation. “People liked my writing, and people I didn’t know were writing back and helping me. I was very direct and very open and very raw. The real passion came out in these moments of despair.”

Despite her early writing success, Chen still had the bug for film journalism but didn’t know where to begin.

“Life starts when you go outside your comfort zone,” she says, recalling how she impulsively decided to rent studio time in 2019 – “I had no idea how I was going to pay for it” – and began interviewing guests.

Her first guest was her uncle Rabbi Benny Zippel, the head of Chabad of Utah, who has worked with troubled teens undergoing therapy and treatment in the state. Parts of the video went viral, and Chen continued her work. The English division of Arutz Sheva, Israel National News, put her on their network, and she now interviews guests from around the world once a week on her English-language program Real Talk with Hadassah Chen.

“It’s a lot of fun; and every time I walk into the studio and see my name, I can’t believe it.”

She has interviewed politicians, entertainers, authors and rabbis, including Avraham Fried, David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt, Amichai Chikli, Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz, Nissim Black, Rabbi Manis Friedman, Rabbi YY Jacobson and philanthropist Joseph Gutnick.

Some people never recover from the loss of a child. What enables Chen to get up every morning and push forward?

“I’m sort of a fighter and never happy,” she says. “Every morning, I get up, and I’m starting from zero. And we fight, and I want more, and I want to do this, and I want to go on TV. My mission is to get these people out there and inspire and teach. We have amazing rabbis on our show who spread what Israel and Judaism are really about. It’s amazing for me to be the conduit.”

Chen also gives inspirational speeches about her life to European audiences and discusses her career, her daughter, and her family.

She is pleased with her work, her family and her life. But she has sympathy for others who have undergone tragic events and could not fully resume their lives after tragedy struck. How did she manage to pick up the pieces?

“I don’t know,” she says honestly. “I started learning [Torah] a lot, and it helps me incredibly,” she says, citing the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which helped and inspired her. “I don’t have bad memories of Navi. I have good memories. We always tried to make everything happy around her.”

She has seen a friend who experienced a tragedy crying, and sometimes she feels guilty for not crying over the tragedy she experienced 10 years ago.

Yet the loss of her daughter has left a residue of fear and vulnerability within her. “I live in fear because I am afraid that something else can happen, just like it happened with Navi. It’s a weird combination because I am living happily, and I am always aiming for more. I’m 47 years old and have energy like I am 18. I’m thankful. Navi was my light and my strength. She’s the one who started me first. I had all this within me before. But, of course, tragedy forms you, but she was not a tragedy. She’s an inspiration every single day.”

My “real talk” with Hadassah Chen comes to an end, and though she was the subject of the interview rather than the questioner, the experience has been, in many ways, similar to the program that bears her name – direct, insightful and to the point.