Two years ago.
The Orient Hotel, Jerusalem.
Busy taking our selfie before entering the gorgeous hotel full of important people, I feel all charged up.... I check my red lipstick by the window of a car before going through the revolving doors and into the entrance of the hotel.
I see press on my right and a hostess indicating to us where the gala dinner in honor of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s 80th birthday is taking place.
In the elevator, I recheck my red lipstick which I wear only on grand occasions, cocktails are served in the foyer of the new and cool Orient Hotel, an incredible variety of people are busy entertaining one another – politicians, journalists, writers, editors, millionaires, etc...
I start making my way around. They ask us to pose by the backdrop for a picture – maybe they mistook us for one of those categories, some fancy couple from a faraway exciting town. We are none of them; we are simple people, just Hadassah and (my husband) Yossi.
I work my smile as much as I can, I get introduced here and there, through my wonderful and special friend Liza (Rabbi Steinsaltz’s daughter-in-law), to some important and influential friends of theirs. Liza is more excited about me than I am myself and is busy showing me around like a trophy as if she has nothing else to do tonight. We are celebrating her famous father-in-law’s birthday and accomplishments, and I feel as small and as useless as the empty cup of water I’m holding.
We enter the main dining room, the atmosphere is pretty electric and formal, too. A long, oval head table is in the middle of the room. People assigned to this table are either famous scholars, singers, donors or family.
But where is Rabbi Steinsaltz? I try to focus my view without appearing too nerdy.
Suddenly, I see him sitting down in the middle of the head table, his curved body and small frame are like a small dot in the middle of the room. His wife is next to him. They look like they could be sitting on a park bench feeding birds on a Sunday.
His eyes peek from under his face, looking at the world “below,” his famous smile greeting people one by one. A line had already formed of people wanting to greet him, to say a few words, to kiss his hand.
A big stage with a big screen and a huge picture of the rabbi is displayed.
Staring at that huge photo, I can only think of Einstein with his tongue sticking out: people who are a step above human minds yet so incredibly simple and fun.
Yes, because the rabbi’s incredible mind is not “packaged” in a typical powerful rabbi’s type of image we would expect, those powerful men who come in shiny coats or nicely pressed suits and big fur hats or nice Borsalinos surrounded by an entourage trying to keep up at their pace as they walk spreading their pearls of wisdom left and right; rabbis/writers/great thinkers/philosophers of our times who do not just talk to any human being but require some knowledge from the other side before you can approach them, some status, some “magical” sparkle.
Rabbi Steinsaltz has been called the Rashi of our time. His incredible genius lies also in the power of being able to bring down to us average minds the highest and deepest thoughts of Torah and Judaism for everyone to understand.
His books (the one I read) are so incredibly simple yet so amazingly deep and complicated, you realize after you finish reading it that you totally understood every single word.
So, you think, I didn’t know I was so clever I can understand the teachings of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as you pat yourself on the back.
Of course you can! That’s the whole magic, you were spoon-fed like a child by the rabbi’s incredible ability to translate very deep and high thoughts for us to be able to grasp, making you feel like you did it, like you are the incredible one!
WHAT AN incredible evening it was.
Rabbi Steinsaltz walked into the hall where he was the birthday boy, and all eyes were on him. Photographers, journalists, ministers all had been waiting patiently with their ego right before them, the women in their fancy lipstick and high heels, when suddenly – silence. The elevator opened and a frail man walking very slowly, helped by one grandson around 10 years old on one side and his devoted son Meni holding him like a little child on the other side.
He looked embarrassed but also enjoying this moment like a child in a Luna Park. He made his way slowly through the crowd, peeking from his hat, his hair long on the sides of his ears.
The fancy-schmancy crowd now looked like a kindergarten; we all looked like small children when the teacher walks in.
He is the smallest of all, yet it felt like a giant had walked into the room.
Knowledge is power. When you have so much knowledge, you are not like the rest of us. We compete, we gossip, we cheat, we judge. You are one step above; nothing fazes you; you are happy, serene, because you know. You are never bored, because you are always busy learning more and helping others to learn, too.
You are sharing not because you think the world needs you and you are the most intelligent; you feel that the world around you is amazing and everyone deserves to know what you know, too, so they can all live a better life.
The evening started with a message on the screen from the prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Even the prime minister that night looked like a cartoon character when talking about the rabbi.
Big rabbis and philanthropists take turns to take the stage and their second of glory talking in front of the rabbi about his greatness, and the rabbi keeps watching the whole show in silence with a twinkle in his eyes.
Between the first course and second courses I managed to find a spot free next to the rabbi at the head table. I quickly sank into the chair and turned to him.
I remember a strong light from the photographers blocking my view and I could not see him properly so I pushed my head low to be able to reach the rabbi’s eyes.
The rabbi looked at me with a smile. I introduced myself, even though he has seen me a few times before.
“I am Yossi Chen’s wife, Liza’s and Meni’s good friend, Hadassah. Happy birthday, mazal tov, I will never forget when you came to our house for the shiva of my daughter,” I managed to blurt out.
Suddenly the mixture of remembering my daughter and seeing the rabbi’s angel face made me literally explode in tears in front of him.
The feeling of being next to a giant, even if in reality he is small, with a curved back and cannot talk anymore after a stroke. It was his gaze, so real and simple.
I excused myself for crying and thanked him again, wanting to hug him with all my soul. Thank you for illuminating us, for giving us hope, for existing.
I REMEMBER the evening closed with an incredible kumzitz with superstar singer Avraham Fried sitting right beside the rabbi and going through old famous songs in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew, simple songs for hassidim, and all around them we all gathered, those of us who stayed till late, an incredible mixture of young yeshiva boys who had joined us for the end of the party, ambassadors, tycoons, writers and “simple people” like us, sitting almost on top of each other so we could get a glimpse of this amazing show of songs coming from the soul and Rabbi Steinsaltz in the middle of it all enjoying and nodding with his head to the beat.
All eyes on him.
I went to sleep that night feeling like I was lucky to witness an evening that I know one day I will tell my own children about.
It’s been two years already since that special evening of celebration. Today we celebrate the rabbi’s 83 birthday, and all I can remember from that big gala was the special eyes of the smallest, simplest, funniest and sweetest man I ever met. A giant.
May God grant him long life and healthy years ahead, surrounded by his beautiful family and us, simple people longing for his incredible mind to keep spreading wisdom and making it available to us all and to generations ahead.
The writer is from Italy and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and five kids. She heads HadassahChen as a director, writer and performer. She also heads the Keren Navah Ruth Foundation in memory of her daughter, to help families with sick children. email@example.com