In 1965, Surah’le Hager (b. 1946) married Yissachar Dov Rokach (b. 1948). Surah’le was the granddaughter of the Vizhnitzer rebbe, Rabbi Hayim Meir Hager (1887-1972). Yissachar Dov was the leader-in-waiting of the Belz Hassidim, a position he would officially assume in 1966.
The Belzer Rebbe and Rebbetzin did not have children immediately. It was only in 1975 – over 10 years after they were married – that Surah gave birth to their only child, Aharon Mordechai, today the heir apparent of Belz Hassidism.
One imagines it must have been a difficult decade for Surah’le and Yissachar Dov. In addition to the desire to build a family, the young couple may have been conscious that the entire Belz community was looking to them to secure the future of this hassidic court in the post-Holocaust era.
Not much is known about how the couple felt about being childless during their first decade of marriage. However, a recent letter penned by Surah offers some hints about his period and provides a window on her perspective looking back at those years
In May 2020 – days before the festival of Shavuot – the Belzer Rebbetzin wrote a personal response to a woman who was having trouble conceiving. The letter was widely publicized a few days later, with the name of the recipient blurred in order to protect her privacy. In addition to words of encouragement and blessing, Surah’le recalled her own struggle to have children.
This is a priceless document, reproduced here in English translation for the first time.
With the help of God, the month of Sivan 780 [May 24-28, 2020]To my dear and beloved friend ____, may you merit good days, amen!Who else like me understands you, what you are going through in life, because I, too, was in your situation for almost 11 years, and in the merit that I held fast to vitamins A, B, C, G, D – A is emuna [faith], B is bitahon [trust], C is simha [joy], G is savlanut [patience; in Yiddish geduld], D is davenen tefila [prayer] – in this merit, blessed be God, I was saved. And if you strengthen yourself with these vitamins, and do not, Heaven forfend, despair, you will also be saved in the near future, with the help of God, particularly in this year, since this is the year taf shin peh [780, an acronym for], tehei shenat poriyut, [may it be a year of fertility], may you merit – if it is God’s will – fruit of the womb, particularly on the festival of Shavuot, when the Holy One blessed the fruit of the trees, and in this merit may you deliver good and sweet fruit, and merit speedily – if it is God’s will – children and grandchildren who engage in Torah and mitzvot, and we will make a feast of thanks at the circumcision or at the kiddush, and perhaps even with twins, and we will tell all with joy, if it is God’s will.[Wishing you] a joyous festival and that we should merit this year to bring bikurim [first fruits] in the Temple, “amen.”All the best, and “Look to God, be strong and strengthen your heart, and look to God” [Psalms 27:14], which we say each morning after Shacharit [morning prayers]. I wish, from the depths of the heart and with love and with hope, that I should hear good tidings from you.Yours,The Rebbetzin Surah, the daughter of Leah Esther.
This a fascinating letter from a number of perspectives. First, Surah wrote the letter on her own stationery, with her name and title proudly embossed in English and Hebrew on the letterhead. There are other examples of rebbes’ wives with personalized stationery, though it is not the norm.
Second, the childless woman chose to turn to the Belzer Rebbetzin, indicating that she saw Surah as a source for counsel and blessing. It is understandable that a childless woman would turn to a female leader who had similar personal experience. Nonetheless, it is still a conscious choice, because it would be entirely acceptable for such a woman to request a blessing from the Belzer Rebbe, or another male rebbe.
Third, Surah offered classic counsel – to have faith and trust in the Almighty, to avoid melancholy and be patient, and to pray to God. The Belzer Rebbetzin also offered her blessing and well-wishes. Alongside advice and blessings, Surah expressed empathy with her childless correspondent. The use of the vitamin metaphor may indicate an understanding of the medical regimen recommended for women who are trying to get pregnant.
Fourth, Surah signed the letter with her title in Hebrew, rabbanit, followed by her name and her mother’s name, Leah Esther (1921-1993). This is not an absurd choice, since in Jewish tradition a person’s mother is mentioned in anything associated with blessings. It is nevertheless noteworthy that Surah did not sign off as the Belzer Rebbe’s wife, nor as a scioness of famed Vizhnitz hassidic masters. Surah chose not to evoke her proximity to holy men as the spiritual source of her blessings.■
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.