From an angel to a pearl

By: Andrew Strum
August 20, 2004

WHEN my grandmother was born in Egypt, 95 years ago, she was named Angèle Israel. It was only a few years later that she came to be known as Odette. But Angèle — angel — was an appropriate name. As in the dying blessing of our forefather Israel (Jacob) to his grandchildren in Egypt — “the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the children ...” — she was the guardian angel of her grandchildren, who blessed us and protected us from harm. Our sages teach that “the children of one’s children are like one’s own children”. This was fully exemplified in her love for and relationship with her grandchildren.

My grandmother was a kind and dignified woman, who personified the notion of kavod — honour — so inherent in Sephardi tradition. She fulfilled the maxim in Pirkei Avot that the course a person should chose for herself in life is that which she feels to be honourable to herself and which brings her honour from her fellow people. She was proud of who she was and where she came from, and she instilled that pride in our heritage in us.

Her family’s roots in Egypt went back generations. The blessing for the congregation on Shabbat has often made me think of her family. “Those who dedicate synagogues for prayer” could refer to her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather who founded two of Cairo’s main synagogues. “Those who enter synagogues to pray... and all who are involved faithfully in the needs of the community” could refer to her paternal great-grandfather, Rabbi Yomtov Israel, and his father Rabbi Eliahou Israel before him, Chief Rabbis of Cairo in the 19th century.

Proverbs asks: “A woman of valour, who can find? For her value is far beyond pearls.” That question was answered when my grandmother married my grandfather, Moïse Bentata, in Cairo in 1936. In her, he found an eshet hayil, a woman of valour, whose value was indeed far beyond pearls. Shortly prior to their marriage, he queried her elder brother about her dowry, which was less than he had expected. Her brother responded, however, that in marrying my grandmother, my grandfather was acquiring a pearl.

Proverbs continues: “Her husband puts his trust in her, and he lacks no good thing, she is good to him, never bad.” There are no better words to describe my grandparents’ marriage, into which my mother and aunt were born. As the Children of Israel cried for Moses after his death, so too, my grandmother, a child of the Israel family, cried for Moïse, her husband, after his death in 1972.

As has so often happened in the course of Jewish history, she was uprooted from the country, the community and the large, extended family in the midst of which she had lived for more than 50 years and was forced to start again in Australia in 1961. Like the Children of Israel after they left Egypt, this daughter of the Israel family similarly remembered “the fish... the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the garlic and the onions” of Egypt. But unlike the Children of Israel, she did so without complaint and without bitterness and these foods found their way into her cooking with which she regaled us, especially at festivals.

It could be said that my grandmother died three times. Part of her spirit and her joie de vivre died 32 years ago, when her beloved husband died. A physical part died nearly 12 years ago, when she suffered an unexpected and debilitating stroke that stripped her of her independence. And on July 23, 2004 — Av 5, 5764 — during the nine days of annual Jewish mourning, she died finally. This was the least painful death, which put an end to her suffering.

We say of a deceased person — tehei nafsha tzerura bi-tzror ha’hayim — “may her soul be bound up in the bond of life”. My grandmother’s descendants can ensure that her soul be bound up in the bond of life by recalling the concluding words of Jacob’s blessing to his grandchildren: “... Bless the children, and in them may my name be recalled and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac...” It is through her descendants that her name, and the names of her forefathers of whom she was so proud, will be recalled and that her soul will be bound up in the bond of life.

Tehei nafsha tzerura bi’tzror ha’hayim. May her soul indeed be bound up in the bond of life. Amen.

Andrew Strum is the grandson of Odette Bentata.