Bobba: The Matriarch of our Family
A Thought for the funeral of Clarice Schwartz Z’L
I speak to you today as the oldest grandson of Clarice and Joe Schwartz, representing her 4 children, 13 grandchildren, 6 great grandchildren and counting.
Bobba, Chaya Liba bat Freida, – ‘this is how you spell nachas:’ Raymond and Janine, Ivan and Karen, Debbie and Geoff, Karen and Rob, Renana and I, Jon Jon and Lior, Laurence and Lara, Rachel and Brad, Gabi and Eitan, Leah, Adam, Ari, Dan Dan, Jake, Tami, Doron, Nicky, Shayna, Yehuda, Lital, Amalia, Maya, Nave and the list will go on… It is quite a mouthful. And ‘we are family,’ just like that famous Sister Sledge song that we love to sing. Family was the leitmotif of your life and there is no doubt that you were a proud matriarch and as you told us over and over, ‘a blessed lady.’ ‘Sawubona.’
The first verse of this week’s parasha (6:9) mentions Noah’s name three times. The Midrash (Tanchuma 5:1) explains that the reason is that there were three Noahs, Noah before the flood, Noah during the flood and Noah after the flood. While our name stays the same, we can often change through significant events and I feel like Bobba had three different stages in her life as well.
Bobba was born in Bulawayo Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Maya and Frieda Brest on the 18th of January 1934. She was brought up on a farm in Shabani (now Zvishavane) and went to a catholic convent boarding school from the age of 6 with her two sisters, Heather and Isa. She often told us of her experiences, recounting the prayers and other anecdotes. Let’s just say she was not a fan. She always wanted to go into the medical profession but Pop didn’t think it was quite right for her to be a doctor, so instead she moved to Johannesburg to study physical therapy and left the job of being a doctor to her son, daughter in law and two grandchildren.
She met Uncle Sam who asked her out, but as she told him he was too short for her. He advised her that he had a taller brother named Joe, and as they say, ‘the rest is history.’ At 21 years old, she got married to the love of her life and was named Bride of the Year, beautiful inside and out. After the wedding in Rhodesia, she and my Grandpa Joe moved to Cape Town, where they lived with her father-in-law and brother-in-law in a small home with one bathroom. Just this showed that she would do anything for my Grandpa and he would do anything for her. Indeed throughout their lives, they always honored my Grandpa’s famous advice to ‘respect that which is near and dear to your loved ones.’ My Bobba always said that ‘her happiness began when she met Joe.’ They had the most beautiful marriage – he would sing to her ‘do you love me’ and she would sing back ‘I do’ over and over throughout the years. I imagine they are singing together again right now.
This was her first Noah moment – before the flood, building her family and her world in the most incredible way. She loved these years – the vast majority of her life in this world. Highlights were 1956, 1959, 1961 and 1964, when her four dear children were born. They were her ‘most precious possessions’ and life’s work – she was so proud of them and so proud of all of us. My grandpa’s mother passed away when he was only three, so he wanted to ensure that his children would always come home to their mum. She worked as a physiotherapist at Conradie hospital in Cape Town.
Even while she worked hard through many stages, she always made sure to be there for the family.
My Grandpa knew that in the future South Africa would not be right for them, but he did not want his children to spend their formative years all over the world so he and my Bobba moved everyone to Sydney Australia in 1979. Thanks to my Bobba’s physiotherapy degree, it was easier to get a visa, and while settling in her four children, she went straight to work at Meroma with severely disabled children. Eventually she moved to the Royal Hospital for Women. For years, as so many people discovered that we were Bobba’s family, they would tell us what a difference she made in their lives.
She was not just helping others deal with childbirth but enjoying the births of her grandchildren as well. An extremely involved Bobba in all of our lives, her homes in Queens Avenue and St Mervans Avenue were icons of our childhood. Friday nights and Chagim (especially Rosh HaShana and Pesach) were true islands in time in where we learned what it means to be a Jewish family. Ensuring each of us washed and said hamotzi at the beginning and collectively benched at the end, the middle was filled with a lot of mischief and delicious food, new stories and old traditions. These important experiences imbued within us the tremendous love for Judaism and family that she wanted us to have. Having gone to a catholic convent boarding school and learning to read from a siddur with Beulah Blieden’s mum whom she met only at university, it was so important to her that we all went to a Jewish school, which we did. She would spend hours in shule on Shabbatot and Chagim, and was there for the entire day on Yom Kippur.
In our family Whatsapp group, we have shared so many different memories of special moments spent with her, from putting her dog Sandy in the lift to throwing paper airplanes off her roof, and playing the bottle game in the dark. We would have fun exploring by the beach down the road from her home or go through her hundreds of babushka’s, thimbles and other collectables. She would give us rides while grandpa gave us lollies in the car and we would beg to have sleepovers to continue the fun. Looking after so many, she always treated people with dignity and respect.
It is interesting that the main things we remember her making for us are the jumpers that she used to knit ferociously and the birthday cakes which we could pick, for the warmth and sweetness that these brought into our lives continue to sustain us. It is as if she wanted to lay the foundations for a quote she would repeat and repeat, ‘life is short, start with the desert.’
When she was 64 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and stopped working. It was an drawn-out process, but as the waters rose, she entered into an ark that became more and more inaccessible to the outside world. Grandpa was worried that he wouldn’t be there to look after her when it got worse and worse. But he had nothing to worry about as the love, attention and care that she poured into her four children came back in flying colors. And that same dignity and respect with which she treated everyone came back to her beautifully, mida k’neged mida (measure for measure), through those who looked after her in her home and eventually in the group home.
When she aged, she regressed, in a sense back into her childhood. While it was extremely difficult for all of us, there was something therapeutic about it. She did courses and played bridge – she learned art and made ceramics. No longer at the cold catholic convent of her youth, she was now coloring in books with her grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, filled with love, laughter and curiosity. She would catch us off guard, crack funny jokes and return time and time again to the same quotes, to imbue more meaning within them and imbibe them within us. She had a gaze about her and if you gazed back in, through her pure eyes, you could see her pure soul, strong yet sensitive, simple yet sophisticated.
Almost immediately after her sisters had moved into the next world, she let go of physicality and her body deteriorated. Within the last 8 weeks, all three sisters have passed away. For Bobba it was fast and it was hard. Her dear children and those that love her wanted to spend each moment holding the hand that held their hand when it needed to be held. Hugging the mother that hugged them when things were hard. Feeling the special person that always made them feel special and being there for the person that was always there for them. The ark that in many senses provided calmness and tranquility to her loved ones, had trapped her soul for long enough and it was time for her to move beyond her body. And so, for the last moments, calm and collected, she embraced her children once more. As she had accustomed them over the last few years, she emotionally embraced them, not with her body, but with her presence, as if to tell them, that while she raised them into parents and grandparents, it was time for them to continue the journey without her physically there. It was time for her to rebuild beyond the ark, to reunite with parents and sisters and rejoin Grandpa for her moment after the flood. She is now in stage three, liberated from her body and returned to her essence.
The parasha begins, ‘these are the descendants of Noah – Noah was a righteous person, perfect in his generation; Noah walked with God.’ After announcing the descendants of Noah, the Torah says that he was righteous, perfect and had the capacity to walk with God. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 30:6) explains that the main legacy of righteous people is their good deeds. When explaining to her brother Yehuda, my daughter Shayna explained that she lived a long life because she is a Tzadika – righteous. There is no question that Bobba’s good deeds will outlive her and this is what makes us all proud. And then the Torah continues (6:10), ‘Noah had three children…’ Because perhaps the good deeds are only the beginning – the seeds that we plant. It is our children that continue this legacy by amplifying our good deeds and creating their own. There is no doubt, that whether it was comforting her child after a hard day at school or creating the oasis in time that was Shabbat for us, she has empowered her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with the capacity.
When she deteriorated further, one of the rare things she constantly reminded us was that I was a Rabbi. I was always embarrassed by this and couldn’t understand why she said it. But as I look back on her life, it becomes clearer. As she revisited her youth, a little girl, beginning school in a catholic convent during WWII in a place that’s name is not even the same, perhaps she wanted to bring the message home that she continued the Jewish story despite all the odds. And while it’s hard for Jon Jon, Leah and I to be physically far, to have the privilege of delivering this message from the city whose name has stayed our eternal capital for millennia, in the State that she is older than, itself adds a layer to the message of her life. ‘Man tracht and God lacht.’
It was always hard to leave Bobba and to make it that much harder, she always played last touch nix. While she wanted us to do our best and compete, in the end we actually won. Tami gave her a last touch nix on her last night from all of us. But when we win, she is the true winner.
There were the beautiful memories before the flood. There were the difficulties throughout the flood that the ark you created helped us navigate as a family. And now you are after the flood, free to move on. Thank you for giving so much to all of us and while I imagine Grandpa is singing ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ like Andrea Bocelli, I imagine you saying: ‘The time has come the Walrus said, to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings…’
Chaya means life – Leeba in Yiddish means beloved. You truly lived a beloved life. But you now have grandchildren in Israel and so we read Leeba in Hebrew, meaning, heart. So your name now means that your life will always be in our heart, because it will always live on in us. And we hope that we can live up to the tremendous example that you, as our, matriarch set for us. ‘Everybody deserves a little pat on the back’ and ‘everyone needs a little time out,’ ‘so, go well, go shell!’ We can all picture you singing Shalom Aleichem, one of your favorite songs, welcoming the angels Friday night. But tonight, it is the angels that are singing to welcome you for Shabbat, once and for all.
Tehey nishmata tzrura b’tzror ha’chayim – may her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.
Bivracha, Benji Levy 5 Cheshvan 5781/ 23 October 2020