The Enduring Hope of Mrs. Mandelbaum

A Contemporary Narrative

by  Rabbi Corinne Copnick

There is a Hebrew name for the abandonment of hope. It is called ye’ush. Various fascinating perspectives – psychological, theological, ethical, and legal – can all be applied to ye’ush. It also has a related concept, ye’ush shelo medat (abandoning hope without knowing it – in other words, unconsciously giving up hope). Both concepts appear in a very small tractate of the Talmud called Bava Metzia. One may also read the passage as consciously acting on the assumption of eventual ye’ush.

What do these ideas really mean? Can one ever abandon hope? If so, under what circumstances? How does one turn the coin of despair over to the other side and become hopeful once again? The story of Mrs. Mandelbaum, who refused to give up hope, offers some clues.

When I was a young woman in Montreal, Canada, our family used the dressmaking services of Mrs. Mandelbaum, a middle-aged Holocaust survivor. We would go to her immaculate apartment, where her newly bought furniture was protected with plastic covers, and where she lived with her husband and son. There our dressmaker spent a great deal of time on her knees on the hardwood floor, as she pinned up the hemlines of her affluent clients.

When her only son reached Bar Mitzvah age, Mrs. Mandelbaum invited all her customers and also sent out invitations to fellow survivors of the horrific concentration camp experience they had somehow managed to live through to liberation. She also invited some survivors she had encountered in the Displaced Persons camp after World War II. That was where she met her husband and conceived her son. From the D.P. camp, the Mandelbaums managed to get sponsorship to Canada, where we, the Bar Mitzvah invitees, were now their only “family.” And everyone who was invited came.

The American-born guests/customers were amazed at the lavishness of the Bar Mitzvah. How could a woman of such limited means, someone they saw mainly down on her knees, afford such an elaborate celebration? Mrs. Mandelbaum knew how. She had saved every cent of her dressmaking money for more than five years in order to host this occasion.

But her fellow survivors, the ones who flew in from the U.S., from South America, from Australia, from Israel – from wherever they had found refuge after the war – were not surprised. They understood that it was the hope that one day she would have a son who would provide continuity to the Jewish people through his Bar Mitzvah commitment that kept her alive in the concentration camp. The survivor-guests had promised one another that, if they made it thr

ough the war, they would be the witnesses to the celebration. No matter where life took them, they would serve as one another’s family. They had shared a common flame of hope, and now it had come to fruition.

It was a wonderful celebration. And after the Bar Mitzvah, Mrs. Mandelbaum got up from her knees. She did not have to pin up other people’s dresses any more.

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©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015, 2017. All rights reserved.