She was born on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, and they named her Pearl, but it wasn’t because of the naval base in Hawaii. She was born eleven years before the attack on America that heralded its entry into the Second World War. I met her some thirty years after that attack when I was a college freshman.
At that time there were basically three families in the observant Phoenix community who invited Arizona State University students from Tempe into their homes as Shabbat guests. Pearl, her husband, Zalman, and children were among them. They possessed a talent to make guests feel immediately at home. Pearl was different than any of the women I’d known in Kansas. Besides being observant she spoke with a strong New York accent peppered with Yiddish words like tacha, mamaesh, and oy abrach. I had been in her living room less than a half hour after candle lighting that first Shabbat and she already had me, a shy eighteen-year-old, talking as if I’d known her for years. Among the details she discovered was that I was three days younger than her oldest daughter. That piece of information characterized the relationship we would have for the following decades. Sometimes she was my surrogate mother and sometimes she was my friend.
Pearl knew how to give and she also knew how to make people comfortable with taking from her. After spending probably a dozen Shabbats in her home she asked me for a favor. Her second daughter was graduating from the high school in Denver. All the parents were invited for the weekend. Would I stay with the three youngest children? Would I? Of course, I would. We weren’t talking about babies in diapers or toddlers waking at night. Those kids were pre-teens, good-hearted and fun to be with. I would have a Shabbat in the community and not feel like a freeloader. It was a win-win situation.
Growing up in Wichita I had thought that orthodox homes would be serious and somber. Pearl’s wasn’t. It was noisy with the TV or music often blaring, loud voices, and love and laughter. I thoroughly enjoyed that weekend. So when she asked me to “babysit” again I immediately agreed.
This time they were going to Israel for three weeks for a family wedding. Instead of commuting to Phoenix for Shabbat I would move into their home and travel to Tempe daily for classes. I carpooled the kids to and from their school, did all the marketing and laundry, and cooked the meals. I remember the first week I tried to cook like their mother and it was a disaster. Family legend had it that Pearl didn’t know how to cook when she married and one of the first presents Zalman bought her was a set of cookbooks. They paid off. That, combined with the fact that her husband owned the butcher shop, gave her the reputation of being the best cook in town. The second week I began cooking like myself. Instead of steaks I made hamburgers and macaroni and cheese in place of chops. It was far more successful. By the third week I felt I’d received excellent training on how to run a kosher home.
For I was engaged. It was in Pearl’s living room one Friday night after dinner, and everyone else had gone to sleep, that my husband-to-be first brought up the subject of marriage in theory. Having tested the waters, so to speak, he felt confident enough to ask me to marry him a week later. Obviously I said yes and a June wedding was planned. We would move to Phoenix and be part of the community.
Pearl and Zalman didn’t come to our wedding. Although they had taught us that it was more important to go to happy occasions than to funerals, Zalman’s brother had died shortly beforehand. However, they did make us sheva brachot. Since it was on Shabbat I have no pictures but I remember the singing, jokes, and laughter to this day.
As a newlywed I had more in common with Pearl than the young teacher’s wives in the community who had several children. Sometimes I would run around shopping with her and once confided that with my husband’s flexible working hours I did most of my outings with him. She informed me that it was the same for her and Zalman and gave me a bit of advice.
“You’ll never hear me putting down my husband like some women do,” she said scornfully.
I remembered that advice a short time later when my husband and I had a fight. He had just left for evening services when the phone rang. I answered it, sounding miserable, and heard Pearl’s voice on the line.
“Uh, um,” I stuttered.
“Oy a brocht,” she moaned. “You had a fight?”
I probably sniffled an answer.
“Well,” she said brightly. “Just think how good it will feel when you make up.”
Pearl never tried to hide her emotions. If she was sad she cried and if she was happy she laughed. When she was angry everyone knew about it. As Zalman said, “She either loved you or hated you”. I felt she loved me and it was early in my pregnancy when I shared my news with her.
She hugged me, teary-eyed at the news. We were planning to make Aliyah before the baby would be born. Controlling her emotions though she became practical. “Are you feeling okay?”
I admitted that I’d had some minor complications but my GP said they were nothing to worry about.
“You get yourself to a good obstetrician,” she commanded in a voice that brokered no argument. “It doesn’t matter if you’re moving to Israel or not. You need good care now. I’ll give you the number of my gynecologist.”
In the end we didn’t move to Israel for another ten years. Her doctor delivered our son on that winter Shabbat that he came into the world. There was no doubt in our minds that Zalman would be the sandek. And it was no surprise that it was Pearl who helped my mother peel dozens of potatoes for the cholent that was served at the brit.
When our baby was just a few months old Zalman had surgery. My husband came home from work early so I could sit with Pearl in the waiting room. When I arrived at the hospital I was astounded to see her surrounded by at least a half a dozen other friends who loved her.
“You were looking for a chance to leave the baby,” she joked as she greeted me.
Once the surgery was over the doctor came out to update her.
“I give him a year at the most,” he coldly announced.
Pearl was devastated and so were the rest of us. I remember trying to be supportive but don’t know how much I was. Probably the most encouraging words were Zalman’s when he declared, “I’m going to beat this.” He did. My three-month-old son is soon turning thirty-eight and Zalman is still going strong.
Among his many activities are trips to Israel. We’d been living in Shilo less than a year and still didn’t have a phone when there was a knock on the door one afternoon. Were we shocked to find Pearl and Zalman standing on our doorstep! How Pearl laughed at my surprise as she returned my bear hug. Not much later we finally did receive a phone and on subsequent visits they always called and we’d manage to see them in Jerusalem.
Three years ago Zalman called right after a grandson was born. My daughter was staying with us and I was loathe to leave her but I didn’t want to miss seeing Pearl and Zalman, either. My husband came through for me and I visited them in the lobby of The Jerusalem Plaza Hotel. How thankful I am that I did. Pearl was just as sharp, loving, and witty as ever but her body wasn’t cooperating with her. Walking was almost impossible and she suffered from a lot of pain. Still, we were able to enjoy talking to each other. As the afternoon began to wane, though, she instructed me to leave.
“I don’t want your travelling in the dark,” she declared.
It had been a wonderful visit. It was also the last time I saw her.
Pearl died on Rosh Hashanah in Phoenix. Recently Zalman came to Israel for a week. I thought it would be difficult to see him without his wife. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t. Memories of her permeated the visit but they were happy, blessed memories.
On December 7th many will remember the attack on Pearl Harbor. I, though, will remember my friend, Pearl. And I’ll remember her with love and gratitude.