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Friday, December 06, 2019

Reviewing: “Emunah With Love and Chicken Soup: Henny Machlis, The Brooklyn-born girl who became a Jerusalem legend,” by Sara Yoheved Rigler. Shaar Press, an Artscroll imprint. 2016. English. Hardcover. 576 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1422618356.

Reviewing: “A House Full of Chesed: The Story of Rebbetzin Henny Machlis,” by Shmuel Blitz. Mesorah Publications Ltd. (Artscroll). 2018. English. Hardcover. 48 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1422622407.

In 2016, a hefty new Artscroll biography was published whose cover stands out in the sefarim store among images of bearded rabbis. “Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup” is the story of the late Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, whose Jerusalem home was legendary for welcoming hundreds of guests each Shabbos, providing them with home-cooked meals as well as a deeper nourishment they may not have known they needed. The book is written by Sara Yoheved Rigler, author of “Holy Woman” and a frequent contributor to Aish.com. Rigler writes with a unique appreciation for holy Jewish women. While her books would probably not pass the academic smell test, she is able to convey the passion and fire of a great individual in her writing in a way that tends to escape her more polished peers. Henny Machlis as well as her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis were truly great individuals who stretched themselves beyond their individual egos to leave a remarkable legacy. Rigler writes in the book that when Henny was younger she used to say that she wanted to have 20 children and introduce Judaism to the entire world. She ended up having 14 children (with nine c-sections!) and inspired tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. She was, as the book jacket describes, “a virtuoso in chesed,” someone for whom the normal boundaries separating oneself from others is effaced.

The Machlis’ small living room managed to fit over 100 people each Shabbos, some staying longer, for days or even months. The young women and men who came to help the Machlis family prepare each Shabbos also found themselves inspired in turn. A friend of mine who used to volunteer at the Machlis home remembers that their own children did not even have set beds, moving around as was needed to accommodate visitors. Guests who showed signs of being mentally disturbed, and who may have posed a threat to the children, were also welcomed with warmth, though they were offered the keys to the family van in order to sleep there. Some of the most moving accounts come from the Machlis’ children who, rather than understandably resent the incursion into their family privacy brought about by their parents, came to embrace it. Henny’s love for every human being did not come at the expense of her most intimate circle.

Rigler’s book is packed with jaw-dropping anecdotes about Henny reported by family and friends. These stories include an abandoned baby brought to the doorstep by a nun on behalf of an unwed Polish Christian mother who wanted the baby to be cared for by “the kindest person I know.” The heart of the book is a set of personal reflections from scores of people who through their encounters with Henny recover their faith in God and in themselves. At 560 pages, the book contains a lot to absorb. Adaptations have also been released for young adults as well as children (or those with shorter attention spans).

Indeed, “A House Full of Chesed” (2018) is a beautifully illustrated book aimed at children that attempts to capture some of the magic of the Machlis home for a young audience. While the children’s book relays stories that appear in Rigler’s volume, they have a different tone. Whereas in “Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup” it is Henny’s unconditional love and incredible faith that drives the narrative, the children’s volume is more plot-driven than character-driven. In “The Chicken Surprise,” an oven breaks close to the start of Shabbos and a chicken that normally needs two hours to cook somehow comes out perfectly in 45 minutes: “She knew it was Henny’s bracha that made the chickens come out the way they did: perfect.”

“A House Full of Chesed” also introduces young readers to a kind of person they may have never encountered before: not only Henny Machlis herself, but the sort of troubled souls she was able to put at ease. One Friday night, a mentally ill man comes to dinner and screams in front of all the guests that her gefilte fish is awful and she must not know how to make fish properly (he is Sephardic and unfamiliar with the dish). She answers quietly, “You are right: I can’t make fish. Would you teach me how to do it?” In “The Two Beggars,” two unclean and rather deranged homeless men are regular guests at the Machlis home and a neighbor offers to have them over one week instead. After only one hour with them the neighbor breaks down that she simply cannot do it, “Sheina had tried to be just like Henny. But she learned that it was not an easy thing to do. Because there was no one quite like Henny Machlis.”

When I read “A House Full of Chesed” to my 6-year-old daughter and we finished “The Two Beggars” story I admit that, despite my love for all things Machlis, I decided to put it down. I wasn’t sure what to do with the story myself, that some people are so awful that only Henny Machlis could handle them? I certainly did not know what a child should make of it. My daughter, however, refused to let me stop, and the next morning when she woke she asked that I read the entire book again. While the stories lack the powerful vision of “Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup,” “A House Full of Chesed” introduces children to something raw that they don’t normally access in children’s books. While some stories have happy, even miraculous, endings, not every situation can be fixed and not every person can be healed. The rough edges that surround these inconclusive and frankly rather odd stories can appeal to a child just as much as a neatly packaged one. In the introduction to “Emunah With Love and Chicken Soup,” the author shares one small act of chesed she was inspired to do after researching her book simply because it was a “Henny type thing to do.” In the days and weeks following our re-readings of “A House Full of Chesed,” my daughter and I also found ourselves making similar kinds of “what would Henny do” remarks. While I was never a guest in the Machlis home, I feel that through these books I too am inspired to live a little bit of a different life (although the execution is always more challenging). May the memory of Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, zt”l, be blessed.

By Sarah Rindner