The first time I heard the expression “the greatest woman of our time” and the “Sarah Imanu of our generation” was at the funeral for Henny Machlis. I was blessed to spend two years with the family when I was a student her in Israel. Harav Mordechai Machlis was my afternoon teacher at B.M.T and every other evening and most Shabbats I spent with the family in their home in Maalot Dafna. In those days all the kids were at home and I had the chance to spend lots of time with Henny and the kids. And since making aliya in 2000, I try at every opportunity to visit. But what made her the greatest woman of our generation?
I recently read a book about the Roosevelt’s called ‘No Ordinary Time’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin where Eleanor is described in a similar fashion. She was a trailblazer in every area of humanity. A champion of human rights and dignity for Jews, Japanese, blacks and women. She was the first and only first lady to hold a regular press conference at the White House for women only and wrote a regular column throughout her life. She encouraged the government to hire women in factories and provide daycare and health care during the war years. At a time when the world needed salvation, she was the ray of light for millions upon millions of people. But the best description comes at the end of the book where it was jokingly said during the war years President Roosevelt would pray daily, “Dear God, please make Eleanor a little tired”(pg. 629). But that was the true mark of greatest. She had the ability to push the president, his cabinet, the government, the nation and the people to the world forward in a way that changed the course of history for good.
The book ‘Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup’ by Sara Yoheved Rigler describes Henny as a woman with unending energy and goodness. Unlike Eleanor who used her position to do good, Henny established and created the moment and position. No one told her to open her home to tens of thousands of people, to nourish the body and soul, to make aliya, build a family that aspires to give, help the poor, lonely and sick. Henny had the ability to channel all that she was given from her parents, teachers and eventually her husband and do the impossible. Henny together with her husband and children succeeded in providing light and warmth to thousands of people. After reading the book on Henny’s life I attended a wedding where the bride mentioned that the groom wears goggles when he cuts onions. Who would have thought that the tears from onions have purpose and proactive energy. Henny would tell those helping to prepare Shabbat meals to use those tears to pray for the sick, for a match, for a better future.
The list of great women continues to grow. But the list of women who seized the opportunity to elevate a whole generation of people is few. Those of us who had the opportunity to peel potatoes and onions Thursday night, watch Henny interact with family and guests, those of us who learns from her gleams of Torah thought understand she was indeed the greatest of our time.