So much has been written and said on the subject of a smile.
It is a hallmark of great people, an emblem of
bitochon and joyful acceptance, a mark of good
middos. A smile is the road to any friendship, an
asset for [sometimes necessary] comic relief.
All the above is true, but for Rebbetzin Malka Isbee Gurwitz
z'l it was more than slogans but rather, a virtual
reality, the fiber of her true being.
Anyone who knew her was privileged to a world of smiles; when
you walked in the door, before you walked out the door and
lots in between. Her's was not the frivolous, superficial,
saccharine smile. It was deep-seated and reflected a love of
her fellowman. It was an expression of deep inner concern,
care and interest, which she followed up with a ready ear,
patience to listen and practical assistance. In that way, she
was more than a friend and more like a relative. Perhaps
that's why everyone called her `Auntie Malka.'
"Auntie Malka?" I asked, when first introduced to her. "Why
don't you just call her `Rebbetzin'?" I questioned one of the
girls who stayed with her.
She explained, "That's what she asked to be called when she
first came to Gateshead as the (second) wife of the late
Gateshead Rosh Hayeshiva, R' Leib Gurwitz zt'l."
"Let me tell you more." Her eyes saddened and lips pursed
with emotion. "You see the sheitel on my head?" I did,
marking the absence of a ring on her finger. "When I came to
Eretz Yisroel seven weeks ago, I was an emotional wreck; all
I did was cry, mostly in bed. I felt the need to be here, to
go to the Kosel every day. I had arranged to stay with a
cousin but they had a very small place. A friend suggested I
come here, to try it for a week. She assured me I would be
welcome. And here I am, seven weeks later.
"I couldn't think of calling her by any other name. She's
like an aunt. She has given me strength, hope and insight.
Now I'm different. And I'm sure Auntie Malka wouldn't mind if
you joined us. She's always glad to make room for another
With my friends all married with children, I was still
straddling the world of shidduchim and had come to
spend my vacation far away from New York. Auntie Malka had a
lot of answers for the questions I didn't have the courage to
ask. She moved from idea to idea, peacefully and happily,
with a smile at every turn in the road.
2:30 a.m.! We'd been sitting in the cozy kitchen for nearly
four hours, ready for the next four hours... I tried to recap
all the ideas I had absorbed when Rivky exclaimed, "I've got
to take a picture. I want to show my sister what I did with
We had to take the kitchen clock down from its nail; it was
too high. Click. One shot. "Now you, Auntie Malka," she
"Only with you, too." And so I obligingly snapped the smiling
duo, Auntie Malka's arm draped around Rivky who was laughing
as she hadn't laughed for years. I wanted this warmth, too.
And she sensed it, for she insisted that it was my turn with
her. Click. 3 a.m.
"Okay. Time to sleep. I've got to take care of you girls."
And she sure did. "Do you need a siddur?" "Are you
warm?" "How do you feel?" Shidduchim. Concern. You name
Many shidduchim were made in that blessed kitchen;
hundreds of vistors passed through its doors, all greeted by
the genuine, contagious smile that prompted you to wonder why
you weren't smiling -- and coaxed a smile out.
"When you have the Ribono Shel Olom in your life," she would
say, "there aren't any kashos. Without Him, there
aren't any teirutzim."
Before she left Eretz Yisroel for Gateshead, she was told
that it was a gloomy, rainy English town, a far cry from
Yerusholayim. "Well," she answered with typical optimism,
"I'll have the sunshine in my house."
She radiated sunshine everywhere. During her work years in
Yerusholayim in the Agudas Yisroel office, it was natural for
people to gravitate to her: one needed advice, another
comfort, a third a shidduch and all, a friend. All in
a day's work. One of these quick pieces of advice actually
saved a life!
Devora came into the office one morning looking very
attractive. She was already dressed for an evening meeting to
take place after work. She asked Auntie Malka for some last
"Your skirt is a wee bit too short. You're a Bas Torah,
meeting a Ben Torah, and you want to be proper." Alterations
Six weeks later they broke the plate, thanks to someone who
had cared enough to tell the truth and do something for its
It was 1971, and Mrs. Isbee was still living on the ground
floor, opposite an Israeli widow whose 13-year-old son needed
emergency heart surgery abroad. "How can I go," wept the
widow to her neighbor, "not knowing a word of English?"
"Not to worry. I'll go with you and b'ezras Hashem,
I'll raise money for the surgery."
They headed for New York, but were referred to Houston,
Texas, where a world-famous cardiologist, Dr. DeBakey, was
the only one with enough experience to undertake this complex
surgery. While arrangements were being made, Mrs. Isbee got
on the phone and began a series of calls to friends,
relatives, chessed organizations, philanthropists. The
dial turned and the money began pouring in.
In Texas, the boy underwent a double bypass in a few stages,
with Dr. DeBakey personally monitoring the course of
treatment before and after surgery, in between flash flights
to all parts of the world. Whenever he made his rounds, at
whatever time he found available, a loudspeaker would precede
him with the somber announcement:
"All patients return to their beds. No traffic in the
corridors. Dr. DeBakey is making his rounds." Everything
ground to a standstill for the duration.
One particular morning, this announcement came just as Mrs.
Isbee was facing a corner of the room, very intent upon her
shmone esrei prayer which included a special heartfelt
plea for the boy's recovery. At this moment, Dr. DeBakey
entered the room and addressed the Israeli mother. She looked
distraught, not understanding a word. Critical information
had to be conveyed both ways and she was as helpless as only
a widowed mother in a foreign land with a desperately sick
son could be.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders and swept out of the room
with his entourage trailing behind. Who knew when he would
Mrs. Isbee finished her "service of the heart" and ran down
the hall in trail of the famous surgeon. She pushed her way
through senior doctors and nurses and panted, "Excuse me, Dr.
DeBakey, but I was praying for the boy's recovery. I was
praying to the Healer of all flesh, for we are all in His
hands. Please, please be so kind as to return to his room and
give us a report of his progress."
The entourage was open-mouthed. The proud doctor could have
dismissed her and continued on his busy tour. But apparently,
he was impressed by her sincerity, for he made an
unprecedented! about-face and headed for the boy's room, a
dozen or so people following close behind.
He treated Mrs. Isbee with the greatest respect -- for the
duration of the three months that they all stayed until the
boy was well enough to return to Eretz Yisroel. During that
long time in Houston, Mrs. Isbee left an indelible mark upon
the hospital as well as the Jewish community. She helped out
the other patients on the ward and even coaxed an amputee in
a wheelchair to collect money for her orphan charge. A
gentile patient declared that she had taught him faith in G-
During this period, the two women enjoyed the most caring
hospitality of Mrs. Chapman, whose home was and is always
open to her fellow Jews, an incredible woman whose active
caring and heartwarming goodness matched Mrs. Isbee's own.
[Ed. I know them both, ylch'a, and can vouch for
Before they left, Mrs. Isbee strongly urged Mrs. Chapman to
send her children to Israel as soon as they were old enough
to supplement their Jewish education, the girls to Bais
Yaakov high school and the boys to yeshivos. Their oldest
daughter came and lived in with Mrs. Isbee for the duration
of the school year. On the very day before she was scheduled
to leave... ["How can I let her go back to the wasteland of
Mrs. Isbee insisted [Ed. note: the children who read this
over insist that their mother never `insisted' -- she always
suggested] that she meet a fine young man. And, you guessed
it, this shidduch came to fruition. This couple went
on to become a powerhouse of kiruv and are now
marrying off their own children!
[Only one feather in the cap, one of the thousands of Chessed-
feathers floating up to Heaven to bear witness to the
accomplishments on earth of a very remarkable woman. May her
merit protect us all!]