A Ziplock Bag Full of Letters : In Memory of Laure Gutman, a”h

At the levaya, people spilled from the chapel into the lobby and out onto the sidewalk. At the shiva house, the door opened and shut, opened and shut, as the community came to share the family’s grief. The mailbox overflowed with cards and letters, and the emails poured in.

Soon enough, shiva was over. The mourners and the visitors went home. The door remained shut at the house-with-the-cow-in-front, and the cards and letters were packed into an oversized ziplock bag and put away.

These are the sorrowful postscripts to the life of Mrs. Laure Gutman, a”h. Yet it was just as Pirkei Avos attests: “Aizeh hu mechubad? Who is honored? Hamechaved es habrios. One who honors others.”

Laure was nifteres on August 10, 2016. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister – generic words, yet they form the scaffold of a meaningful life and, in Laure’s case, a life packed with mitzvos. It was just as it says in Mishlei 10:8, “Chacham lev yikach mitzvos. Wise are those who collect mitzvos to take with them.”

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Laure Daitchman was born in Burlington, Vermont, on January 1, 1954, and attended public school until age 12. She then came to Bais Yaakov in Baltimore, boarding at the homes of Mrs. Rosa Bamberger and the Yudkowskys. After graduation, she attended nursing school in New York. She married Abe Gutman, brother of her classmate and friend, Debbie Gibber, who introduced them. The Gutmans were married 43 years and had five children.

By now, months after her petira, Laure is a Baltimore legend. (That can happen when you spend your life helping others.) She was an activist in many community projects, seeing needs that no one else noticed and filling them. She gave much of her time to volunteer organizations but not to the exclusion of doing unsung chesed with the many individuals she encountered in her everyday life. And of course, she was a wife and mother par excellence, never allowing her volunteer work to overshadow her top priority – her family.

Over the years, Laure ran both the Bais Yaakov and Talmudical Academy ladies auxiliaries. She was an officer of Ahavas Chesed and worked for its chevra kadisha. More recently, she was vice-president of Bikur Cholim, and she was dedicated to Seasons Hospice, where she visited and comforted the patients. And, of course, for the past nearly 20 years she was a beloved nurse and home economics teacher in Bais Yaakov Middle School.

Laure’s daughter, Ariella Gardyn, said, “My mother did all this community work and chesed, but what really made her extraordinary was that she was so normal and ‘with it,’ never holier-than-thou. She was so approachable. People could relate to her. Often, we know the right thing to do, yet we make excuses for ourselves. But because my mother was a ‘regular person,’ people would say to themselves, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I do it?’ People have told me they are still motivated by the thought, ‘I need to make Laure proud.’”

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While Laure’s community service was amazing, it was her conduct during her seven-year illness that stunned everyone and sealed her greatness in the minds of all who knew her. Laure’s illness was discovered inadvertently, when she went in for an unrelated medical procedure. She never made a secret of her illness, even giving public lectures to the community’s women. (See the article by Dr. Janet Sunness in this issue.)

The treatment was grueling, yet Laure remained positive, never complaining or letting people know how much she was suffering. Her daughter, Mrs. Naomi Miller of Toronto, when asked about her mother’s strength, said, “None of us knows our own strength until we’re put in that position. But my mother made it so clear that she had total emuna and bitachon. She told me she felt Hashem holding her hand the whole time. It was very clear to her that this was from Hashem. She never questioned it and never felt sorry for herself. When I was the in hospital with her, she said to me, ‘I just can’t daven; I don’t have strength.’ She was in so much pain, yet this is what agitated her the most.”

Ariella, who cared for her mother throughout the last years, said, “I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be taking care of her; it never felt like a burden. That first year after the diagnosis was the best year of our lives, because the illness put everything in perspective. Before, she was always busy. That year, we got to spend so much time together, and we talked about anything and everything.

“She was always happy and so appreciative, even of a new chemo treatment. She had a regal way about her. There was never a time she did not say thank you to the maintenance person and all the members of the staff. She made everyone feel important. The chemo was brutal, but she would just say, ‘Tomorrow I’ll feel a little better.’

“As much as she taught me how to live, she taught me how to die. She was comfortable with what was going to happen. She had so much bitachon, trust. As my uncle mentioned at the levaya, she said, ‘I hope Hashem is as happy with me as I am with Him.’

Even at the end – and she knew it was the end – when she was not talking much at all, she asked to borrow my cell phone, and she called three specific people to say goodbye and to tell them ‘it will be okay.’ Out of the thousands of people she interacted with, she knew that those three needed that call. She was concerned for her family members. Were we going to be okay? Until the last minute, she thought about other people.”

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With the passing of a person as multifaceted in chesed as Laure was, people feel compelled to express their deepest feelings. Whether on paper or screen, whether from simple people or rabbanim, whether from close friends or those who had met Laure only once – the same descriptions and sentiments repeat themselves. Here is a small sampling of the comments the family received:

“Laure was always so friendly and warm, so giving, and so appreciative of all her blessings.”

“Always a smile, never a kvetch. Her chesed and concern for others was endless.”

“She always tried to do more for others; she was such an inspiration.”

“A beautiful person with sterling middos.”

“She was so many things to so many different people, and always upbeat with a smile and nonjudgmental…She knew how to relate to young and old alike.”

“She had such strength of character. Her drive to live, and always contribute are great lessons for us.”

Laure always seemed to be in the right spot at the right time. She put herself in the right spot, gravitating to situations through some powerful instinct to give, to help, and to comfort. As chair of the Ladies’ Chevra Kadisha of Chevra Ahavas Chesed and past president of the organization, Laure often dealt with families of the sick and the bereaved. With her, it went beyond simply fulfilling the duties of her office. She always added that elusive quality called “heart.” As one letter writer said, “Laure was the first person we saw when we arrived at Levinson’s. She assured us that our daughter’s body was prepared with the utmost care and love. You can’t imagine what a comfort that was….”

 “In Chevra Ahavas Chesed, we are going to need a whole phalanx of people to fill all the tasks she so cheerfully and thoroughly performed,” said an officer of the organization.

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In Bais Yaakov, too, Laure went beyond the call of duty. The oft-mentioned soup that she prepared for the teachers is the perfect symbol of her proactive and nurturing approach to life. No one asked her to take care of the teachers, but Laure, we now know, was a nurturers’ nurturer. As for the students, who better to teach home economics than Laure, who was able to convey through her very being the intangible yet proud and loving essence of the akeres habayis, the womanly pillar of the Jewish home and family?

Below are statements by Laure’s teacher colleagues in Bais Yaakov Middle School, collected by Mrs. Rochelle Goldberg (see sidebar) on the day of the levaya. “People wrote from the heart,” said Rochelle, “crying and not too clearheaded. We teachers in the middle school saw her every day and worked with and learned from her every day. We really loved her, and this is such a loss for us and everyone who knew her.”

One teacher said, “During Laure’s annual speech, she always said that when she was first diagnosed, around Purim time, she waited until after Purim was over to announce her diagnosis. She didn’t want anyone to associate Purim with something sad. It is the Nine Days right now, a sad time of year. How fitting it is that she was niftar now as she didn’t want to take away anyone’s happiness.”

Devorah Polsky: “After Pesach, Mrs. Gutman came in with a bowl of egg salad and chocolate pie, and I said, ‘What’s it for?” She answered that she had extra eggs from Pesach that she wasn’t using so she figured she would make something for the teachers, like it was no big deal. And we all ate it. She was always thinking of us and what she could do to get us all have a good day and eat healthy.”

Ahuva Spetner: “I didn’t know Mrs. Gutman very well, as she was sick most of the years that I taught in Bais Yaakov. She taught me one powerful lesson: A few years ago, I made a last-minute decision to fly out of town to pay a shiva call to a former student. Because I didn’t know in advance, I hadn’t told my students I was leaving. I apologized to them when I came back and mentioned why I left without telling them. A few days later, Mrs. Gutman came over to me to tell me what an impact I made on my students. I was confused about what she was talking about. She proceeded to explain how I may not realize it but by sharing with my students what I do, I can reach them more than by a lesson in the classroom. She impressed upon me the power I have to inspire my students with my actions and the importance of sharing my personal experiences. She emphasized that these are the lessons that our students will really remember. And that is a lesson that I will always remember.”

Rochel Vim: “Laure was an incredible human being because she was so real. When she spoke to the teachers years ago, she talked about putting on lipstick when you’re at a traffic light – to utilize every single minute. Even a red light is an opportunity not to waste a minute. She didn’t live in the clouds; she wasn’t a rebbetzin, she wasn’t a big name in the world of Jewish education. But she cared so much about each person in such a real down-to-earth way. She loved to give, and she loved life, and she wanted to share that love with everyone around her. I will miss her so much.”

Esther Rivka Weiner: “Mrs. Gutman’s soup nourished us while at the same time making us feel cared for. She understood our needs and, like a mother, wanted to make sure we were eating healthy even though we are adults and can take care of ourselves. Whatever a person’s needs were, Mrs. Gutman was happy to step in and try to help. She was very approachable. Everyone knew that she was the address to go to for anything, not just something specific to her role. She helped me find a doctor when I moved here. When I wasn’t happy, she told me try one more time and if I still felt that way, she would help me find someone else. I tried it one more time and have been very happy. She knew what was best but let me know that if her opinion didn’t work for me she would help me find something that would work.”

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Here are excerpts from the written memories of Laure’s students:

“She taught us how to plant flowers in front of the school. She taught us how to sew, iron, and cook. Whenever she walked into school, everyone would just smile. She always looked put together and had makeup and a sheitel on, even when she was going through such hard times. She was always so happy. She was such a nice teacher. She took us outside on nice days, and she always read us a book called Dancing in the Rain. Even when some students misbehaved, she would give them extra attention and never get angry. She said we could visit her in the nurse’s office, even when we went on to high school. She inspired so many girls. She would make soup every day for the teachers, and when there was extra, we would get, and it was so good. She gave us a cookbook at the end of the year with everything she taught us the whole year.”

“Mrs. Gutman always smiled when she walked down the hall. She would always say hi or good morning to us. She made soup even when she was sick, and always left a note with her soup. When we were sick or needed something from the infirmary, she would greet us with a huge smile that was contagious. She dressed in bright and cheerful colors. She would let us whisper in class, go to the bathroom, and she never lost her temper. If we misbehaved, she would just ignore us and move on. But her classes were so good so we didn’t even want to misbehave.”

“Having Mrs. Gutman as a teacher was a special experience. Her lessons really came in handy. I will always cherish her book Mrs. Gutman gave every student the time and patience she needed to understand every lesson. She understood us and knew how to address every situation that would come up.”

“Mrs. Gutman was an amazing home ec teacher. She inspired me to become a better person. She was always happy and smiled, no matter what the situation. Her amazing stories and very wise advice helped me throughout the year and will help me in the future.”

“I felt a sharp pang of emotion when I heard the news. It was such an honor to have Mrs. Gutman for a teacher three years in a row, all the while with her big, beautiful smile. Her classes were so interesting, especially with the addition of the stories she told. I learned so many things that will help me all my life. She taught me how to be strong in many situations and how to sew, manage money, and so many other important things.”

“Mrs. Gutman was the most meaningful teacher I ever had. Aside from all the practical lessons, lifelong lessons that will last with me forever, when I saw Mrs. Gutman walk into our classroom with such simcha and strength, and after finding out the treatment she was going through, it gave me strength to move on whenever I went through a little challenge.”

“I was standing near the entrance of the middle school when Mrs. Gutman and Mrs. Horowitz walked in together. In a casual tone, I said to Mrs. Horowitz, ‘Oh, by the way, thank you for….’ With a warm, kind smile, Mrs. Gutman gently said, ‘A thank you is never ‘by the way.’ Her words stick with me, and I try to give a thank you its proper merit, because of her.”

“Mrs. Gutman was someone I truly admired. She was my role model. Just seeing her I became happy, because she had such simchas chaim. The way Mrs. Gutman taught, with such love and care for her students, really touched me. She was such a selfless person, always putting herself out for other people. Whenever she wasn’t able to come to class, she would send a sub with refua shleima cards for us to color so she could deliver the cards and make sick people happy. Mrs. Gutman was the one who comforted us when we had problems, while she was the one who should have been comforted. We knew that she loved teaching us, and we could never tell when she was suffering because she always wore a certain glow that radiated from her neshama. I will really miss Mrs. Gutman.”

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The many people quoted in this article mention the same qualities again and again: Laure’s happiness and serenity, her emuna and bitachon, and her caring and giving – all this in the midst of, and despite, her difficulties. “My mother did not have an easy life,” said her daughter Ariella, “with more than one brush with death. But ever since we were children, her constant refrain was ‘gam zu letova,’ which she said about anything from a shattered drinking glass to an RV breaking down on a deserted highway. And since it was all good, what was the point of anger or frustration?

“She had so much emuna and bitachon. We, her family, always saw it, but it came out in stark relief after she got sick, and then other people saw it, too. My mother was genuine; she really was this person.”




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