Chaya Aviva Katz
Who was my mother?
We honestly had no idea until a few short weeks ago. We did know that she was part of the chevra kaddisha, a teacher, friend, counselor, Bnos advisor, and primarily, our mother. Growing up in the Kleiner house, it was the norm to have countless people staying over for just a night or sometimes much longer, whether it was for fertility treatments, hospital stays, or dating.
Our house was also command-central for 35 years’ worth of high school girls. As high school Bnos advisor, my mother stayed dedicated to keeping them busy – to giving them fun in a good, “kosher” environment. There were chol hamoed trips with boating and biking in Washington on Succos. Chanuka chagiga, Great Adventures on Pesach, ice skating, and renting out the beach on the last day of school. Whether it was Levindale on Shabbos afternoons or shalosh seudos at different girls’ houses, my mother knew how important it was for girls to enjoy themselves and each other in the right ways.
For us, Shabbos was about delivering soup and challa to specific neighbors. We made sheva brachos and supper for others. She would have us do the deliveries or bring us along, telling us how lucky we were to be a part of the mitzva. There was no fanfare – we did it because this was all just part of how we grew up. In our younger years, breakfast time was story time. There were stories of gedolim as we ate, and each day when we left for school she would say perek 19 of Tehillim with us.
Once we were older and married, my mother created a nucleus for our family. It was a place we couldn’t wait to go, as siblings, spouses, and grandchildren gathered for each Yom Tov. And she made Yom Tov beautiful. Each of us was thought of and considered. Her focus was instilling in the grandchildren a “bren” for Yiddishkeit. At one meal on Yom Tov, all birthdays were celebrated, and at one meal all siyumim were celebrated. That meant Mommy gave a speech on how happy she and Tatty were with the grandchildren’s learning. They taught our kids that Torah and yiras Shamayim were the most important things. Cooking for everyone each Yom Tov wasn’t easy for my mother, but it was something she did with love, as she knew the value of keeping the family close and together.
Over the last two years, since my mother’s first diagnosis, we were introduced to a new mother. One who had incredible bitachon and never complained. We spent an enormous amount of time with her because we wanted to bask in her light. Each Yom Tov became one you couldn’t miss, as Mommy would sit at the meal and tell us a message she felt was important for that time. A message we, her family, needed to hear and internalize. While we did say goodbye many times over the last two years, we never thought the time would come. The last two years, my mother lived “lemaala min hateva.” She lived every day as though it was her last. She watched what came out of her mouth and made sure that every moment was used productively.
When we were growing up, she never said “no” to a chesed. At the end of her life – through so much pain – we wondered if that commitment could hold true. We got our answer just a few weeks before her petira, when a family of 12 needed a place to stay for an extended weekend. Though she didn’t have the strength, she said, “If I want Hashem to take care of me, I must take care of His children,” and then hosted and fed them the entire time.
That’s not the amazing part. The amazing part is that when she told me this story she said, “And you know what? As soon as I said yes, I had koach that I hadn’t had in weeks.”
These last weeks, we’ve continued to hear unbelievable stories of my mother that we never knew about. It makes sense, because she was less of a talker and more of a doer.
Who was my mother? We are learning that we didn’t really know her.
If you got married in Baltimore in the 1970s and have lived here for the past 40 years, you know there is only one “Elky.” It was never necessary to say her last name; people instinctively knew to whom you were referring. She was like a little bird that fluttered and danced her way into people’s hearts and lives, fixing things that needed fixing and leaving a string of “goodies” in her wake.
Elky Kleiner was the beneficiary of an incredible mesora. Her parents, Henna Leah and Moshe Steinberg, a”h, were the quintessential givers whose largesse knew no bounds. When Elky’s parents would visit, especially her mother, she came with a carload of food, linens, clothing, and an assortment of “supplies” that she intuitively felt her children and grandchildren would need or could need or should need sometime in the future. When we were invited to the Kleiners for a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal and I would comment on how beautiful the tablecloth was or how some ornament fit perfectly into this or that space, Elky would invariably reply, “Oh, my mother brought that for me.” She came from a lineage that was rich and overflowing with goodness, and she imbibed that trait from her youth. All who were fortunate to know her were the recipients of this gift.
When I write that we were invited for a Shabbos or holiday meal, don’t for a moment think it was one of those kugel and cholent deals – not that that’s not praiseworthy. Elky’s regular table was like my sheva brachos, and her sheva brachos were like a Shabbaton. She coordinated many of my children’s Shabbos sheva brachos, lugging her signature tablecloths with overhangs, setting up dessert tables, printing pictures of the chassan and kallah on napkins, matchbooks, you name it. She refused my profuse thank you, always saying it was “nothing,” “I’ve been waiting to do it,” or “my pleasure.” Your simcha became Elky’s simcha, down to the smallest detail.
And that was the way she related to the Ribbono Shel Olam, too. She was meticulous in her adherence to halacha, and her davening was awesome to behold. Frequently, the Kleiners would daven at the Adas, which was closer to their house on Clover Road and because of the myriad medical situations was an easier trek for them on Shabbos. I happened to be there on a random Shabbos and stood several rows behind Elky during Shemoneh Esrei. She was pleading with Hashem, her hands outstretched. Davening for her was an ongoing experience, whether formally in shul or in her daily speech.
When you asked Elky how things were going, she would answer you frankly, even if either she or her husband, yblch”t, had just been released from the hospital, but it always ended with “chasdei Hashem, chasdei Hashem, it’s good, it’s getting better.” That was Elky’s mantra, the Borei Olam knows what’s best for us, His chesed makes our lives work.
It boggles the mind to think of the losses the Baltimore community has sustained this past year. Mrs. Elky Kleiner, a”h, was an agent of bracha, maasim tovim, a role model par excellence. It was our good fortune to have known her, our task to emulate her.
I lost a dear friend... I lost a wonderful neighbor... I lost an amazing role model... We lost a tremendous baalas chesed... We lost an inspiring teacher... I feel lost! I look out my window waiting for Elky to make her appearance... I simply cannot fathom that she is gone.
Elky Kleiner was always there for me in my happy times and in my trying times. Whenever I was making a simcha, Elky would hold my hand and help me organize my thoughts and plans. I could always count on her to set up my children’s vorts, sheva brachos, and kiddushim. Nothing was ever too difficult for her. She was always there to advise me and to serve as a shoulder for me to lean on. When I came back from Detroit to finish sitting shiva for my mother here in Baltimore, Elky was at my door with enough food for an army (and that was when she was already very sick). When I had a child who had to go through treatments, Elky pulled us through – from telling us what to expect to getting new clothes for her when she lost so much weight.
Elky was an amazing role model when it came to having simchas hachaim. She was always smiling, no matter how much pain she was in, no matter what diagnosis she had just gotten from the doctors. She would continue with her self-imposed “duties” of chesed that were her life! Elky knew how to do chesed even before the recipient felt she needed it. Somehow, Elky had the instinct of knowing what was needed and when.
I heard from many of Elky’s students, my own daughters included, how Mrs. Kleiner’s classes were most inspiring and just watching her teach and conduct herself was a lesson in itself.
As a wife and mother, Elky was a true role model. She was always there for her husband and knew what he needed. She treated him like a king. I remember going to their house on the day of his terrible car accident and seeing the supper she had ready on the table. It looked like a sheva brachos! Her children too were her life. She would do anything for them and they were always on her mind. The grandchildren were her pride and joy, and she couldn’t do enough for them. Even when she was so weak and could barely walk, she had to bring them their the erev Shabbos treats.
Watching Elky daven was a mussar lesson, especially this last Rosh Hashana when she was terribly weak. The kavana, the heartfelt cries, the seriousness of her tefillos – what a lesson for us all.
May she be a meilitzas yosher for her family, her friends, and for all of klal Yisrael. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu bring the geula shleima bimheira beyameinu – Amen!
As I sit down to write these lines about Mrs. Kleiner, I am brought back to growing up with the Kleiner children as a young girl. I was one of the kids and babysitters, and also her student in Bais Yaakov. When I moved back to this same neighborhood as a young mother, she welcomed me into her inner circle. I was always able to communicate with her like a good friend and peer.
Every simcha we made in the neighborhood was graced with the tablecloths and paraphernalia that she provided free of charge from her personal gemach. These tablecloths, l’ilui nishmas her mother, were updated and modernized at her own expense to enhance other people’s simchas. It was her special enjoyment to help make beautiful simchas.
Mrs. Kleiner’s simchas hachaim and “can-do” attitude was unusual. She was too busy to stop and was always planning the next family or neighborhood simcha. Despite the pain she was in for the past few years, she still continued doing multitudes of chesed and was there for all her friends and family, making each of us feel that she would never leave us. There was always a smile on her face and in her voice when she did a chesed and it made you feel as if you were doing her the favor. She taught us that there’s no excuse not to do a chesed, even if one has a real challenge, because we saw on a daily basis how Mrs. Kleiner lived everyday life – with no excuses and with a smile.
We all knew that her husband, yblch”t, and her family came first. Incidentally, her freezers were packed with Yom Tov delicacies this year too. She had painstakingly prepared them throughout the summer for Succos, when the entire family would be together. She lived forward, with no excuses, b’simcha.
At the same time, Mrs. Kleiner never made you feel that she was better than you. With her non-confrontational demeanor, she was able to convince others to do what was good for them, even when they couldn’t see it themselves. She was a regular person we could relate to at all times; someone who understood you easily, and consequently, you were able to accept her advice. We knew we could always come over because she had no airs about her and an open-house policy.
Our children as well as her talmidos all noticed that even though she dressed so nicely and in style, it was always in a tzniusdik and not showy fashion. She was dressed to the “T” perfectly and b’tznius, in the spirit and the letter of halacha.
As a neighbor of Elky’s for more than 30 years, I wanted to add some thoughts to my neighbors’ descriptive words. One thing that I think was unusual about Elky was how well she related to everybody, regardless of age. She was everybody’s friend; it didn’t matter if they were her contemporaries or the contemporaries of her children or grandchildren. She often recruited the girls in the neighborhood to help her with her myriad projects, such as preparing a sheva brachos or a Purim seuda. She wasn’t embarrassed to ask the girls to help her, but she made it very easy for them to say no if they couldn’t come that night. The girls enjoyed helping and she always rewarded them generously with a bar of chocolate or another treat.
She took the needs of her students to heart and tried to solve their problems. A friend, Sora (not her real name), described what happened to her daughter when she was in eighth grade in Bais Yaakov. Elky was the class guidance counselor. At the orientation she said, “If your daughter has a problem in school, whether it’s with a teacher, a friend, or because she didn’t get a certain job or part that she wanted, call me and I’ll help her.”
Sora was surprised at how easy Elky made it sound. Just call and my daughter’s problem will be solved? Not all problems are so easily solved. But that’s exactly what happened. Later in the year Sora’s daughter came home unhappy because she didn’t get a part in the class production. Sora called Elky, as Elky had directed. The next day her daughter came home with a big smile on her face. Elky had worked it out so that she got a part. Sora’s daughter went on to star in other productions throughout her school career as a result of Elky’s efforts.
Another example happened this summer when Elky was really unwell. My niece was here from Israel. I thought that sending her to overnight camp might be a good idea. The camp season had already started; it was the week before Tisha B’Av. I remembered that Elky had a connection to Camp Tubby. I asked her, “Do you think my niece could get into camp after it already started?” Elky immediately called the camp to find out. At first, she couldn’t get through, then the director was unavailable, but she persisted. Even after I had already forgotten about the idea because it seemed so unlikely to happen, she continue to pursue it and my niece actually ended up going to camp for a week and a half.
It’s hard to believe that Elky has left us. She was such a vibrant, lively part of our community and our cul-de-sac until the last days of her life. We will miss her.
For the last four years I was zocheh to live across the street from a role model par excellence. I got up each morning, opened my living room curtains to let the sun in, and watched Mrs. Kleiner leave for Bais Yaakov. Out of a well-kept home would come a put-together woman pulling her rolling satchel of belongings behind her. Before getting into the car she would stand still, hand holding her chin, deep in concentration. I believe Mrs. Kleiner was taking a few minutes to think about all the people who needed her help that day and put into perspective how she would conquer each task.
Behind closed doors, she quietly helped with other things as well. Before I moved into the neighborhood, I was given her name with regard to overnight camp. I had done my research and decided which camp I felt was a good choice for my girls. Although Mrs. Kleiner was involved with other camps, she saw that this was the camp we wanted, so she made phone calls on our behalf and enabled my daughters to go to camp. Their camp experience has continued to enrich our lives. Another time I was trying to settle a matter when Mrs. Kleiner stepped in to make phone calls and set up appointments on my behalf.
This is a woman who spent her life trying to help others according to their needs. She didn’t carry herself as someone who knew more, but as an equal. Her motto was “Together we’ll get it done.” Last year she wasn’t well but was still going to school. Our carpool driver was unavailable, so Mrs. Kleiner offered to take the girls. She drove on icy roads to pick up a passenger who wasn’t able to walk to meet her. When we called to apologize for the inconvenience, she said, “It wasn’t a problem.”
I get up in the morning and open my living room curtains. I look across the street and am thankful I had the privilege to be her neighbor.
Leah Gittel Schor
This summer, a couple of weeks before she was niftar, Mrs. Kleiner asked me to come over and teach her how to use email on her computer. She was already very sick, but she was determined to learn this new skill. One of the only things her email contained was shidduchim resumes that she wanted to send to people. She was so sick, yet she worked very hard to learn how to send an email in order to be able to help other people more efficiently! When she didn’t understand a concept the first time I taught it to her, she didn’t give up on herself, saying, “Let’s try one more time.” These two characteristics – never putting herself down and her determination to keep on learning – meant that she kept on accomplishing her entire life.
Whenever anyone asked Mrs. Kleiner a favor, her trademark answer was always, “Sure, no problem.” I always wondered how she thought it through so quickly. Now I know the answer. Mrs. Kleiner said yes to the chesed before thinking about how she’d be able to do it. This made everyone feel so comfortable to ask her things.
Mrs. Kleiner always showed so much hakaras hatov for every little thing I did for her, through her thank-you cards, presents, and treats. I never left her house without something special. Mrs. Kleiner made me feel like her equal. I could tell her anything because whatever I told her, I knew she would still think the world of me. For example, if I didn’t get the grade that I wanted on a test she would say, “You’re really smart, the teacher was probably very hard.”
I will miss her.