This is the story of Tamar Hana Botnaro who tells how she came to discover Hashem and found her way to Judaism and Chassidus.
By Hila Ben-Yishai
Tamar Hana Botnaro of Tzfas still hasn’t digested the sharp turn her life has taken. Her becoming a baalas t’shuva surprised not only those who knew her but she herself. She was emotional when she told us her story:
I grew up in an irreligious home in Cholon as a beloved only daughter with three brothers in the Gavriel family. My parents are good and well educated people from Iraq. They kept Rosh HaShana, fasted on Yom Kippur, and held a seder on Pesach. That was the sum total of their Judaism.
When I was 18 I took a course on Jewish meditation along with my older brother and discovered that there is a G-d. This discovery did not make me feel obligated in any way. I was an active teenager, sociable and athletic. I recoiled from religion and preferred remaining where I was. My brother though, began learning Torah while simultaneously studying drama and theater. He went through the stages that the typical Israeli goes through with the army and travel. At a certain point, he went to India, but to our surprise came back two weeks later.
“Why did you come back so quickly?” I asked him. He said, “I was in India but my heart drew me to Eretz Yisroel.” He saw himself walking through the narrow, picturesque alleyways of Tzfas, looking at the old stone houses colored blue and white, and the blue skies overhead … He felt that his trip was superfluous and the treasure he sought was very close, back at home.
I thought he had missed out on a big opportunity. Tzfas seemed primitive to me although I had never been there. My brother continued the Torah path he had chosen and married Yael Dina who had studied in Machon Alte, a seminary for baalos t’shuva in Tzfas. Yael was also an actress and drama teacher and they opened a theater for children.
My journey was completely different. I tried to squeeze out of life everything it had to offer. I love to learn and try new things. Everything interested me except for Judaism. I studied, worked and toured abroad. My life was full and colorful. I majored in physical education and worked as an assistant in a mouth and jaw clinic. I studied drawing and design and made scenery for my brother’s plays. In addition to all that, I served as a trainer in a fitness club and worked in the field of physical development. All this was background to my favorite hobby which was riding my big heavy motorcycle. Years went by like this and there was only one dream I hadn’t achieved and that was marriage. None of the guys I knew seemed suitable and I did not understand why.
One day, I heard about a spiritual teacher for psycho-tora-py, Miriam Blich. When we met, I saw a sweet religious woman who wore a modest wig. Miriam, a follower of Ashlag Chassidus told me, “You haven’t formed a relationship because you attract unsuitable people. You are afraid of a relationship. I sense that when you will study this approach you will be both a therapist and a spiritual teacher.”
I absolutely could not see myself as religious, but there was something new here that I could learn from. I took the psycho-tora-py course in order to understand myself and why I was stuck when it came to relationships. All sorts of women took the course, most of them irreligious. In my own therapeutic process, I went back to the child within me that believed that marriage is something negative and threatening that should be avoided so as not to get hurt.
I discovered blocks within me that I had created and began working on them. After one semester, I already began treating relatives and close friends with my teacher’s encouragement and I was able to help people.
Success with myself and others strengthened my belief in G-d in general and His divine providence in particular. Outwardly there was no change in me. I continued dressing immodestly and the teacher would warn me with a motherly, forgiving smile that I was learning holy subject matter and I needed to watch out. She tried covering me with large shawls.
After completing the two year course, my teacher said she would be unable to continue teaching indefinitely, because of her health. “I’ll teach all of it to you and give you all the support you’ll need so you will be successful.” (Later on, when I had become mekushar to the Rebbe I wondered how I could continue teaching the approach of the Baal HaSulam (1884-1954). Miriam told me, “You don’t have to do it exactly like me. Everyone has their key and their way. Chabad has the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya that you can learn from.” My teacher surprised me when she told me that many things in her course were based on Tanya).
Despite all the encouragement and support I got, I still had not connected to Torah and mitzvos. It seems I needed to get a clearer, more direct message from Hashem.
I was riding my Suzuki motorcycle in between the cars on the Ayalon Tzafon highway when a car next to me veered somewhat towards me and I was pushed towards the safety barrier. I lost control of the motorcycle, which flew off to one side as I flew off in the other direction. I landed painfully hard on the asphalt.
I was in shock. I was taken to the hospital where I was not found to be badly injured. I hadn’t broken a single bone but had gotten some deep lacerations and third degree burns on my hands and feet and was in very great pain. After a brief hospitalization, I went home. The burns took a long time to heal and in the meantime, my life was on hold. I spent eight months of slow healing, which included daily creams and bandages at the clinic.
I was bereft of both my motorcycle and my work at the fitness room. I spent hours lying around and had a lot of time to think. I reflected on my life and saw it pass before my mind’s eye like a movie.
I saw how Hashem took care of my parnasa in another way. Just like that, lying there, Hashem sent me girls for therapy and I made money. Hashem showed me that it is possible to earn a living this way too and I was happy. When I began recovering, I took Arachim workshops on Judaism. My injuries underscored what I had already learned in the course material, namely that everything is directed precisely by Hashem, and He and only He runs the world. I began to internalize the religion that I had run away from up until then.
An old friend, a Vizhnitzer Chassida with tremendous Ahavas Yisroel, who was active in Yad L’Achim, connected me with a Litvishe rabbi who ran a yeshiva for baalei t’shuva in B’nei Brak. Many famous people have attended this yeshiva, actors and Tel Avivian artists who show up when it’s convenient for them, and study Torah without outsiders knowing about it.
The yeshiva is for men only. The only women there are two secretaries and so I had private sessions with the rabbi in the secretaries’ office. At the time, I thought that every religious man with a hat, suit and beard was a Chassid. Of course that was wrong, because my rabbi was not a Chassid, but he put his heart into what he did and helped me with my first steps. I am very grateful to him.
I was enthusiastic from the first shiur. The more I learned, the greater my thirst for Torah. I studied Torah avidly. I had always been a bookworm, and at this point, I put all my energy and desire for knowledge into matters of k’dusha. Every week I learned two s’farim in depth and I came to shiurim prepared. I slowly began observing mitzvos too.
At a certain point I felt ready to keep Shabbos. I was surprised to find out that my younger brother and wife made Kiddush every Friday night, because it was important to them that their children feel Jewish. Of course, I was invited to join them.
Kashrus was a murky area for me and seemed very complicated. At that time, I ate anywhere that did not serve non-kosher animal meat. Now I was happy that I had a loving home nearby where at least I could hear Kiddush.
My Lubavitcher sister-in-law decided that it was time for her to help me get married. I told her, “I just started my journey and I don’t know when it will end. I don’t think this is the right time.”
She asked me, “Do you think Judaism is the truth?”
“Of course,” I replied. “It’s the only way.”
“What sort of religious person do you want to be?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’ll take this to the end. I am not fully there yet but I think I’m going to go all the way.”
My sister-in-law said, “You’ve got to want it and need to get married.”
I was taken aback. “I need to make more progress first …”
She said, “You’ll grow within your marriage.”
(Editor’s note: The Rebbe generally holds that marriage and chinuch don’t mix! However, this was an unusual case because even before the shidduch was suggested, she had decided to go “all the way.”)
You need to understand that riding a motorcycle requires certain clothing (a leather jacket as protection in case of slips and falls, along with a helmet and high mountain climbing boots. And let’s not forget, strong pants). All that garb was my regular attire and that is how I went to the yeshiva in B’nei Brak where I parked the motorcycle on the pavement. The rabbi politely but firmly asked me to cover my elbows during the shiurim. That was a problem, since my wardrobe consisted solely of T-shirts. The solution was that I kept my leather jacket on.
In hindsight, I can say that something was missing in those shiurim. Today, after being exposed to Chassidus, I know that that was it. Instead of p’nimius ha’Torah, I got musar. Yet, everything is from Hashem and this rabbi was a good shliach who was mekarev me and did not give up on me.
I made relatively quick progress. My wardrobe underwent a complete overhaul. I added a skirt that extended below the knee over my riding tights. When I would leave the shiur he would bless me, “B’suros tovos yeshuos v’nechamos.”
RETURNING THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS THROUGH THE CHILDREN
One of my favorite mitzvos is separating challa. I began baking and taking challa every weekend, and I would bring fragrant challos made out of whole wheat flour with the taste of Gan Eden to my family. They loved it. They did not know that each time I made the dough I would knead it and turn it over and over while praying and crying that they too would do t’shuva.
The change in my parents began with Shabbos. I asked my mother to light Shabbos candles on time and to pray for me. She was ready to do anything I asked of her and so she began lighting Shabbos candles.
My parents then started making kiddush to make me happy. I begged them to sing Shabbos z’miros at the Shabbos table. They agreed to sing some song or another, but they were not used to this and it seemed odd to them. One of my sisters-in-law said jokingly, “What, are we in kindergarten?”
A number of weeks went by in which candles were lit, Kiddush was made, and a festive meal was served.
One Shabbos, my father suddenly remembered a childhood memory and the tune for Eishes Chayil which was sung in his parents’ home, a tune I did not know. My mother suggested that he practice it. A week later, after singing Sholom Aleichem, he cleared his throat and began quietly singing it. Then he stopped. To our amazement, he began to cry. He was so emotional that he could not continue.
He calmed down a little and said that he was overcome by emotion when he recalled those pleasant memories of his childhood when his father sang this tune to his mother. I felt enormously grateful to Hashem who had accepted my prayers. I felt it was the segula of separating challa that made a difference.
Another mitzva that is especially beloved to me is giving maaser, which I learned about in the psycho-tora-py course. The teacher told us that with this mitzva, in which a person gives tz’daka, he gives back to Hashem a small part of what he received. What is 10% compared to everything Hashem provides?
I accepted this and began tithing even though I did not consider myself religious. One day I met someone in the fitness room who heard that I tithe and she quoted the line, “Asser bishvil she’tisasher” (tithe to become rich). I did not understand and asked, “What did you say?” She said, “Are you tithing in order to become wealthy?” I said no, I tithe because Hashem said to do so in the Torah. I didn’t know it would make me rich.
My younger brother also surprised me and made me happy. Before Rosh HaShana he volunteered for a chesed organization that distributes food to needy families and seniors. When he went to the first person on the list, he opened the refrigerator and saw that it was nearly empty. The old man was very moved by the visit and the food package, and my brother was shaken up to the point of tears by his poverty. He went off to the side and took out 400 shekels from his wallet and gave it to the man. The old man was very touched and blessed my brother from the depths of his heart with good health and a good year.
When my brother told me about it he was still in shock. “Look at this note the organization gave us. Read it and see if you don’t cry.” The note said, “Dear volunteer, it’s a very big mitzva to send food for Yom Tov to destitute people, but beyond that, there are people who have not been touched in a year and did not receive a hug or a smile. They are alone in the world. If it’s not hard for you, if you can, give them some human contact.”
“I was very excited to help them,” said my brother. “You won’t believe it. People fell upon me and hugged me as they cried bitterly.”
I said to him, “You gave 400 shekels to tz’daka. What do you think about continuing to give 400 shekels every month? This way, you will be able to feel that great feeling every month. You won’t feel it in your pocket but you will be doing a big mitzva.” My brother agreed in principle but a month of vacillation went by. I begged him, “Each time you give you’ll have that feeling.”
Another month went by and I called him up. “If you decide to give, even if you didn’t give it yet, it will be considered as though you already gave it and you will be blessed.”
He finally committed to giving maaser. We spoke on Wednesday afternoon and met on Friday. “You won’t believe what happened to me,” he said excitedly. “On Thursday morning I was called to the office of the company chairman. I was told that they are raising my salary significantly. It’s unbelievable.”
I told him, “You just got a raise. Give maaser from it.” He saw what happened and drew the connection. This story strengthened the practice of giving maaser by everyone who heard it.
Another amazing thing that happened with my brother is connected with t’fillin. One day, his wife was cleaning the house and found an old tallis that had belonged to her grandfather’s grandfather, who had apparently brought it with him after the Holocaust. They showed it to me, and my brother said that in seven years, when his son would be bar mitzva, he would give it to him.
“Why wait?” I asked. “Start using it now. Now all you need are t’fillin.”
“What?! I should start putting on t’fillin,” my brother laughed.
“All you have to do is wind the straps and say Shma. It’s not complicated,” I said. “And anyway, when you are under the tallis you can give brachos to the entire family. Bless me that I should get married and that Abba should be healthy …”
I promised to get him t’fillin. He warned me though that nobody should know. “I don’t want to aggravate our parents; two of their boys have already become baalei t’shuva and they shouldn’t worry that I will join them.”
I immediately called my older brother and asked him to borrow a pair of t’fillin for someone who needed them. “I only have mivtzaim t’fillin, but they are expensive.” He finally agreed to donate them without knowing to whom.
My brother did not remember how to put them on but was unwilling to get help at the Chabad house, because they knew the family there. I went to him at eleven at night while his wife and two children were sleeping. All the windows were closed so nobody should see what he was doing. We found a guide to putting on t’fillin on the Internet and my brother began arranging the straps. Then came the t’fillin shel rosh and we got stuck because the loop was too small for his head. We could not adjust the knot. We tried pulling it this way and that and ended up opening the knot which left us with two straps.
“Let’s go to the Chabad house,” I said.
“Take my head measurement and don’t tell them it’s for me,” said my brother. But at the Chabad house the man said, “I need the person himself.”
“Well, he’s in the car and doesn’t want to come out. I brought a string with a loop that is the size of his head.” As I was telling him this, the man was on his way out the door with me trailing behind and trying to minimize the damage, but he was already at the car and he said, “Come, let’s fix the t’fillin for you.” My brother got out of the car, bent his head forward and within a minute it was set up for him.
As soon as he began putting on t’fillin he felt at peace, which made him look forward to putting on t’fillin the next morning. One day he told me, “You won’t believe me but since I started I feel that everything is going more smoothly for me, boruch Hashem, at work and at home. I feel it has to do with the t’fillin.” After a few days he began saying Shma on his own.
He shared his nervousness with me. “I’m afraid I’m becoming a baal t’shuva,” he said to me one day. I calmed him down and said he could put on t’fillin without becoming a baal t’shuva.
THE BIZARRE SHIDDUCH SUGGESTION
My sister-in-law conducted inquiries regarding shidduchim and then one day she said to me, “There is a fellow by the name of Amir whom I think you should meet.”
Three years before the shidduch, my husband, a Lubavitcher Chassid for many years, searched far and wide to find a shidduch. His mashpia did not leave a stone unturned in his efforts to help him, but nothing worked out. After many attempts he decided he needed a break, and that is when my sister-in-law spoke to him. She had to work hard to convince him that it was worthwhile meeting me. She had to convince me about the idea too, and in the end, we met. I was still at the beginning of my journey, but it was clear to me that I would end up ultra-Orthodox.
I showed up for our first meeting on my motorcycle after having exercised, without making any effort in my appearance. I was wearing my usual high tops, leather jacket, tights and skirt, and lots of little braids in my hair. I was shocked when I discovered that my date wore a black hat and suit, had a long beard, and was a total dos (derogatory for religious). Nor could I miss the look of shock on his face. Divine providence had set up the perfectly hilarious scene with perfect timing so that we were able to laugh together and the ice was broken. In the ensuing conversation that flowed naturally, I discovered a tolerant person with a smiley face and a pleasant manner.
It turned out that Amir liked my authenticity and saw something p’nimius’dik behind it. At his request, after our first meeting I went to see his mashpia who asked some questions and then said, “I think you two could make a good match.” I went out and called Amir and informed him that I had passed the test.
Our second meeting took place at my parents’ home and this time I dressed properly. Although I had prepared them, my parents were shocked when a genuine dos walked into their home. They looked at him, stunned, having still not digested the transformation I was going through, but that night we drank l’chaim. My terrific parents accepted, supported, loved and went along with me.
Before our third meeting we checked three important points with a rabbi. As far as where to live, the rabbi said that a woman needs to feel comfortable in her environment. We concluded that we would try Tzfas and if that didn’t work out, we would move wherever I wanted. As for a head covering, I preferred a kerchief and Amir said he would be happy if at least on Shabbos and when hosting that I wore a wig. The third question had to do with my motorcycle that I had a hard time parting from. Amir wasn’t opposed to it and suggested we bring it to Tzfas and park it in his private parking spot.
I was impressed that my future husband was tolerant and attentive to my needs, which it turned out were very important traits considering that I was still mixing up washing for bread and regular washing, and many other basic things that needs plenty of patience. My husband was amazing in his love and support. Since my questions were answered, we arranged to meet a third time on the Rebbetzin’s birthday, 25 Adar, and we had a vort.
It was all very quick and I wanted the wedding to be on Lag B’Omer, but my sister-in-law said I should just jump into the water and as the Rebbe says in his letters, when a couple decides to marry, it should be done as soon as possible. We got married two weeks later on 11 Nissan.
A GIFT FROM THE REBBE
The day before the wedding, my father asked me what gift I wanted. I told him that it was very important to me that he put on t’fillin on the day of my wedding. “I don’t relate to those things,” he said. “Why,” I asked. “Do you not have t’fillin?”
“I have t’fillin. Your older brother bought them for me a while ago.”
“Please,” I begged. “Once in your life. Ima has never seen you as a Jew. It is 58 years that you haven’t put on t’fillin!”
“Ima, do you want Abba to put on t’fillin?” I asked her. My mother nodded. My father caved in to the pressure and agreed, but just one time.
The next morning, on the Rebbe’s birthday, as I prepared spiritually for my wedding, my mother called up, all excited, and said, “Abba got up early in the morning, washed his hands and face, and immediately began winding the t’fillin straps, winding and crying. Then he wrapped himself in his tallis and continued to cry and I also started crying. We sat together, all emotional and in tears, and blessed the entire family.”
The day after the wedding my father called in great excitement. “The night before the wedding,” he said, “I woke up at two in the morning with an odd feeling. I sat on the bed and immediately felt the presence of another person in the room. I looked towards the door and to my astonishment, I saw the Lubavitcher Rebbe standing there, wrapped in tallis and t’fillin and staring at me! I looked at him in shock and lowered my gaze. When I looked up again, he was still standing there and looking at me. I lowered my gaze again and then looked up and the Rebbe was still standing and watching me. That happened three times. The fourth time, I looked down and when I looked up the Rebbe was no longer there. I cried.
“I opened the window to get some air and fell asleep, but the minute I woke up in the morning, I remembered what happened the night before and I began to cry. I could not believe this had really happened to me. If someone else had told me this happened to him, I would not believe it. I am trembling as I speak.”
I began to cry. My father had definitely experienced a great illumination, a personal kiruv from the Rebbe on the day of my wedding. He continued putting on t’fillin until his tragic death two years ago. My father did t’shuva in the merit of the Rebbe.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
It wasn’t easy for me to end my previous lifestyle all at once. When I looked at my husband and myself, how he was really religious and a Lubavitcher Chassid for years, and had seen the Rebbe in 5749, and I was so not, and how he had accepted this raw material which was me, I was overwhelmed. But Hashem helped everything flow relatively smoothly. Today, my husband says I am more religious than him!
Two days after the wedding, we went shopping in Tzfas. Amir held the bag with money from our wedding and I chose dozens of blouses, skirts and dresses, and got rid of all my old clothing. Every single detail in my life changed. Even my name changed and reverted back to the name I had been given at birth, Tamar Hana.
I still wanted my motorcycle in Tzfas. In a conversation with a mashpia, he suggested that I try driving a car exclusively for three months and then we could talk again. I wanted to make my husband happy so I agreed. Three months later I understood on my own that it was not appropriate for a religious person like me to ride a motorcycle and I gave up that idea. I greatly admired Amir who was attentive to my needs and wants, and who waited patiently until I understood this on my own.
One morning, I looked in the mirror and did not recognize myself. There was a woman who radiated Jewish chein, modesty and refinement. I felt as though I was watching a movie about someone who had turned into a princess.
It was important to me to fill in what I had missed over the years and to do all the mitzvos I could, especially those specific to Jewish women.
It was when my younger brother started putting on t’fillin that I got married. My father, as related earlier, also began putting on t’fillin here and there, though not regularly. One day, he met a Lubavitcher acquaintance and told him that he had seen the Rebbe. “What are you doing about it?” asked the Lubavitcher. “Do you put on t’fillin? The Rebbe came to you with t’fillin.”
“Yes, once every week or two,” said my father. “The truth is that it is hard for me to do it regularly.”
The Lubavitcher had a wonderful idea. “Then commit to doing it once a week, Friday morning. The main thing is the consistency.” My father accepted this idea and eventually put on t’fillin daily.
A year went by and my father and brother were putting t’fillin on secretly with neither knowing about the other. I was the only one who knew their secret. When my brother’s wife gave birth to a daughter, my husband said she needed to be named in shul. That is how it happened that my brother and father both went to shul for an aliya. My brother privately put on t’fillin in one corner while my father hid in another corner. When they took off the straps, they suddenly discovered one another and couldn’t believe their eyes.
That’s the story. Hashem did miracles for me, and sometimes I am still amazed when I remember all the changes I went through and the upheavals in my life.
A year after we married I wrote to the Rebbe with a request for a bracha for children. The Rebbe’s answer was about being particular in family purity and to teach Chassidus. I decided to review the halachos but to teach? I was still learning!
But in every letter that I opened to, I read specific instructions and encouragement in that direction. No matter what excuses I gave, he countered them all. “He is suitable and has the abilities for this, and a pity over the time and discussions about this, and you should find the ways to spread the wellsprings … He has the ability to accomplish great things in the realm of proper chinuch … You were given the requisite abilities … You asked about what to get involved with – obviously, if Hashem granted you the talent for chinuch and influence, you should be using this gift … Your material parnasa should be from this …”
The Rebbe blessed me and despite my misgivings I accepted an offer to teach. I began giving a regular class on the D’var Malchus sichos of 5751-5752. I couldn’t believe that as a beginner with one year behind me that the Rebbe was urging me to do this, and at a later point answered me that this is my mission; that every person has a gate through which all his mitzvos go and from where all the blessings come, and this is my gate.
Slowly, other groups of girls and women came together, until I was doing four shiurim a week in Tzfas and the area, and another shiur once every two weeks in the center of the country. Because of the sichos, I began understanding a little bit of what the Rebbe is. The sichos are what connected me to him and I think this is also what he had in mind in telling me to do this. In wake of the shiurim, I have become a mashpia to women of all age and types; mekuravos, Sefardiyot and Lubavitchers, just as the Rebbe wrote in the letter that I have the ability to influence others and I need to use this ability for proper chinuch.
Living in Tzfas is different than living in the hustle and bustle of the center of the country. It was only after three years of living here that I really got to like it. We are married 4.5 years and still don’t have children. On the one hand, we know that Hashem is compassionate and we are sure that this is best for us. On the other hand, we continue to pray for children without feeling that this is contradictory.
Tamar gives classes in Chassidus, does therapy and teaches according to the psycho-tora-py system in Tzfas and the center of the country. She hopes that we merit the immediate hisgalus of the Rebbe MH”M.