March 13, 2018
Beis Moshiach in #1110, Profile

She thought she wouldn’t have any children but ended up having 17. Her father was disabled but she didn’t know it. She grew up during a period of austerity and felt no lack. She enjoys the unity of her children but sees jealousy as having a positive effect. Meet Rebbetzin Chaya Cohen and take a peek into her world in the Chabad community of Beitar Ilit, as presented by her granddaughter

By Mushka Cohen

Her husband dancing with his sons at the wedding of one of his daughtersAN ORANGE AND A PEAR

It was an ordinary day in Hungary, after the war. A little head bent over the handful of beans in intense concentration. She placed each sprout individually and made a long row. “We are going to Eretz Yisroel and will travel on a train,” she happily announced to the children, as she pointed at her make-believe train. The other children stared and were jealous. The Klein family packed their few belongings and went to the train station.

At the station it was busy with people going in and out. Ear-splitting whistles announced another train arriving at the station or leaving. The soft sound of a woman sobbing could be heard in the silence. Chaya turned around. The sight she beheld broke her heart and remained with her forever. Her father’s sister, who came to say goodbye, cried for a long time. The pained cries rose above the noise of the crowds and the effect could be felt in the entire station.

Chaya, her parents and her four brothers boarded the train. The baby, Miriam, was a few months old. Mr. Klein, with his golden hands, had made a bassinet with the help of a wicker basket and a rope which he tied so it should remain horizontal on the train, where he gently laid the baby. Miriam rocked above and made pleased gurgling sounds.

When the train reached Italy, the children were eager to get off. Chaya remembers the people speaking a foreign language. The sights were different than in Hungary. Chaim Yaakov, her father, went with them to spend the long waiting time in the Italian marketplace, until it was time to board the ship. The Kleins strolled about among the colorful stands and looked curiously about them. They noticed a most interesting fruit which Chaya had never seen before. Orange in color, round and smooth, with a frothy juice. It was an orange.

Naftali was Chaya’s friend on the trip. He was born a year and a half before her, at the end of the war. They played together on the train, strolled in the Italian market, and ran around on the ship’s deck until it lay anchor in the port of Haifa. There, the Klein family disembarked and were given a shack the size of a room for their large family, at the “Aliya center.” The Klein family, originally Kaliver Chassidim, who became followers of Klausenberg when they arrived in Eretz Yisroel, moved to Yerushalayim to the “Deir Yassin” neighborhood, also called Givat Shaul Beis and later Har Nof. This neighborhood was captured by Etzel and Lechi during the War of Independence and its abandoned houses served as housing for new immigrants. The Arabs who fled for their lives left behind homes full of goodies and many fruit trees.

Nature was an inseparable part of the lives of the children of Deir Yassin. The children picked from the groves and brought fruits directly from the trees or rolled on the green grass. It was commonplace to see Chaya Klein with a group of girls for whom she had arranged exciting outings on the hill and among the abandoned homes. The Kleins took s’chach for their sukka from the groves, giving their sukka an intoxicating scent of greenery.

One day, as the jolly group of girls explored one of the terraces extending from the hill and built a “camp,” they heard a joyful shout, “What did I find?” The children examined the metallic pear which reflected the light of the sun. “Watch out! It could be dangerous,” said a frightened voice. The guard, who hurried over, called the police. It was actually a live grenade left over from the war. Miraculously, it did not explode upon contact.


Chaya grew up. The family moved to a small apartment in an attic. At the age of 17, she began to be plagued with fearful thoughts that she wouldn’t have children. She already planned, in her imagination, how she would tell this to a bachur whom her parents would suggest as a shidduch, so he wouldn’t be misled.

Twelve months passed and when she was 18, she became engaged to a Lubavitcher bachur. She did not say anything to him, for she had forgotten her imagined worries. Years later, she would become known mainly for the fact that she and her husband, rav of the Chabad community in Beitar Ilit, had 17 children, and more than 150 grandchildren.

Were you surprised that you had so many children?

When we were still engaged, they read the sidra about the daughters of Tz’lafchad, “to these shall the land be divided” (Shmos 26:53 – in Hebrew la’eileh teichaleik ha’aretz). My husband-to-be said that it could be read as an acrostic, “To Asher Lemel HaKohen will be Chaya of the house of Klein, a woman of many descendants.” We have a picture of all the children that my oldest daughter gave us as an anniversary gift, and she wrote, “to these shall the land be divided.”

Why did you do a shidduch with a Lubavitcher bachur?

“My husband was the ilui of the yeshiva. His friend convinced him and said, ‘You won’t regret it.’”

And so it was. The she asks me, “What do you say, was our shidduch successful? …”

I respond with, “Halevai for me.”

For this interview, I met with Savta Cohen in her home. She is already advanced in years and in the background could be heard the sounds of grandchildren, my cousins. Every few minutes I noticed another grandchild joining the audience. It was special to see how my grandmother listened carefully to each question a grandchild asked her, as well as to my questions, being her granddaughter. Effortlessly, she reached into the distant past with her stories and transported me to a distant world in time and place, from which she came.


Yaakov Klein, a 15-year-old from Kaliv in Hungary was energetic. One afternoon, he rode his bike, giving a lift to some friends on their way to Mincha. On the way, they hit a stone and they all fell off. Almost all of them emerged with light scratches. Almost, since Yaakov was severely injured and fell into a coma. His life was in danger. With the blessing of their Rebbe, the Kaliver Rebbe, they added the name “Chaim.” Chaim Yaakov woke up but remained paralyzed on the right side of his body for the rest of his life. He became the father of Chaya Cohen and an outstanding teacher.

What was it like to grow up with a handicapped father?

“I didn’t know he was handicapped. I wasn’t embarrassed by it and didn’t think about it at all because we had such a nice life, even if we didn’t have much to eat. My mother would take margarine, smear it on bread, sprinkle a little sugar, and tell us stories. We didn’t feel we lacked anything. We never saw an apple. Then, one time, we had an apple which we cut so everyone could have a piece. We didn’t feel like we were nebachs.”


How did you handle the challenge of raising 17 children?

“17 children are fun to raise; one child is much harder to raise,” she declares. “Two and three also, even four and five are hard. But each time, it became easier. I was invited to talk about it. Most of the audience consisted of miskarvos who were not religious yet, who had a child or two. They asked me the same question you asked. I told them, ‘When you have one child, it’s like a candle, you give him love and warmth, but like a candle. When you have two, the warmth is greater. Three and four, the warmth is even greater so that it’s like the warmth of the sun. If there is cake, there are two who have to share it, each one getting half. But if there are ten, each one gets only a tenth and maybe this is harder, but when you give love, it doesn’t work that way. When you light a light, you can put 100 people in a room and all will receive it. The question is only what happens to the light. Will the light become more powerful? Each child gets more if the mother has more children. It’s warmer and of greater quality. Every child gets more!’”

Now I understand where her excitement comes from every time a new grandchild is born. Yes, even when her 150th grandchild was born.

“One time, I took my four-year-old to the Rebbe. Whenever we went, we took one of the children and it was his turn. He really missed his siblings. I thought he would enjoy more attention from me, but a child needs friends, his siblings. He doesn’t need to be with his mother all the time. People think that if there are fewer children, the mother can be with them more. Who needs parents with them all the time? They’re not his social group. Parents need to provide a child with what he needs, sit with him for some amount of time, and that’s it. He needs friends. He doesn’t need his mother to sit next to him constantly. It makes him nervous. People think that raising 17 children means dealing with them all at once. It doesn’t work like that. When there are 17 children, then the older ones help.”

She can prove it. She had a well-visit with a two-week old baby, a year and two-month-old girl, and a three-year-old son. At the end of the visit, she dressed the baby and the three-year-old took his coat and put it on. The doctor was mesmerized. He watched as the child put on one sleeve and then the other. The child finished and took his sister’s coat and put it on her. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said in amazement. “I dress my eight-year-old from top to bottom.”

Nonetheless, her children also got the attention they needed. Every week, on Shabbos, after candle-lighting, she would take one child down to the garden near her house for quality time with mommy. She listened, talked and played. Every child who wanted to talk about something privately with mommy, or just be with her without a noisy crowd in the background, made an appointment. Rebbetzin Cohen said this was her favorite time.

What gives you strength?

“The children,” she said, unhesitatingly. “Every child gave me more strength. Every child is more joy. There are people who grow things and when a leaf appears, they rejoice. A child is far greater than that, no?”


Raising children of many ages isn’t easy. You were a grandmother while you still had little ones of your own. Was that a conflict?

“The youngest was jealous of the grandchildren when they came. He always asked when they were leaving. You overcome this too. He had it good. He had his time with me. There is always jealousy. When another child was born, the older one was jealous of the newcomer. Jealousy is a trait that can help develop many inner strengths, because when a person is jealous, he has to deal with it, and the more he deals with it, the more he develops strengths he didn’t know he had. It’s like immunization.

“If you provide everything, he doesn’t have to make the effort, but if he’s jealous, it develops his ability to resist certain things, and that develops him spiritually and emotionally.”

What is your nachas?

“I enjoy seeing the children living together.”

How do you get such an extended family to be united?

“I think by personal example. If the parents raise the children in a way that they feel they are together, if they live well and there are no fights. There can be disagreements between parents, but not in front of the children. In this way, the children naturally support one another. In the end, the family is united if the parents themselves are united,” she concludes.


In addition to being the mother of 17 children, and yes, this number is incredible, she found time to develop her personality, her femininity, her priorities, and has time left over for hobbies.

What things do you do for yourself?

“I love to teach, teach, teach. Reading, math, Gemara, whatever the child needs. I don’t know Gemara but the child explains to me what he learned and that way, he understands the material better.”

As her granddaughter, she taught me how to read. I still remember how I read in a big T’hillim with a maroon binding and gold letters. Its special scent still wafts in my nostrils.

“My father developed a method to learn reading and I use it to help my students and grandchildren. This method keeps me very busy. It makes me happy that my children also teach it.”

I would call this kria method her life’s work. On the wall in the foyer of her house is a large placard with the alef-beis and every child who learns to read waits for learning time with Savta. And she is still working in the field. Aside from the grandchildren, she teaches students on a volunteer basis in the schools that her children run.


Engraved in my memory is the typical scene I would see when I would go to my grandmother in my childhood. My grandmother’s mother, Dina, was paralyzed at the end of her life. She sat in a wheelchair in the living room. Whenever she called, my grandmother went to her instantly. I remember how she took care of her devotedly, spoke to her, and helped her pass the time pleasantly.

How did you take care of your mother in addition to the tremendous amount of housework? What did your children think about it?

“There was a time when she had an aide. There was also a time when I left work to take care of her. I did everything. I bathed her, dressed her, everything. Even when she was hospitalized I did it and did not let the nurses care for her. It was my pleasure. The children saw this and regarded her like a queen.”

The phrase “personal example,” is a key phrase in the lexicon of Rebbetzin Chaya Cohen. Accepting challenges, handling difficulties, unity and respect between parents, are only part of the impact parents have on children, using that powerful tool of personal example. I looked at her little grandchildren who listened to her along with me and I could see in them a reflection of my own feelings of admiration and determination to successfully raise a large family.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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