A friend of mine who teaches Jewish studies, knowing my interest in hasidic spirituality, recommended Sara Rigler's Holy Woman to me. It's a fascinating portrait not only of the tzaddikah to whom the title refers, Chaya Sara Kramer, but also of her husband, Yaakov Moshe Kramer, whom many believe to have been one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim, one of the 36 undivulged holy men whose merit sustains the world.
Chaya Sara, born in Carpathia, survived Auschwitz (alone of her family) and migrated to Israel in 1946. There she met and married Yaakov Moshe and settled in a small farming community. Their lives were devoted to acts of devotion and chesed (loving-kindness, the chief characteristic of God). Living in voluntary poverty (which shocked many of their visitors), they gave unstintingly of money and time. Having no children of their own, they opened their home to a number of severely mentally and handicapped children, raising them with love and dedication. (In reading Rigler's account of their devotion to children that the world rejects, one's reminded of Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities.) Worried about diminished opportunity for children of once-hasidic families to benefit from an orthodox education, Yaakov Moshe dedicated years of his life to raising tuition money for indigent Jewish kids. In all these acts of charity, Yaakov Moshe tried to encourage "mutual givers": getting together people who could give financial help with needy people who could give prayers and blessings in turn.
One of the most fascinating points in the book is the story of Avramele, the retarded lad that the Kramer's raised from a toddler, and who was still living with Chaya Sara at her death. Chaya Sara and Yaakov Moshe considered Avramele a tzaddik in his own right, even though he had the intellect of a 5 year old. (In the Christian tradition, Avramele might be called a "holy fool.") For them, caring for Avramele was not only a loving joy. It was also an honor.
Rigler's writing is fresh and engaging. She makes me very much wish I could've met Chaya Sara and Yaakov Moshe, and that I could've received their blessing. In only one way is the book a bit flawed. Rigler violates her own principle, stated early on, that saints are exemplary: merely observing their behavior is a spiritual tonic for the rest of us. Instead of letting her wonderful stories about the Kramers speak for themselves and letting us observe them through her descriptions, however, she breaks the narrative flow with "signpost" interruptions in which she offers spiritual reflections. In all honesty, I began to find the signposts intrusive, and stopped reading them after awhile. Aside from this, though, the book is highly recommended.