Debby Flancbaum, whose book "The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time" (Urim Publications, ‘007) will be out in time for Passover, can still picture the pivotal moment when the idea for her project took hold. It was 1999, and Flancbaum was becoming angrier and angrier as she observed her daughter, then 15, laughing at an episode of "The Nanny" on television. (The title character was portrayed as a gold-digging Jewish employee of a widowed WASP millionaire clearly smitten by her Yiddishisms.)
"I thought, ‘What message is she getting from this?’" recalled Flancbaum, a Teaneck resident who lived in Albany at the time. "I had never written before in my life, but just decided to write about real Jewish women. I decided to start with my own grandmother because it was something I knew about." Flancbaum submitted her essay to Olam Magazine, a supplement to The New York Times, which, to her surprise and delight, published it.
"I was flying high, and that inspired me to continue with the project," she said of the volume of essays about contemporary Jewish women engaged in extraordinary acts of kindness. Some of the 3′ women featured will be familiar to the average reader; others are obscure, their impact restricted to their own communities.
Flancbaum knew she wanted to create a book that was authentically Jewish, as opposed to a book about women who do good deeds who just happen to be Jewish. That’s when she got the idea of organizing it around the theme of mitzvot.
She selected 10 mitzvot, which introduce each of the book’s 10 chapters, and then searched for women who were fulfilling them. Also, nervous about flying, without much experience traveling solo, and with a limited budget, Flancbaum chose to interview people from cities she could easily reach.
She quickly was swamped with potential subjects. "The more I did, the more I wanted to do," she said. "One woman would lead me to another." Not only was Flancbaum blown away by their stories, she was touched by their warmth and generosity. "People were incredibly gracious to me. They’d offer to have me sleep at their house, feed me, pick me up, and drive me back to the airport." At a hotel in Nashville, she was greeted by a whole goody bag of food; in Pittsburgh, a Lubavitch woman treated her to lunch at a kosher deli without knowing if the book would ever be published. "It made me want to move forward. Each time I would hear a story, I felt such a responsibility to pass it along."
Among the local women whose tales Flancman relates is Linda Storfer of Teaneck. Watching television one night, Storfer caught a show about Romanian orphanages. She told Flancman that afterward, she turned to her husband and said, "We’ve got to go get one of those children." Undaunted by the bureaucratic maze, the couple eventually adopted a little boy, David, who has graduated from the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford and now attends Teaneck High School. Storfer, said Flancman, feels grateful not only to have saved one child, but also to "have had the privilege of raising him as a Jew."
Another, Jenny Kaplan, has been profiled posthumously, after Flancbaum was overwhelmed by what she learned of the young woman’s persistence in raising funds to build Young Israel of Teaneck as she fought a losing battle against Hodgkin’s disease.
Many of her interview subjects, she noted, had overcome terrible adversity. "They have such incredible strength," she observed. Rabbi Rena Kieval, whom Flancbaum has known for years, is emblematic. The mother of a multiply-handicapped child who died suddenly at the age of 10, Kieval at first retreated into her grief. But she emerged stronger and transformed, as Flancbaum chronicled.
Kieval turned her devastating loss into a project, Yad Yonaton (meaning hand of Jonathan), named for her son. She organizes volunteers to provide material and emotional support to the bereaved and those battling illness in her synagogue community. They cook, set up the shiva house, remain in the house during a funeral, sit with a body overnight or prepare a body for burial in short, take care of all the tasks associated with mourning. "She just took what was the most nightmarish experience a person could have and changed it into something that honored her son’s life and memory. Most people would want to put their head in an oven," said Flancbaum.
Flancbaum was also gratified to discover that each woman, regardless of her level of religious observance, consciously tied her endeavor to a Jewish source. In deliberately selecting women from diverse religious backgrounds, Flancbaum intended to highlight the fact that observance is not a defining characteristic when it comes to acts of chesed and sense of Jewish connection. "I wanted to dispel myths and stereotypes," she explained.