By: Elliot Heller | Features  | 

Remembering Haya Gordin: War Hero, Devoted Librarian, Quintessential Bubbe

I can still hear her voice now. The 88-year old woman greets us with the smile and energy of a young woman as we walk into my rabbi’s apartment for Shabbos lunch. “Shabbat Shalom!” she says in her thick Israeli accent.

“My name is Haya. I live in the building across the street. I worked in the Yeshiva University sifriyah (library) for 35 years. Washington Heights is the best neighborhood in all of New York!”

A small crowd forms around her, newcomers and regulars alike, enamored by this sweet and energetic old woman who reminds us all of our own bubbes.

We sit at the table and begin the meal. When it’s time for introductions (or sometimes even earlier, for those lucky enough to be sitting near her), she tells her best story — the best story of anyone present — with that same excitement. “I served in Etzel when I was a teenager. I lived in Palestine. I fought in Milchamat Hakamat HaMedinah (the Israeli War of Independence). I was 16-years-old, and I would deliver jars of jam to the Israeli soldiers in keleh Akko” (Acre prison).

“On top of the jam,” she continues, was “homer nefetz. How do you say in English?” “Dynamite,” the rabbi answers.

“Yes, dynamite. And I would bring these packages every day. And then one day, boom! they blew up the prison and all the Israeli prisoners escaped.” (My rabbi would often point out that by her own admission, we had a “Palestinian terrorist” with us at the Shabbos table.)

In her old age, Haya wasn’t great with names and faces, and so I and several others had the privilege of “meeting” her — and hearing the story — several times. It never got old.

The meal continues. If someone mentions Tu BiShvat, we are treated to — no, led in — a chorus of “HaShkeidiah Porachat.” It was one of several Israeli favorites of hers which she would conduct. Her favorite song, though, was “Chanaleh,” an ode to my rabbi’s daughter featuring just the single lyric and a la la la la la, sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

Haya passed away this past December. None of us knew it, but she had been battling cancer for a couple of years. Her ability to stay positive and maintain that same youthful energy is now even more inspiring.

At the memorial service for her, held in Rubin Shul, I learned much more about her inspiring journey. I learned how, after making aliyah from Poland at the age of three, she always considered Israel her home, even after moving to America for her marriage and making her life here. I learned of her passion and devotion to her job as a librarian.

“There was no such thing as ‘tomorrow,’ for Haya,” Rabbi Baruch Simon related. “It didn’t matter if it was 12:00 midnight and you needed a book — she would go to the basement right then and find it for you.”

Here in YU, there are many reasons to complain. I was no stranger to them. Now a fresh graduate, as I reflect on the things I disliked and what I did — and could have done better — to improve them. I encourage you to continue complaining, both in the form of “Quality Memes” and actual efforts to effect change. But when things don’t go your way, I hope that people like Haya can inspire you to find the positive in the situation. If you can keep a fraction of the positivity that Haya displayed despite enduring the most difficult of circumstances, then your experience here will be better off. And the world will be just a little brighter.


Haya (center), sporting a Trump wig on Purim.