We’re here today to mourn the passing but also to honor the life of Ayala Dvoretzky, beloved wife, mother, sister, teacher, and cherished friend. With the constant, daily, selfless love and devotion of her husband Israel, and the loyalty of her beloved son Shay and his wife Jamie and Ayala’s cherished granddaughter Maya, and the amazing visits of her sister Leah from Israel, somehow, Ayala lived eight months to the day in the hospital, fighting and fighting for her very life. In the end, even all of the best efforts of her family and the medical staff of the hospital could not save her. She knew before anyone else that it was her time, and she let finally let go. But what an inspired fight she fought! And what superhuman strength she mustered to keep living all that time. And Israel was there by her side, every single day, her angel, her white knight who fought for the treatment that would keep her going. And during that time, she saw Shay and Leah and her family and friends countless times, and they helped to sustain her. Israel talks about how as a parallel to the miracle of the 8 days of Chanukah that he prayed for, he and Ayala were given the last exact 8 months together.
Today, we have to try to close that last chapter of her life and think back before these terrible months to the wonderful life she lived. I want to focus on her loving and meaningful life.
She was born on Sept 27, 1945, in Russia, in Siberia, in a town called Chalabinsk. Her parents left Russia in 1949 and brought her to the land of Israel when she was 4. She grew up in Tel Aviv, where her beloved younger sister Leah was born.. Her name at that time was not Ayala; it was Alta. Alta means “old” in Yiddish. She didn’t like that name very much. One day, when she was a young child in school, her teacher told her mother all about all the good things that “Ayala” was doing. Her mother said, “That’s wonderful, but who’s Ayala?” Ayala had decided on a new name for herself, and it stuck.
She went to Hebrew University in Tel Aviv. After she finished school, she enlisted in the Israeli army for her mandatory service. She wanted a desk job. The Army had other ideas. She took an aptitude test. When she was told the result—that she would become a drill sergeant—she said, “the hell I will!” and stormed out of the room. That reaction only sealed her fate as a drill sergeant.
After the army, she earned her master’s degree in social work, and became a practicing social worker. She was the head of social work service in the largest psychiatric hospital in Bat Yam.
Israel met her and asked for her phone number, and it was 416 – 208. He wouldn’t have remembered except 208 is exactly half of 416. We thank G-d for math because without that equation everyone’s life would have been different. Their marriage has been a marriage of interdependence and love.
When Ayala and Israel and Shay moved to the United States, she taught Hebrew at a local synagogue and eventually became a Teaching assistant at Yale College, rising to become a teacher of Hebrew and literature who prepared students for graduate work and master’s degrees. That became her career for over 30 years. She loved Hebrew, and Israel, and teaching, and students. When she started teaching in 1985, she set about transforming and expanding the Hebrew program. She taught from popular Israeli songs: She listened to them on a shortwave radio from Israel, made tapes with the songs, transcribed the lyrics to compile into a booklet, and taught students from those materials. Eventually she got funding for better technology. But she was always innovating and looking for more interesting ways to teach. Her students loved her for that, and even more, for the care she showed them. Countless students credited her with easing their transition to college. As one of them wrote to Shay over the weekend, “Your mom was a tour de force who left an incredible impact on all of us who were blessed to have known her. I will never forget her warmth and devotion, and am eternally indebted to all of her love and care.” In an article in the Yale Daily News last year, another student said that “[w]hile we would joke that she was our collective savta, she really does feel like that wise relative who’s looking out for you and just wants the best for you.”
I know from various sources what she meant to her students. But I also know how deep her knowledge was of Hebrew literature. When she spoke about an Israeli poet, or a story, you could feel the love and appreciation she had, which is part of what made her a great teacher, because she transmitted both the content and the form so well. She was never as articulate as when she was evaluating literature. In my own discussions with her, she could always relate a passage in the Bible to the interpretation of a modern writer or poet.
We mourn today with her mother Yocheved in Israel and her sister Leah and her husband Izzie and son Ittai. Ayala and Leah were the best sisters in the world. They never had an argument. And the way Leah has been going back and forth from Israel has been a demonstration of her love.
Ayala retired to take care of Israel and successfully brought him back to health. She always cared more about Israel than about herself. And in turn Israel has spent every minute and every day taking care of her. She called him her “angel.” I visit hospitals just about every day, and I have never seen a stronger or smarter or more forceful advocate and supporter of a patient. If Ayala has lived these eight months, it is because of him. As their friends Myrna and Kenny wrote, “Ayala and Israel have had the great blessing of having the perfect mate. They both felt it and they both knew it.” It’s very true: Ayala and Israel were truly wonderful spouses and partners
And Shay, what can we possibly say about Ayala and her beloved son Shay? Ayala devoted herself to nurturing and caring and guiding Shay. Shay was clearly very special, even as a small child, and Ayala made it her greatest purpose to give him every opportunity to achieve his destiny and his dreams. She was the best mom Shay could have asked for. She was always there for him. She cared about his well being more than he did. When he told her about something that had gone well in his professional life, she would always be excited, but sometimes she’d also add, “And why do you need to do all this?” She wanted him to have an easier life, to stop and smell the roses. Quite literally—she would make him stop and smell, or at least acknowledge, flowers, which is not really something Shay is focused on.
When Shay married Jamie, that was one of the happiest days of Ayala’s life. I remember her that day. She looked like a queen. As a couple of Shay’s friends said, “she was so happy and full of joy, she was practically glowing and levitating.” We thank Jamie for her support during this trying time.
All of this prepared her for the wonderful role of savta, a grandmother. Nothing made her as happy in what turned about to be her last years as Maya. Seeing Maya, talking to Maya, hearing stories about various things that Maya said (especially when they involved outsmarting Shay, who is not exactly an intellectual slouch), collecting Maya’s artwork (which was plastered over every inch of wall space in her hospital room). Shay would tell his mother a story or send a picture, and she would respond: “Can she be any more amazing? So beautiful! This kid is so sweet and loving! This kid is a genius. I can’t stop looking at the pictures. I so wish I could make some latkes for her this year.” One of the last few things Shay can remember her saying clearly last week when she was in the ICU, with an oxygen mask on her face, was, “Wow, what a girl,” after he showed her a picture of Maya ice skating. And every nurse who took care of her knew everything about Maya. She loved Maya more than anything. You should know that every smart or adorable thing that Maya has ever said has been reported and reported again up in Connecticut. But perhaps the most profound thing Maya has said is that none of what has happened is fair, and she is exactly right. What has happened to her grandmother is absolutely unfair. She was a righteous woman who should have lived until she was 120.
So that’s just a little of what we are thinking and feeling today about Ayala Dvoretzky, honored teacher, loyal daughter, close sister, devoted wife, loving mother, doting grandmother, and cherished friend. Our hearts go out to Israel and Shay and Leah and all of her family and friends. It is going to be very hard to live without her. May she rest in peace. Let us say Amen.