Imagine six seminary girls in Gateshead of the 1950s. It is the night of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and they want to celebrate. Off they go to the recently opened kosher café in Newcastle for a cup of coffee, feeling very posh…only to discover, upon arriving, that they don’t have enough money for a piece of cake to accompany the coffee.
Modestly, humorously, Rebbetzin Esther Leah Avner regales us with tale after tale from her extraordinary life. Again and again, she surprises us with the strength of her personality and her unshakeable bitachon in Hashem, which shine through in the stories that fill her recently published book, Learn, Live, Teach: The Story of a Life (Brand Name Publishing, 2011).
But the story doesn’t start in England. Rebbetzin Avner was born in Belfast, Ireland, where her family was among the few Shabbos-observant Jews in town. She describes in vivid detail her personal introduction to anti-Semitism on the first day of public school as a lone 5-year-old Jewish girl in a class full of Irish Catholics, and the terrifying blitzkrieg period of World War II. She shares stories of her father’s earnest desire to bring Torah to the Jews in town, and of her gentle mother, the soul of honesty, who sought to protect her children from all harm, even at the expense of her own health.
Through a strange yet miraculous series of hashgachah pratis events that occurred when Esther Leah, at age 19, prepared to go to college, she found herself dispatched instead to the newly founded Gateshead Seminary, under the auspices of Mr. Avrohom Kohn.
Several years later, she married a Navardoker talmid learning in France. She didn’t discover, until after their wedding, that he spoke a fine English. Rabbi Gershon Liebman, their rosh yeshivah, had established the yeshivah immediately after the war, intent on educating young Jews in the Navardok style of minimal gashmiyus and complete bitachon. Esther Leah Avner immediately began to teach in the newly established seminary in Fublaines, putting her years in Gateshead to good use.
In one page-turning chapter after another, Esther Leah Avner faithfully records her adventures as the wife of a Navardoker traveling the world on behalf of the yeshivah. “Once I was accused of being a spy,” she announces with aplomb, and “I own only one precious photo of my chasan and myself, and it was a miracle that I procured even that one.”
Later in life, when Esther Leah meets Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, she feels an immediate affinity for this dignified, American-born rav, and she becomes an integral part of his community—an entire story on its own.
Rather than simply chronicling the past for posterity, Esther Leah Avner brings to life the people she’s known and the places she’s visited in a delightful, upbeat fashion. She retains her sense of humor despite many a difficult challenge and reveals facets to her personality that will resonate with her readers.
Learn, Live, Teach is a work that promises to inspire and uplift, educate and illuminate, just like its gifted author. It is a treat not frequently encountered in the library of Torah literature.
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