Woman of Few Words Book Review: Remembering Rabbi Pinky Bak, z'l

By BJLIfe/Sharon Altshul
Posted on 09/23/20

Jerusalem, Israel - Sept. 23, 2020 - “One person can make a difference and everyone should try” has receved tens of thousands of searches. Most often this quote is attributed to John F Kennedy or his brother Robert, the source, however, is uncertain. 

What is certain is that Rabbi Pinchos Zelig Bak, z"l, in his short life made a difference. In 1977, the son of Muriel and Rabbi Benjamin Bak z"l, founding rabbi of Baltimore's Shomrei Emunah, was 33 years old when during the dancing on Purim, he fell and died almost instantly from a brain aneurism. 

At the time of his sudden death, "Pinky" as he was fondly called, had just come back from Israel, traveled to visit his parents in Baltimore, and returned to New York City where he had started and led the new Ohr Torah yeshiva high school. 

However, prior to coming to NYC, from 1968-1974, Pinky Bak z"l was the principal of Vancouver Talmud Torah Jewish day school. With the support of Rabbi Marvin Hier in the local Schara Tzedeck Synagogue, a generation of future Jewish leaders became shomrei mitzvot under Bak's tutelage. When we moved to Vancouver in 1979, the Bak family portrait watched over us in the school library.

The Belzberg family was one influenced by Pinky Bak z"l. In her book, "Woman of few Words: My Creative Journey with Dystonia," Cheri Belzberg Tannenbaum begins her story with her childhood in Edmonton, Canada and the family's move to Vancouver, British Columbia where she became a reblious teenager. 

Knowing so many of the people in her life story, her friends and teachers, it was hard not to relate to the book. I have some of the same friends and similar memories. I also had the young Rabbi Avi Weiss for a Chumash teacher at Stern College. 

Cheri writes in her prologue, "The fact that I have a disability doesn't mean that I don't have anything to give. I need the world to look beyond my disability and help me show my abilities."  

At Cheri's Israeli book launch a year ago at the OU Israel Center, longtime friends from LA and Israel joined her family to fill the main room and express appreciation for her newest accomplishment. 

I first met Cheri years ago at a women's professional meeting where she was looking for someone to sell her amazing and unique creations made from men's ties. She stood and spoke slowly as she introduced herself. Cheri has a debilating disease called dystonia musculorium deformans. While each person is affected differently, Cheri has difficulty walking and for forty years was unable to speak.

She asks, "How would you like to be unable to speak intelligibly? How would you enjoy having an awkward gait that makes you prone to falling and causes people to stare as you shuffle by? Living with dystonia is not something I would have chosen for myself. To tell the truth, what I really long for is normalcy. Better yet, I d like to go away somewhere and not take myself with me! 

Wherever I go, people are always telling me that I am an inspiration. This makes me feel like a total fraud, because to my mind I am just doing what I have to do--to drag myself out of bed every morning and face another day of humiliation and challenges. 

But then again, I could have made the choice to just stay in bed and pull the covers over my head and never get up, so I suppose the fact that I do get up day after day could be seen as a source of inspiration."  

Over the years, besides her sewing creations, Cheri obtained graduate degrees, learned shatnes testing, and was a mikvah attendant. With her husband Harvey Tennenbaum, they have three accomplished children and several grandchildren.

Cheri's hope is that this book heartens those who have been tested by G-d through a disability. She fervently believes and has shown, with faith, courage, and fortitude, you can live a fulfilling life full of happiness, blessings, and contentment. Chapter 10 begins, "Patience, I have most certainly learned patience."

A mutual friend mentioned in the book wrote, "Cheri is totally amazing, in all of the decades that she and I have been in touch, I didn’t realize the full scope of all of her challenges until reading her book. She never complained!!!  Even if it was clear that something was paining her, she would find a humorous way to mention it in passing, so as not to draw attention to it, and not to elicit pity from anyone." 

The appendix includes letters from family and friends, information on Dystonia and the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (started by the Belzberg family), and inspirational quotes which I plan to reread on Yom Kippur.

Cheri Tannenbaum is striving to making a difference.