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Sara Berkal

Harriet Berkal: The Rebbetzin Wore Pants to Shule on Saturday

by Harriet Berkal Nov 6, 2022

Shockingly true - that was my mom Sara Berkal a pioneer of sorts, confronting norms. 
Her logic was solid. We live in “Winterpeg” and it’s damn cold here in the Manitoba.  There was no way she was going to keep on wearing skirts or dresses with mere pantyhose, freezing her legs off. So, she set a trend and others followed.
Next up was her regular hair appointment on Friday afternoon. She was a “wash and set” gal and once again, there was no way she was going to cover her perfectly coiffed hairstyle only to have it deflate under a hat. I don’t remember her owning any hats. 
I always knew where to find my mom every Shabbat service. She sat at the end of pew 13 section C and not anywhere near the front beemah. At her funeral in March of 2009, we left that seat open to honour her. We played my dad’s “My Yiddishe Mama “ leaving many in tears. 
She was unassuming and humble and not into fanfare. 
But was she a trendsetter in her small acts of courage with no fanfare. In time she even gave her guarded gifilte fish recipe over to the shule chef. She had a secret to making her fish. It was a bone on contention between us as the entire house stunk on fish making days. I’d put a towel down around the bedroom door to elude the noxious vapours. But I’ll admit it was the best gifilte fish I ever tasted. 
Sara Berkal was not just a balabusta , she had a job. True it was unpaid, but many expectations are placed upon the rebbitzen who of course was married to the rabbi and cantor. 
She was expected to show her face in shule every Saturday and she seemed to find great solace in attending and listening to her husband’s golden voice and that of his beloved choir. I think it calmed her. 
My father’s job defined much in her life and social schedule. 
She attended all of the bar and bar mitzvahs. Sara was seen at the vast majority of funerals, condolence calls, along with my dad. Plus she had to belong to the Sisterhood. Her position required that she sit at the head table for countless weddings. 
I remember she fretted about what to wear on such a limited income. If there were let’s say 10-15 weddings a season, would everyone frown upon her for wearing the same dress ? 
So she resolved that by setting up an arrangement with one boutique in town to buy a few dresses and pay in instalments. I mean she was sort of an ambassador for the store. But that pressure was always there. 
She couldn’t be too outspoken as it might reflect poorly upon my father. 
She also had the added responsibility of raising a family of four kids. There was a sixteen year age  gap between the youngest and eldest who  lived at home for 33 years. So it’s not as though she didn’t have the hardship of cooking and cleaning for us above and beyond her job, where peers were always watching. 
Sara had to meet all the other new rebbitzens and try to show them the ropes. And god knows there were many to orientate. 
And she had to support my father who would fill in for both jobs in the interim of finding new rabbis. 
I remember we rented a cottage in Gimli once. We were so excited. But as it should happen the party line rang upon our arrival. Someone had passed away in Winnipeg and my dad was expected to return to officiate as soon as possible.
So Sara decided we’d travel farther away for a much needed vacation and we later visited her family in North Dakota and in Minneapolis. She needed the vacation as much as Louis Berkal did. 
I have a note I treasure from one of my dad’s yearly calendars. He’d keep personal notations in there to help him organize his schedule. I looked up January 24, 1959 which was Shabbat. My mom somehow got to the hospital to have me and his note states: I was informed I had a daughter at 9:15 today.” 
Sara Berkal left Grand Forks mid way through a pregnancy with one of my brothers and had to meet a large congregation and then give birth. That took a toll on her. There was lots of pressure but she survived it. 
She catered to our family and to my dad. After cooking dinner for 6 people Monday to Friday she’d just sit down to relax for a few minutes. My father would say: “Sorala” do we have anything sweet to have with my tea ?” 
And without complaining, she’d return to the kitchen, take out the cuisinart, turn the oven onto 500 degrees and proceed to bake him fresh kichel. Trust me that doesn’t happen in my house. 
So I did see her as somewhat subservient to my dad, but she held the greatest respect for him as well. 
Did she resent the pressure of being the shule’s rebbitzen, I’m not sure? It did give her structure, sociability, she got the inside scoop of what was going on and who wouldn’t have felt honoured to be the soulmate of Louis Berkal? 
I felt I shared both parents with the community. It was a sacrifice. But I find solace in knowing that she like my dad were dearly loved for dedicating more than 50 years to the Jewish Community. 
Sara ( Ginsberg ) Berkal served as an amazing role model standing side by side as a team with my beloved father Louis, giving back to the community. 
 They were special people and helped serve as the glue to the shule they represented with style, a humbleness and dedication
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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