BY SHOSHANA CHEN (SHENKER)
I had the best teacher in the world for coping with life. And with death.
Chani Weinroth, a”h, who fought against cancer for a decade and became a role model for thousands of people, cared for those around her until the end and after the end. Now her husband Duvi, whose father, attorney Yaakov Weinroth, is also struggling with the sickness, talks about their special relationship and the advice she gave him for the days when she would no longer be there, about her intimate leave-taking from each of their children, and about the treasury of wisdom and strength that she left behind.
Both in life and after death, Chani Weinroth forged a special path. “When we knew that her situation was terminal, there were two schools of thought among the professionals,” says lawyer Duvi Weinroth about his wife, who fought cancer for a decade and became a role model for many.
“One thought was that we shouldn’t tell the children how much time was left and that their mother could die at any moment. ‘You’re causing them unnecessary suffering,’ they said to me. ‘Knowledge won’t give them anything.’ On the other hand, a senior oncological nurse, a friend, had a different approach: ‘G-d forbid that you won’t tell them the truth and the whole truth! Only in that way will you save the children anger and lack of trust and hours spent with psychologists in the future.’
“I was uncertain, but the one who solved the dilemma with a firm decision was Chani. When we visited her in the hospital on Friday, ten days before she passed away, and the children asked if they could come on Sunday, Chani simply said, ‘Yes, the doctors say that I won’t die in the next 48 hours.’ I was in total shock.”
How did the children react?
“They asked what she meant, and Chani explained that her situation wasn’t good, it was deteriorating, and it didn’t look as if there was any treatment. But nevertheless, b’ezras Hashem, it looked as if she wasn’t going to die in the next 48 hours. Since her sickness was discovered, Chani and I thought that as long as there was no immediate threat to life, there was no reason to tell the children about specific procedures.
“We decided to occasionally tell them in general, once they reached the age of 8, if the cancer was dormant or awake, and to keep them informed about things that were externally visible, such as hair loss. If they brought up a subject, asked questions, we told them the truth. When they asked her if she might die, she always said, ‘Sure.’ When they asked if it would happen in the next few months, she said, ‘Maybe.’
“On that last Friday, she arranged with Naomi, age 10, that on Sunday they would make a memory box with a picture of both of them in it, messages to her, and a pocket that she crocheted in the shape of a heart. When we arrived home on Friday night, it was like a Seder night, with many questions. I answered as I thought Chani would want me to. The children became sad and they cried — a lot. But I saw that we had moved on to the next stage, which was healthy. They felt no one was trying to fool them, and that they knew about things before anyone else did.
“Then a very blessed week and a half of leave-taking began, where I took each one of them separately to say goodbye. Each of them, without coordinating it in advance, asked me to leave the room. Chani was completely exhausted, but the moment each of the children arrived she sat up like a lioness — entirely with them, emanating power and strength. She told them that they are like her, each in his or her own way, that they have many strengths and that she knows that life will be good for them.
“She told each of them, ‘Crying is all right, but at every happy event you have to be happy, and have many reasons to celebrate. Don’t let sad thoughts ruin your happiness. Be happy wholeheartedly, because that’s what I want, and that’s how you will make me happy.’
“She asked Shlomo, age 12 1/2, to bring her a rock. On one side she wrote, ‘Etz chaim hi lamachazikim bah — it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it,’ and on the other side, ‘v’somcheha me’ushar — whoever holds it is happy.’ She said to him, ‘Study Torah in a way that will make you happy.’ She also left them all strengthening letters for the future, which I didn’t read all.”
A DANCE WITH THE ANGEL OF DEATH
Ten years ago, the doctors gave Chani, then the mother of three small children, six months to live. The cancer spread through her body, but she fought, made the most of every moment, found strength for herself and empowered others. “People called to ask her to sit by their beds or the beds of their relatives in their last hours,” says Duvi. “Thousands of people from all over the world. They pleaded: ‘You have to come. He or she read your books.’ And she, whose greatness was that she never gave up, visited vast numbers of terminally ill people. Tens of thousands of people came to the shivah. From Roshei Yeshivah to Prime Minister Netanyahu, people who had never met her. She used to say to me, ‘Maybe you’ll only know what I did after my death, because you can’t keep up with my pace.’”
In the days since her death, Weinroth (37), son of top litigator Dr. Yaakov Weinroth, is trying to put into practice everything he learned from his wife’s path in life and also about coping with death. “Vatis’chak l’yom acharon — and she shall rejoice at the time to come,” her father-in-law, who is also ill with cancer, said of her in a heartbreaking eulogy at her funeral. “Chani forged a new path in which she looked cancer and the angel of death in the eye and danced with him until the last minute,” says Duvi. “She didn’t like the expression ‘vanquishing cancer.’ ‘Physically, cancer won and will go on winning,’ she said, ‘but I won’t let it vanquish my spirit. I’ll win.’ She was never afraid of death, only sad that she would not have time to do everything that she wanted.”
And she found time. She wrote three books that became bestsellers, and tens of thousands of words in blogs and social media with tens of thousands of followers. She gave hundreds of lectures in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the world. She was a model daughter, wife, friend and mother. “She appeared before of all parts of the population — aerodynamics students in the Technion, Sherut Leumi girls, soldiers, women groups from the chareidi sectors. Someone from the Technion explained to her once that there are better lecturers than her, but few of them implement what they teach. And with her, you feel the implementation.”
How did she manage to achieve so much?
“She claimed that people become distracted and waste their lives on useless things. The moment you have the right perspective on life, you achieve much more. Every day she had ‘Heaven time’ with thousands of her admirers. She would ask them to take a cup of coffee and look at the sunrise or sunset and say, ‘Shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro.’ I could go for a walk with her and suddenly she would stop by a tree or a flower and look at it for 20 minutes. She would point out how beautiful it was, how powerful, a wonder of creation.
“She would take time to go to the sea and look at the beauty of the waves breaking on the shore. She said that by observing nature she saw the Creator and received strength and energy for the entire day. One of her favorite sentences was, ‘If only I had long enough arms to embrace all the goodness.’ She was sorry that there are people who get up in the morning and go to sleep at night without devoting a moment to themselves and, because of that, also neglect those around them.”
How do you explain the fact that Chani touched everyone?
“Her greatest quality was truth. There was no hiding anything. No denial. The moment a person conducts herself with truth, she becomes a magnet for everyone. She never tried to impose her views on anyone. She learned within a few moments the character and the wishes of every person she met, and she gave them tools to look at life differently.”
A DROP OF BLOOD
I interviewed Chani, a”h, a year-and-a-half ago. Duvi, ybl”c, I met for the first time this week. I do not cease to wonder — how did two good kids from Bnei Brak become a symbol? Chani and Duvi both come from similar backgrounds. Both were born to large chareidi families from Bnei Brak. Chani is the daughter of the Feigenblatt family; her father is an accountant. Duvi is the son of a well-known, respected litigator. Their characters were different but they complemented one another, both being very sharp, clever, with a high level of emotional intelligence. She spoke and wrote with warmth, enthusiasm, feeling. A lawyer by profession and experienced at dealing with the media, he is calculated, speaks openly without being emotional, and externalizes his thoughts without going to pieces.
Chani, who attended a chareidi high school and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, worked as a moderator of parents’ groups on coping with trauma. She stopped studying for her master’s degree when she became ill. Duvi went to cheder, yeshivah high school, and yeshivah gedolah — Yeshivas Itri. “I completed three academic degrees: economics, accountancy and law. I studied economics in the Open University while serving as a soldier-teacher. When I studied accounting, I discovered that I could combine it with studying law, so I did.”
They got married when Chani was 19 and Duvi was 22. Their three children were born one after another — Shira (today 13½), Shlomo, and Naomi. When Naomi was four months old, their lives changed.
It began when Chani noticed something slightly out of the ordinary. “Chani immediately realized what it could mean, but to me it seemed too far-fetched to jump to conclusions because of a drop of blood. She was right, just as she was all the time,” he says, smiling. “In an examination, it turned out that it was precancerous. We were told that when the tumor was removed there would be a 98-percent chance of recovery.
“She had the tumor removed and afterwardS was told by a doctor that preventative medication was recommended, but if the side effects bothered her she could stop taking it, since there was a 98-percent chance that it would not recur anyway. Chani took the medication for a while, but it did bother her, so she stopped. With hindsight, we would definitely have done differently.”
Isn’t that frustrating? Don’t you feel that you made a mistake?
“No, because I believe in the Hand of Hashem. If not for that, her end would have come from some other place. But the thought does occur to me. I accept what happened, both because I am a believer and because I try not to cry over spilled milk.”
A year later, in a follow-up examination, two secondary growths were discovered in her liver. “They spoke of a life expectancy of six months. They told her over the phone. I raced home. I found her lying on the floor, crying. Protesting. At this stage, I couldn’t do anything except cry with her and try to grasp the information and the great sorrow. I told her that we would get through it. That there is a big army of people who love her, and who will pray for her, and who will do everything possible to win the situation — and I believed that.”
Was Chani angry?
“She didn’t lose her head. She understood what it meant; she looked cancer in the eye, and she understood what she was heading towards. There was no denial, dreams, or anything unrealistic. She thought at that moment only about how she could get everything she wanted to achieve in 120 years into six months.
“She immediately marked out her first target, the children. To document herself with them, to teach them skills, world views, to instill in them a way of life for times when she would no longer be there. Only after that did she tick additional boxes, such as writing. All the rest developed over time.”
How did Chani begin writing?
“She began to write short poems, things for the children, so they would remember her. Naomi was 2½, Shlomo was 4 and Shira was 5. Chani opened an anonymous blog as a platform for her writing, which spread by word of mouth and acquired many followers.
At some stage, Chani met Chaim Walder (the chareidi journalist, publisher and author – S.C.), and he identified her talents. He tried to persuade her to publish her writing as a book. Chani refused.
One day, he knocked on our door without calling in advance and said, ‘There is an atom bomb here that will explode in any event. Your choice is whether to enjoy the way you bring faith into people’s lives or not. Enjoy it while you are still alive.’ That was the sentence that persuaded her to publish.”
THE JOY OF THE PACH SHEMEN
The bereavement is fresh, and more than once during our conversation Duvi speaks about Chani in the present tense. The war against cancer still continues. His father, Dr. Yaakov Weinroth, has spoken on this subject in limited interviews, and another relative is also ill.
Duvi prefers not to talk about his father’s illness. “You are surrounded by cancer,” I say to him. “How do you cope with it?
“I had the best teacher in the world for coping with these situations,” he says with a smile, “with life and with death.
“Chani said that everyone needs to ask himself, ‘Is my suffering now essential or not?’ There are situations that necessitate absorbing suffering, and there are situations where we build suffering for ourselves from our thoughts and fears, when we can choose whether to sink in them or not. So I look at the given situation, and as it isn’t in my control, I am happy with what I have. And there is so much — certainly with my father, who is a bottomless pit of knowledge, feelings and love, and I absorb everything that he gives me.”
Is it more difficult for you to talk about your father’s sickness than about Chani?
“It’s not that it’s more difficult, but Chani spoke openly of her sickness, and therefore I allow myself to breach her privacy to a certain extent, as I feel that I am doing what she wanted. I can’t speak for my father. He’s an optimist. He keeps his feelings inside more than Chani did. If you want to talk to him about his illness, you need to ask him. Anyone who catches him for a private conversation will receive the deep answers that he knows how to give. With Chani, we spoke about everything all the time. With my father, things are different.”
Chani spoke about the sickness, she even called herself a “cancer celebrity,” and she explained in her sharp humor that “I am a cancer patient and people love to love cancer patients.” You have difficulty calling the sickness by its name.
“The ability to look the cancer in the eye and call it by its name is one of the skills that I improved on during Chani’s illness. At first, it was so distant, strange, and didn’t belong to me and, presumably also from fear, I chose to ignore that word. When I saw cancer patients, I ignored what they were going through as I was unable to contain the pain. Today, the situation is completely different. On the contrary, not only can I contain it, I want to help.”
Perhaps coping was more difficult because you had a privileged upbringing.
“That idea is false. I was indeed born to wonderful parents, who gave me everything I wanted, and I have been blessed with a family that surrounds me and a vast circle of friends. But regardless of what family you come from, the news of cancer means you have to go through certain stages, like the stages of mourning — anger, sadness, depression, a wish to be victorious at any price, and in the end, you reach the stage of acceptance. You live in your situation and try to improve what you can.
“Chani went through all the stages at record speed, and it took her a few months to find her place. If I ever mentioned the possibility of a supernatural miracle, she immediately stopped me and said that we are not a generation that deserves supernatural miracles. ‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘I will live longer by means of a miracle that will occur through natural processes.’”
Nevertheless, doesn’t being a member of the Weinroth family give you a financial advantage in the struggle against cancer?
“Until the last year-and-a-half, everything was paid for through the health service. After that, treatment began with medications that were not covered, and we reached expenses of more than 700,000 shekels. Luckily, we had private health insurance that we took out when we were a young couple, before we realized how we would use it.
“Cancer taught me to be patient and to understand that fate is not in my hands. You often need to take tests and wait for results, and all the support and money cannot change the real situation. Steve Jobs too, with all the money and power in the world, could not avoid it. We begin the day with the prayer Modeh ani… shehechezarta bi nishmasi. You don’t thank the Creator for a million dollars or for success, but ‘for returning my soul.’ The rest is a bonus.
“Once, on Chanukah, Chani asked me, ‘When the Chashmona’im found the jar of oil — were they happy or sad?’ I replied that of course they were happy. She asked, ‘Why? They didn’t know there would be a miracle and the oil from this little jar would burn for eight days. They should have been sad, because the jar they found was only enough for one day. What’s the explanation? Today we have something — today we are happy. What will be tomorrow? We don’t know.’ That’s how she was. Even when she experienced very great suffering.”
Did she suffer? She always appeared to be laughing and glowing.
“Of course she suffered. She was a human being, not an angel. But she chose to dwell on her suffering only at certain times. In seclusion. She chose to withdraw into herself and be with her suffering at night, and during the day spread her faith and her views on life. Because of that, many people received the news of her death as a total shock; because of her vitality, they attributed immortal traits to her. Even at the shivah, people asked me, how it could be?”
Duvi shows me what Chani wrote to one of their daughters:
Today you asked me why they admire me
And I said to you that it is because they think I am happy
You said, “But you cry all day”
And I didn’t know what to say
Because you are both right and wrong
SHE CHANGED ME
Now Duvi is trying to look ahead, to gain insights for the road ahead. “Among the many people who thronged to the shivah, only a few managed to genuinely give comfort,” he says. “Everyone wanted the best, and I thank them for coming and trying. Many people reminded me that shivah is ‘la-la land,’ and they said, ‘You will begin to feel the loss the day after the shivah.’ As if I didn’t know that. Some people explained to me that losing a wife or mother is like a glass that breaks; you will never be able to pick up the broken pieces.
“But the people who managed to comfort me were those who themselves had undergone shattering experiences. You listen to them because they are not just saying what they think you want to hear. I saw among them some who sank and did not manage to rebuild the ruins, and I saw others who built their future and only afterwards went back to the past from a healthier place. That’s where I want to be. As it is said of Avraham Avinu, he got up from mourning Sarah and decided to build a future. He negotiated with Ephron for Me’aras Hamachpelah and looked for a shidduch for his son. I think that’s the right way to comfort mourners. To look after them.
“I see in myself the desire to help others cope with these things, certainly after seeing the people who do it incorrectly. I am at the beginning of the path of mourning, I don’t even know the best way myself, but I want to get up and emerge from the ruins and channel the sickness and the mourning to a place where I can contribute with my knowledge and experience. But it’s too soon and too pretentious for that. I said to the children that we have a lot of work ahead of us, that after we manage to rehabilitate ourselves, we will go out and help other people. And our son Shlomo immediately said, ‘Abba, I want to join you.’”
What are the mistakes that people make with the family during sickness and mourning?
“An attitude of pity that is patronizing towards the sick person and his or her family, instead of simple compassion from the heart, which brings empowerment.”
How should a person try to help?
“Some people need functional help — financial help, acquiring certain medications, looking after children. At the psychological level, there is much one can do to help, and the ability to identify where the patient is and to try to lift him or her up is individual. For example, my uncle filled a critical role for me. One Shabbos, after the sickness was first discovered, I left shul in the middle of davening. I couldn’t go on. I went home crying bitterly. My uncle, who was late for shul, saw me and said to me, ‘Duvi, you mustn’t fall. If you fall, you’ll bring everyone down with you. You have to be strong.’ This sentence changed everything for me.
“Saying something like that is not right for everyone. Because there are people who will react and say, ‘You won’t even let me be weak?’ Some people need to be allowed the moments to be desperate. Weak. For me, the right words then were a turning point that helped me carry on for ten years.”
Did you have questions for Hashem?
Duvi answers as a lawyer. “No. Do you want to ask questions? There are many. Don’t ask about your particular case — because you will realize right away that you are not objective. I definitely believe that I don’t understand the entire puzzle. I see only a tiny part of it. But even if it’s difficult, I can’t look at it with human eyes. I know that I received Chani as a gift for ten years. I believe that the many prayers on her behalf helped.
“Chani,” he says, “had a Breslov-type dialogue with G-d. She could speak with the Creator with anger about her sickness, about the suffering she saw in other people, together with much love. Every day, she spent ten minutes alone in a room, ‘kodesh kodashim,’ we called it. The children and I would not enter, and she would speak to Hashem. She sometimes came out laughing and sometimes crying. She unloaded all her baggage there.
“Many people asked her, ‘How can you continue to pray after all your suffering, when your prayers are not being answered?’ Her answer was that if people do not pray, they are harming themselves. Like a baby who finds relief in crying, ‘I see prayer not as a bank, not as an ATM, but as a means of speaking with my Creator,’ she said. ‘And He will do what He wants with it — for good or for bad.’”
Chani and Duvi’s special relationship is still alive. “Chani greatly changed me. She always said that I am not the same person she married. I used to become angry quickly. Today, it’s difficult to anger me. I am more patient, more sensitive to others.”
You’ve joined up with Chaim Walder and published two parts of a book of children’s stories. How did that come about?
“Chani saw me as more of a creative artist than an accountant or lawyer, and she encouraged me to use my talent. Once, we were sitting by the sea and she suddenly asked me to ‘make up a children’s story and tell it to me.’ When I did so, she glowed with joy and said: ‘You are going to write children’s books.’ And that is how the two-part book came into being. The first sold 15,000 copies in Israel. It was translated into English and sold another 5,000 copies. The second is relatively new and has already sold 6,000 copies.”
How did your relationship work when she was sick and also so busy helping others, and you were in the role of caregiver?
“First of all, everything that was good for her was good for me. What made her happy made me happy. Thus, I happily supported things that gave her satisfaction. Our policy was to live and to support each other, and also to give to each other. I saw how happy she was, and therefore I did this fairly easily.
“Chani always thanked me for my support. For my strength. I ran our home for ten years as if the cancer didn’t exist. I kept our home happy. Physically, I was home a lot. My job was to make sure the children would feel normal. That they were not the children of a sickness, but the children of a mother and father who were healthy in mind and spirit.
“In the last three weeks of her life, it was impossible to continue treatment because her liver could not drain the toxins. Chani said, ‘Now it will be hardest for you. For ten years, you have conducted yourself with great wisdom as someone who denies the sickness, and I thank you. Now everything will be concentrated into a few weeks.’
“When it was clear that the struggle had reached its end, my greatest pain was not just for me, but for every Jew, for how much every man misses in his relationship with his wife. Relationships, the banality of everyday life, everything seems so natural to us. The moment it is gone, you understand what a mistake it is when couples don’t get along.”
Did you prepare yourselves for saying goodbye?
“I asked Chani all the time how to cope, and she gave me tips. She said, ‘You are a nostalgic person, take it into account and try to let go a bit. Remember that we lived like any couple who have ups and downs, love and quarrels, agreements and disagreements; and you also lived in the shadow of my sickness. Don’t turn our life into something ideal that it wasn’t. Don’t fall into that trap.’ She also spoke to me about remarrying.”
Why did you decide that Chani would spend her last days in the hospital?
“At the terminal stage, we had a choice of two options: to end her life at home or in the hospital. I very much wanted Chani to end her life at home. I thought that the home environment was more enveloping, and the children and I could be near her at all times, but Chani said, ‘You are trying to beautify dying, and it won’t work. Dying is not beautiful. No cosmetics will manage to lift it up. Respect my opinion and leave me in the hospital. They look after me well 24/7. I can rest a bit knowing that the children are not on the other side of the door, and I can’t help them or look after them.’
“Her choice was still difficult for me, until my friend attorney Eli Cohen came to me and said, ‘Was your wife wiser than you in the past ten years? Then listen to her now too.’ This is another example of someone helping with the right words. The decision turned out to be one of the best I have made. Our home retained its positive atmosphere, with Chani’s positive energy, and Chani was also calmer.”
Duvi does not recoil from talking about the last moment either. “The hospital called me and asked me to come, and I called Rabbi Chananya Cholek, a real tzaddik who heads Ezer Mitzion, and I asked him to come with me. We thought she had a few more hours and it would be a good idea to be near her. Her brother and another good friend who looked after her were in her room. Chani lay with open eyes, as if she were just waiting for me to arrive. She smiled at me and within a few minutes her soul began to leave her body. She passed away, just as they promised her, easily, like a hair being pulled out of a glass of milk, with a smile on her lips.”
In her last column, published after her death in the chareidi weekly Ketifah, Chani wrote: “I wanted for Him, for Hashem Yisborach, a house with a yard, and a husband who studies Torah, and children. I wanted a row of children with innocent eyes, dressed alike, singing Shabbos zemiros in harmony, like a choir. I wanted to be an old woman with wrinkles, sewing on loose buttons for my grandchildren and pampering them with strawberries and cream. But Hashem wanted otherwise.
“I look at the broken pieces and I think of Him, of our Father in Heaven; what does He see in me? Who I am? Who I wanted to be? According to what measure does He calculate me? According to the results? According to my intentions? And where do long-lost days of weakness go? And how is hair that I braided for my daughters with my last strength calculated? I go back and look at the broken pieces of my life. It seems to me that they reflect some light, blind my eyes, make me forget for a moment what has been lost, and they whisper to me: ‘Chani, you have a place in the world, despite what has been lost, because the Luchos and the broken pieces of the Luchos both lie in the Aron.’”
Chani wondered. Duvi is sure.
When I will no longer be here
Please be happy
Not because I am gone
Rather because you are alive
For when one meets the end
He learns to appreciate the middle
And the beginning
Embrace with joy every baby that joins the family
And be there for one another through big and small
Celebrate life for it is worthy of celebration
This will serve as the finest commemoration
For me, please.
(one of Chani Weinroth’s poems)
Hamodia is grateful to Yedioth Aharonot newspaper, and its managing editor, Mr. Ron Yaron, for allowing us to translate and publish, in its entirety, the exclusive interview that was conducted by Mrs. Shoshana Chen (Shenker) with Mr. Duvi Weinroth.