Posted in Obituaries

Chaya Barzilay, Our Mother, 1923-2004

Chaya Barzilay, Our Mother, 1923-2004 Posted on February 25, 2004

By Sharona Barzilay-Graff, Joshua Barzilay


Our mother, Chaya (Helly) Barzilay, served with excellence for many years as the executive secretary of the American Academy of Jewish Research. Under her able administration the Academy saw its endowment grow and its activities expand.

She was born in Vienna in the inter-war years. She was raised in a traditional Jewish home and received a strong Hebrew, Zionist education in the Chajes Gymnasium. By her teen years she was fluent in Hebrew and knew the Bible well. With the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich, her life, and that of her family, was violently disrupted. She saw her father’s business systematically emptied of its contents by the organized Nazi looting of Jewish property, her home ransacked, and her father taken to prison many times simply for being a Jew. On one occasion, when confronted by the Gestapo to rip up a Jewish prayer book, she refused to do so and was beaten for so refusing. In February 1939 she parted from her parents and went to Palestine with Aliyat HaNoar.

It can be said that these were among the happiest years of her life. She was in awe of the beauty of Eretz Yisrael. In the letters she wrote about her experiences, which we recently had the privilege to read (kept by our aunt Erika in Israel), a love for the land and its people suffuses all aspects of the writings. The blueness of the sky, the idealism of building the Land, and above all, living a Jewish life, were all movingly written about in these letters.

In those days of Jewish tragedy, in which Zionism was a secular movement, trying to free itself from the fetters of the “old ways,” it would have been easy for our mother to have abandoned the traditional ways and to embrace the “new” secular way. Not so our mother! In all the years that she spent on secular kibbutzim she kept the laws of kashrut and did not eat meat. Likewise, she kept the laws of Shabbat. For this, she gained the respect of her friends. Witness that even 60 years after these times, our family in the United States, and the descendant families of those who knew her in Israel, remain in contact.

In 1947, our mother’s mother passed away, and our grandfather called for our mother to be with him in New York. Being the unselfish and giving person that she was, she acceded to her father’s request, even though it meant tearing herself away from Israel and its people. It may be said of our mother thereafter, ani ba’maarav, ve’leebi ba’mizrah (I am in the West but my heart is in the East).

From that time on, our mother remained in New York. First she devotedly helped her father and sister. Thereafter she met my father (1949) and devoted herself to him, building an atmosphere at home that allowed him to pursue his academic career (typing and editing his manuscripts as well) to become the noted scholar that he is today. Then too she gave of herself to both of us and saw to it that we received the best Jewish education that America had to offer. She also pursued her own studies and graduated from the Teacher’s Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. She taught primary Hebrew school for many years, as well as in the Prozdor program at the JTS. She thereby educated several generations of Jewish children who have now taken their place in the mainstream of American Jewish society, and, in some cases, Israeli society.

In the 1960s, our grandfather purchased burial plots in Yerushalayim. He and his wife were buried there. It is only fitting that our mother should have the z’chut (merit) to now be buried next to her parents whom she loved. She is also “back home,” in the heart of Am Yisrael, the spiritual home where her soul had always been and to which she had craved to return.

Eishet hayil mi yim’zah ve’rahok me’pninim mich’rah… A woman of valor is hard to find, her worth is above precious stones. She was a true bat Yisrael, a daughter of Israel.

May her memory be blessed and may her soul find peace in Gan Eden.