This article was written by Miriam Karp for TheJewishWoman.org
Meet Yaffa Leba Gottlieb. Her petite status and soft voice belie her giant spirit. Yaffa is a creative, quietly confident maverick. A barrier-breaker. A jumper. A believer. A passionate doer. An original thinker and jokester.
Two aspects of her fruitful life are particularly intriguing. She is a prolific author of both whimsical children’s and more reflective adult books. And some 24 years ago, she and her husband adopted and raised two infants with Down syndrome only 4½ months apart in age.
First, the backstory.“I always knew I would be a writer”
Yaffa grew up in Akron, Ohio, where her love of literature and writing was stimulated by her teachers.
“I started writing at 8, and just always knew I would be a writer,” she recalls.
The same love of ideas that was nurtured by literature eventually drove this open-minded thinker into the world of Torah. She went to the University of Michigan for undergraduate studies and then to grad school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked as a teaching fellow. “An advisor once commented, when I was perhaps overly zealous in my teaching about the placement of semicolons, ‘It’s just grammar. You don’t have to teach a way of life.’ ” This innocent comment got under her skin.
“This gave me pause. If I can’t teach something as substantial as a way of life, what’s the use? I was preparing to teach a course in ‘Literature and Law,’ and started to think that St. Louis wasn’t the place to find a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of justice. I traveled to Israel, as I thought it would be a good place to do research. While there, of course, I went to the Kotel like all good tourists. Someone approached and asked me if I’d like to be set up with a family for a Shabbat meal.
“I had already spent a weekend with a Christian Arab family, whose daughter I had met on the plane. Her family owned a hotel in Beit Jala. So I agreed, figuring I might as well try a Jewish Shabbat, too.”
Yaffa was brought to an observant family in the Old City. She remembers the father as a striking, unique figure. “He had a bright-red beard, and was about my height [petite]. Before I even entered the apartment, he looked into my eyes really intently. He had a powerful holiness; it was practically tangible.”
Yaffa took it all in. “As the meal unfolded, I had a clear thought: I’m going to do this. I saw a scenario in my mind’s eye: the mother/father/babies/children—the whole nine yards. It reminded me of a picture in my second-grade Hebrew-school book, calledHappy Holidays, which I’d always thought of as a fairy tale. But here I was, sitting in just such a scene. I almost had to pinch myself and sat there thinking, ‘This is real. I’m in it.’ ”
Smitten by a glimpse of this idyllic world, Yaffa soon started studying at a seminary program for newcomers to Judaism. On the first Shabbat at the school, she met Ruchoma Shain, celebrated author of All for the Boss. “She asked me what I did. I told her I was a writer, and I might write children’s books.” Like Yaffa’s graduate-school advisor’s remark, Mrs.Shain’s simple reply was profoundly impactful. She nodded her head, smiled and told the fledgling author: “We need that.”
Yaffa was stunned. “It was the first time someone had told me that my writing was needed.” Back in grad school, she had found the world of the writer to be competitive and exclusive. A resident poet laureate at Wash U. often exclaimed, with a touch of arrogance; “Well, everybody can’t be a writer.” Yaffa says, “I listened to Mrs. Shain’s refreshing words and soon after started writing for children.” Finally, her talent was not only acknowledged, but needed.
Yaffa continued developing both as a writer and a practicing Jew. She eventually met her husband, Yaakov, a quiet refined man, passionate about Torah study, and settled in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1976, as one of the early ba’alei teshuvah (“returnees to faith”) in what would continue to grow as a burgeoning movement and vital part of the community.
The couple was blessed with a lovely daughter. As she grew into a teen, Yaffa yearned for more children. “We started contemplating adoption. But we had three personal criteria. First, since we did have a child, we only wanted a child that no one else wanted. I didn’t want to take a child that a childless couple might otherwise be able to have. Second, I only wanted a Jewish child. I felt it wasn’t fair to put all the mitzvot and obligations on a child who wouldn’t have them if he/she wasn’t part of our family. And third, since we were going to take a child who wasn’t wanted, who needed a home, we shouldn’t have to pay for the adoption.” They obtained foster-care certification in case they might be called upon to take in children who needed temporary placement. This paved the way for the formation of their expanded family.
At about this time, Dr. Eliezer and Chana Goldstock moved into the neighborhood. They had a 2-year-old with Down syndrome. Their doctor had urged them not to take her home. In response, they founded an organization called “Heart to Heart” to advocate for these special children, and break through the thick stigma and ignorance that surrounded the condition. Yaffa met them and their child, but did not feel this path was for her. “I’m not doing this,” she remembers deciding. “It wasn’t what I wanted; I didn’t feel a connection.”
A week later, the Goldstocks called with an urgent situation. They had learned of a Jewish infant with Down syndrome who was about to be placed into a non-Jewish home. They took the child from the hospital and brought her to the Gottliebs since they were foster-care certified.
They placed her gently on the dining-room table. “She lay there in her bunting . . . and she looked like an angel,” says Yaffa.
“My husband looked and me. I looked at him. That was the whole conversation. We kept her.” The clarity of that moment still rang in her voice two decades later.
“She was angelic and beautiful. And she hasn’t changed. In that instant, we saw her neshamah, her soul.”
After that shining moment of truth, everyday reality started settling in. “I started reading the literature about children with Down syndrome, and it wasn’t too enthusiastic,” acknowledges Yaffa. “But then, Chana Goldstock showed me a book called David that really opened up my eyes and perspective. It was written by a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome named David, together with his best friend, a Ph.D. student. These authors gave me the insight that Chana was going to do normal things and be normal; it would sometimes just take longer. My husband’s perspective was that a child is a child. He wasn’t thrown by all the issues, developmental delays and all that. I felt pretty much the same.”
Challenges withstanding, Yaffa settled back into mothering an infant. How did she come to take in a second bundle several months later?
“This may sound silly, but I really wanted a double stroller,” she responds with a chuckle.
“The Goldstocks were trying to find an adoptive family for a baby whose birth family didn’t feel they could keep him. We met this 4½-month-old cutie, Dovid, and he looked like a philosopher. OK, I said, I think you’re ours.”
With two infants so close in age, life became intense. “Everyone thought we were nuts,” she says with a laugh.
“How did we manage?” She pauses for a moment. “I never thought about it. I was just in it and just did it.”
As they grew, the Gottlieb children continued the family tradition of opening new paths and seeing opportunities instead of obstacles. Chana was the first child with Down syndrome in a mainstream setting in Crown Heights, a neighborhood day-care center. “The teacher, a Holocaust survivor, looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, ‘OK, we’ll do it,’” recalls Yaffa.
When it was time for elementary school, the principal was in his first year, but rather than be afraid of innovation, he and the teacher agreed to try to include Chana on a trial basis. At the end of the year, the teacher confessed: “Honestly, I had my reservations. But now I thank you so much for this opportunity. I and the class learned and grew so much.” Yaffa credits the principal, Rabbi Levi Plotkin, with starting a wonderful trajectory that still bears fruit today. “Chana is beginning to assistant teach in her alma mater’s preschool now. Rabbi Plotkin beams with pride. We owe so much to him. He gave her the edge that helped her to step out of the category of ‘people with special needs.’ Special she is. Different. But not any more needy than anyone else. Just differently needy.”
When asked to describe Chana and Dovid’s personalities, Yaffa sparkles with pride. “Chana is such an amazing person. She’s way up there, with a great sense of humor and is so much fun. She’s smarter than me in a lot of ways.” (That doesn’t take much, Yaffa adds with self-deprecating humor.) “She’s got this little disguise, she’s got Down syndrome and a little speech issue. But when it comes to diligence, perseverance, tact and sensitivity, she’s totally loaded. There’s nothing ‘special-needs’ about her. She has some developmental delays, but people who get to know her are fortunate.”
As for Dovid, “He is out of the box. He is out and about in the community. He has his own ways to express his intense caring for others.” Yaffa describes how Dovid left before she woke one day. He was paying an early-morning visit to a friend, and when he found his pal in bed, insistently urged him to get up and get to his program.
“Both of these kids are very deep people. I am fortunate that they share so much of their depth with me. Perhaps people don’t expect that, so perhaps they don’t try to connect with them and don’t see it. I know who they are. They are people on a very high level. I would say they have extra sensitivity and perception.”
One Shabbat, when Dovid was 9, he and Yaffa were at a lavish Kiddush reception. Everyone was pushing towards the table. Yaffa saw Dovid position himself well and start putting food on a large plate. She assumed he was going to sit down and eat it. As she watched, he brought it to an older woman, who was sitting on the sidelines. “She had only a few teeth and looked lonely,” Yaffa recalls him saying. Dovid gave her the plate and exclaimed, “I love you!”
“I just watched. The woman broke into a big smile and looked so happy,” relates Yaffa.
The Gottliebs are working on finding fitting vocational opportunities for Chana and Dovid. “People need to be givers and not just takers, whether they have special needs or not. It’s counterproductive to keep them as takers.”
These days, Yaffa picks up her pen with more frequency, and her creative juices continue to find expression, as she has ventured into adult books. In 2011, she co-authored a warm exploration of searching and growing Jewish women, Around Sarah’s Table. Her newly released book, Last Day Laughter, is about women undergoing personal redemption and overcoming personal barriers, based on real people.
Yaffa explains why she continues to work: “Writers have to. It’s not a choice. It’s like breathing.”
When asked to elaborate, she shares her powerful vision. “G‑dcreated the world with words. And the writer creates a world with words. I like to create works that read like a novel with the soul of a prayer. The pen is the quill of the soul, and our souls are connected to redemption, so just getting that down on paper would help reveal this awesome era we are all waiting for.”
With a smile in her voice, she stresses: “What I work to do is to bring redemption to our world.”