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28 January 2018


by Greer Fay Cashman at JPost

Her zest for life and her youthful spirit were at odds with her chronological age

It’s difficult to imagine going to a cultural event in Jerusalem, especially one that is being held by a religious Zionist organization without bumping into Toby Willig and getting a wet kiss on the cheek.

Willig, who was a legendary figure both in Jerusalem – where she lived since 1986 – and also in her native New York, died on Wednesday at age 92.

Even when she could barely walk she had relatives or friends, especially her grandson Gary Willig, accompany her to where she wanted to go. They went with her to concerts, lectures, plays, gala dinners in luxury hotels and on trips to West Bank settlements.

When her eyesight began to fail, she had people read The Jerusalem Post and other publications to her from the first to the last page.

She was arguably one of the world’s most avid listeners to English radio news and a voracious consumer of newspapers. She was also a spontaneous letter writer, reacting on a daily basis to news items – which either enthralled or upset her.

For thirty years she used to call Renee Becker at home or in the Emunah Jerusalem office to dictate letters that were her “Letter to the Editor” for the day.

Her criticism when she gave it, was always constructive. She never said a bad word about anyone but when she strongly disagreed with some public figure and wrote one of her many letters to the editor, sometimes under an assumed name, she would ask what made that person do or say whatever it was that went against the grain.

Often before she ever wrote or dictated a letter, she would call the editor of the publication in question – usually the Post – and ask why a certain article had been published, or why a certain writer was being published too frequently or infrequently. Most of the time, she found something good in everyone.

Aside from writing letters to editors of English language publications locally, she also wrote letters to The Jewish Press in New York, and many years ago wrote a social column for the paper that featured many former New Yorkers living in Israel. She always wrote about them in glowing terms and was equally enthusiastic about the events at which she had seen them.

In the thirty odd years since she made aliya with her late husband Herbie, she never learned to speak Hebrew, but that didn’t seem to be an impediment. She spoke English on the bus, in the supermarket, at the post office and somehow managed to communicate effectively.

She was a knowledgeable and often an inspiring public speaker with a natural radio-phonic voice. If she was talking about an issue, that was fine, but when she was introducing a speaker, she went overboard with superlatives. The speaker was often embarrassed, but the audience who knew this to be one of her traits took all the compliments she showered on the guest speaker in good humor. This was Toby, and there was no changing her.

She was someone who had to be in the middle of everything. First thing in the morning, she would call several of her friends and acquaintances to tell them about news she’d heard on the radio. She would ask what they were doing and where they were going that day. Even before she called them, when Israel Radio still had an early morning English news broadcast, she would call the editor or the news reader to voice her opinion of what she had heard.

At her funeral on Thursday, Rabbi Berel Wein, whose Torah classes she religiously attended, said she was a person of many opinions born out of love for Israel and the Jewish people.

When something impinged on that love, it caused her to write a letter to vent her opinion. At lectures, she was always the first to ask a question or make a statement, but what she said always made sense.

Even when she could barely walk, at weddings, her feet suddenly took wing and she made it her business to dance with the bride – not only that, but when the bride was dancing with her mother, her mother-in-law and other close family in a small circle Willig joined in.

Willig never saw this as an intrusion on her part, because she genuinely regarded everyone as an extension of her family – and family was very important to her.

Nearly all the speakers at the funeral were related to her. They spoke of her brilliant mind, her ability to soak up information like a sponge, her in-depth knowledge of the Bible, the seminars she organized, her irrepressible optimism, the fund-raising activities for innumerable Jewish causes.

In 1947, when she and Herbie were not yet married but dating, they raised money for the Jewish National Fund. When Israel became a state, they raised money for other causes.

Before making aliya, Willig was president of Emunah of America. She was a person who believed that no-one could achieve everything alone, and she strongly encouraged teamwork and was forever coming up with new ideas that would spur more people into action on behalf of Israel and of Soviet Jewry.

She remained closely affiliated with Emunah after making aliya, but she was also strongly affiliated with AACI, the Orthodox Union and Young Israel.

She also had connections with the Great Synagogue, Yeshurun Synagogue, HaNasi Synagogue and Chabad, to name a few.

Many in the huge crowd that came to escort her on her final journey said that the world would never be the same without her.

She knew just about everyone who was anyone, and they knew her – often when an international speaker had agreed to answer questions, he instantly acknowledged her by name without waiting for the moderator to do so.

She treated needy individuals with the same affection and respect that she gave to dignitaries.

Willig is survived by her daughter Ruth Koenigsburg of Jerusalem, sons David A. Willig and Joey Willig and their families in New York.

A letter a day

“I must be the oldest reader of The Jerusalem Post,” Willig says. “I began to read it as soon as I made aliya. I knew [former editor-in-chief] David Bar-Ilan very well. I met him in New York. I was so impressed that he was willing to give up being a first-rate pianist to come here. I don’t know how many people appreciated his sacrifice in coming. I also knew David Horovitz. I even know Yaakov Katz. All brilliant men, all different.”

Willig has a particular affinity for Bar-Ilan’s exposure of the media. She believes firmly in holding the media accountable and in the right to express her astute and often outspoken opinions.

She is sharp and savvy to this day. It is in this vein that Willig dutifully writes a letter to the editor every morning. Her day begins by calling a friend, to whom she dictates the letters. She spends a lot of time thinking about what topic she wants to delve into, to which article she most wants to respond. It is a sacred and important task not taken lightly.

Willig reads the paper the day before and then the relevant letter is sent the following morning. She has an ongoing relationship with Lawrence Rifkin, the Post’s letters editor and writer of The Jerusalem Post Magazine’s Grumpy Old Man column.

“Larry Rifkin is always taking my letters and giving feedback,” Willig says.

“I write every day, and he’s published a lot of them,” she continues. “I’m very glad. The Jerusalem Post is very fair and professional, I must say. Larry is also unique and professional. Even though he and I disagree about [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, he still publishes my letters. I don’t know why he doesn’t like Bibi – the man is an absolute genius. Who ever said you can’t love God, even if you’re a high liver?” At the time of our interview, the most recent letter Willig had written was critical of her beloved Rifkin.

She addressed his disappointment that Netanyahu had not taken a stronger stance against US President Donald Trump regarding Trump’s response to the violence in Virginia.

In Willig’s opinion, Trump issued a strong enough statement, although maybe he did not go quite far enough in condemning antisemitism. She made the point that the average member of parliament or the mayor of London, for that matter, also did not publicly condemn antisemitism, and no one was calling them to task for it. Willig went on to write that there was much hatred for Trump in the United States and that Israel did not need to air its voice about it for no good reason.

Willig remembers fondly a letter she wrote years ago about black holes in response to a Magazine article on the subject.

“It was such a wonderful article,” she exclaims. “I wish the Magazine would write many more articles on that subject. It showed how much we don’t know about the world that God created. For myself, the more I learn about my reality, I believe in God even more.

Our little minds can’t comprehend so much – even now, with all these hurricanes. Man can’t do anything about the force that we call nature. All we can do is try to protect ourselves. We can’t control it. Brilliant man, who thinks he can control everything, can’t control nature.”

Willig plans to write her next letter about Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, in the wake of his scandal-sparking post on Facebook titled “The Food Chain.” The meme, which has since been taken down, depicted a space lizard and a Freemason or some other conspiracy-theorist figure, as well as Jewish-Hungarian millionaire George Soros cradling a fishing rod with Earth as bait and former prime minister Ehud Barak chasing after another fishing rod with money dangling from the hook.

Willig believes that Netanyahu junior has been criticized too harshly for the post, saying he was a good student and that all this attention is going to be too much for him. She hopes the media will leave him alone in the future.

It is safe to say that Willig has an opinion on just about everything, and she doesn’t mind sharing it.

Even her story of making aliya has a hard-hitting surprise.

“Truthfully, my husband made me come to Israel,” she explains.

“I had a good life in America. I was very involved in the World Jewish Congress. I was president of Emunah Women of America. But my husband was Zionist and he was going, so I couldn’t refuse,” she explains.

“It turns out that the best years of my life were here,” she continues. “I love Israel. It’s such a wonderful country. You see the walls of the Old City and realize that this is where you are – the place that, historically, your ancestors walked before you. Hashem [God] said: This is your land. I’m not Hashem and I’m not a prophet; He never spoke to me. I don’t know why He picked Israel, but He did.”

Willig lived in Rehavia for many years after making aliya. She loved its centrality and excitement. She affectionately recalls watching Beit Avi Chai being built from her window. Last year, she relocated to Givat Shaul.

At 92, she is nothing if not a firecracker who is living life to the fullest every single day. She is still a chairwoman of Emunah Women and excitedly talks about the next meeting, on October 22, which will discuss the light rail’s new Blue Line and how it will affect the German Colony.

“It’s not a good idea,” she says emphatically. “People have to know. Who decided? The program will discuss all of that.”

Willig has three children, 12 grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren.

“It’s so wonderful to see the flowering of the tree, and it all started with my parents in the Lower East Side,” she says. “It’s like Johnny Appleseed, who went around America dropping seeds.”

Her parents came from Galicia, in Poland, of which she is extremely proud, emphasizing that there was something special about the group of people who came from that area.

Willig hopes to live until 120, and adds that it would be a privilege to see Israel prosper over the coming years. Of course, she will continue writing her daily letters to the newspaper she loves so dearly.

“I love The Jerusalem Post because it’s a fair paper,” she states. “[Diplomatic reporter] Herb Keinon is my favorite writer. Some of the writers really get my blood boiling, but I still need to know what they’re saying.”

Grapevine: Honoring Two Great Women

One of the great characters of Jerusalem is Toby Willig, a former national president of Emunah of America. Willig, now a nonagenarian, is famous for knowing almost everyone who is anyone, and for her readiness to voice her opinion on just about anything – but always without malice, no matter how much she may disapprove of something. She is also a frequent letter writer in response to items in various publications, and her name can often be seen on the Letters page of The Jerusalem Post.

Thirty years ago, she founded the Emunah of Jerusalem seminar committee, which has been conducting monthly meetings to which she has invited a large number of exceptional speakers. She has also arranged visits to cultural institutions, historical sites and Emunah projects.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of this committee, of which Willig has been at the helm, Willig will be honored at the upcoming annual Emunah concert at the Jerusalem Theater on November 21.

Proceeds from the concert will go to Emunah’s Neve Landy residential home.


Comments that reflect the voices of everyone that knew Toby:

I always loved - and never failed to agree with - Toby's letters to the Jerusalem Post. I am very saddened to learn of her passing. May she forever rest in peace.

I knew Toby for close to half a century. Unique and precious

Everyone loved Tobi. Rest in peace dear lady. You will be greatly missed

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BDE! May her memory be for a blessing. May many such as she was multiply within our people; we need the Jewish people to reawaken to Yiddishkeit and love for every emmesse Jew & our holy Torah.