click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Mumbai's Forgotten Prayer

Mumbai's Forgotten Prayer

The power of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg's prayer.

by Miriam Alexander

So many of us were riveted to our television and computer screens, watching in horror as events unfolded on the burning streets of Mumbai. We held our breath as we witnessed the brave nanny, Sandra Samuel, running out of the Chabad House with Moshe, Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg's two-year-old son, who was hanging on for dear life to the only familiar reminder left for him in a world suddenly gone mad.

Only the briefest mention was made of the Holtzbergs' two other children, and in each article I read, I searched for more information but it was always the same: "The Holtzbergs were no strangers to tragedy, having lost a child last year to a debilitating genetic disease." Most of the time, their second child, also suffering from the same disease -- Tay-Sachs -- but still alive, was not mentioned.

No one who hasn't been through it can understand what happens to a parent who is forced to sit by their child's bedside and watch them deteriorate until they die.

Every person approaches a situation from their own perspective: teachers judge by how educational it is, doctors by how healthy, lawyers by how legal. As a parent of children who suffered similarly, I viewed the Holtzbergs through those lenses. Our children suffered from a genetic disease similar to Tay-Sachs, but much less known and studied. Metabolic illnesses such as Tay-Sachs run a gamut, and I am always on the lookout for others who unwittingly found themselves standing in the unpredictable world of inborn errors of metabology. It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it. That's why it was this part of their story that caught my attention, as I desperately tried to make sense of their suffering.

No one who hasn't been through it can understand what happens to a parent who is forced to sit by their child's bedside and watch them deteriorate until they die. You can hold them, whisper to them words of prayer, even feed them up until a certain point, all the time knowing that there will be no medical miracles for you and that the end is inevitable. Anyone who has found themselves in this situation knows that, while it seems like they are just sitting there minding their own business, they are really undergoing a profound transformation, undetectable from the surface.

Once the shiva is over, the tears are dried up, and life somehow trudges on, the parents realize that they have been altered forever. Although the child was small, his soul was huge. Parents have been in hand to hand contact with this powerful force, without realizing the effect it was having on them.

I found myself unable to tolerate anything that was not essential, important, and true. The normal superficialities that cushion a life were gone, surgically removed without the benefit of anesthesia.

Although the Holtzbergs had so many things going for them -- supportive parents, loving families, excellent education, idealistic work -- it may have been this experience that sent them over the border from special to superhuman. Their laser sharp focus on doing for others defies logical explanation.


A child, Moshe, was saved, miraculously so, even though he was not the one they were praying for.

And yet, despite the growth that parents who have lost a child undergo, an important question remains. I remember the months our babies dangled between life and death, we said hundreds of prayers for them, and many other people prayed for them as well. No doubt the Holtzbergs did the same. But if in the end the child died, where do all the prayers go?

A prayer is never lost. In the Holtzberg's case, I think we all merited to witness, with our own eyes, where those prayers went. A child, Moshe, was saved, miraculously so, even though he was not the one they were praying for.

As for Dov Ber, their other hospitalized child, I wonder who will sit and comfort him, sing to him, and remind him that his soul is a holy one? And who will pray for him and for an end to the terrible evil that made him an orphan -- if not we?

December 13, 2008

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 26

(25) chaya b, December 22, 2008 2:56 AM

very poignant article. the rock solid faith of the author forces the reader to grow further. i would love to see more of ms. anlexander at

(24) lynn finson, December 21, 2008 2:15 PM

let us dare not forget

The tragedy of the murders in Mumbai is so deep. I believe the Holtzbergs were like a re-incarnation of Avraham and Sarah. May their message of love and belief in G-d resound throughout the world as did the same message of Avraham and Sarah. And of course, may both their children somehow be strengthened and fill the world with renewed hope.

(23) Anonymous, December 19, 2008 6:41 PM

Another response to Sara

This article was emailed to all of us parents who are members of a Tay-Sachs organization. We all have children with Tay-Sachs disease. Most of us are not Jewish, so we had no idea we were carriers. First of all, I want to say that I loved the article. Secondly I want to say that our children don't suffer. My daughter is blissfully unaware of her circumstances. She's comfortable and loved. In fact, she knows nothing but love and compassion. It is the rest of us who are suffering, not her. People often come over to my house and pray for my daughter's healing, and while I don't ever say it outloud, I always think in my head that my daughter is absolutely perfect just the way God made her. She has never sinned. It is the rest of us that need healing.

(22) susannah garbutt, December 19, 2008 10:30 AM

death of a child ? how do parents cope

I have often wondered how the African women shown often with their children dying of starvation in their arms manage this most horrendous of all sufferings that I can conceive of - I have no children,but I would fight to the death to defend any child I was caring for, I just cannot imagine a worse form of agony than what so many of these mothers go through, and it seems to happen somewhere in Africa every year just about. The most common response from parents everywhere, when their child is found to have a fatal affliction, or dies in an accident or whatever, is 'why can't it be me', and some of them die of broken hearts, or their lives stop - even though they are alive, their hearts are so broken, the pain is so profound, they cannot move forward, even though they may have other children (this happened to a family of a murdered daughter in my country). Others set up support groups for other victims of crime - I am aware of 3 of these here. Other families split up, others threaten to disintegrate - my heart goes out to anyone who is losing a child to disease, or has lost a child to violence or other forms of evil. My mother lost her youngest son, severely affected by schizophrenia, but also abusing cough medicine (for the codeine in it - led to addiction), plus mixing other medicines - the guess is an unknown combination of drugs available at a pharmacy is what killed him. He died in 1999 - he was 37. Jan 2 is his birthday - he would have been 47 this year. When another brother nearly died in 2003 and again 2007 (different causes), my mother was faced again with the nightmare prospect of losing yet another son (she had four children altogether - our father had left home in 1965, and all four of us developed severe forms of mental illness and substance abuse.) With my youngest brother who died at 37, until she could get him into a flat of his own, he lived with her, and eventually, while I was interviewing her for a school assignment, she said that every morning when she woke up, she cried. Although Mum and I clash, she has literally gone through hell - and yet she does not go on about illnesses etc and trips to hospital in ambulances unless it slips out. She is the one in our family who is strong and has courage - true courage - she does what needs to be done and says what needs to be said. As I said before, we clash, but despite all the fights, I cannot help but admire her persistence, endurance and courage. It seems to go with being a mother - she is now finally getting a life of her own at 83yo (84 in Feb), in a retirement village. Mothers somehow have a toughness and resilience and devotion that others don't seem to. She has won the gold medal that she has well and truly earnt. Thus, I wish to all the other mothers in the world who are doing it tough - hang on, endure, accept the love and support from others, nurture yourself as you need it, weep and rage and scream when you need to, all of us in the human family are with you in spirit, even if we are living in another continent, or cannot give a donation. No woman is an island, entire to herself - therefore, do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (a rough rendering of poet John Donne's verse)Blessings and strength. SuethXXXXXXX

(21) Anonymous, December 16, 2008 3:24 PM

The article was very moving and well expressed. I usually do not take the libery to address other comments but in this case, an exception must be made. This is directed to Sara, nmbr 11 - my first reaction when i heard that there were other children with Tay Sachs and that the Holzbergs continued to live their lives fully and beautifully was respect and admiration and tears. I reaped such strength from this information. The holiest people in the world are ones who live for Gd only and not for others. I read somewhere a quote that went somewhat like this - a sad thing it is to always be living in other people's perceptions and imaginations. Of course, that quote does not completely cover it but it's is part of how the Holzbergs and so many others live. If people lived the way the person I am addressing and so many others expected of them, compassion and strength and keen understanding born of extreme suffering would not exist. May i respectfully ask Sara if she has any children with special needs or has experienced the death of a child? To use this article and the death of the Holzbergs as a slingshot to promote Tay Sachs testing is inappropriate. Testing is part of our world and has its merits, however, there is a time and a place for everything and this was not the time or the place. The suffering that i have experienced and the paths that my husband and I have traveled under the warmth of G-d's protection may not necessarily have been our first choices. Yet, I sing when i see a leaf change color, when my autistic child pats my face, my tears are sweet, when my deaf daughter (BY CHOICE!!!!!AND YES IT IS GENETIC!!!!!!! AND I HAVE MORE THAN ONE! AND I HAVE LOTS AND LOTS OF HAPPY KIDS,SOME DISABLED, SOME NOT AND ALL BY CHOICE) sails across the stage in a dance, my heart soars. Life is tough. Life can be ugly. But there is no room for cold, calculated scientific comments in MY life. The Holzbergs are a shining example of what it means to rise above the ugliness and weave through the fabric of suffering a home and children and love and yes, even the deaths and sicknesses become part of the fabric and made it all the more beautiful in its own way. I am so grateful to the Holzbers because of what they were, they changed the perceptions of so many people. They have helped me realize that as much as i am capable of, i am capable of even more. So onward we will march .... We are answerable ONLY to Gd.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment