Disturbed by her rushing about, Yitta's long brown wig sits eccentrically around her face and shoulders. She is clearly over-extended--an Orthodox Jewish wife, a 49-year-old mother of two young children, and a prolific author. Her latest book, "Small Miracles for Women," is the fourth of a well-received series of collections of incredible yet true stories.
But Yitta remains genuine, calm, and articulate. Born into a high-profile Orthodox family, she is likely used to the attention: Her father, Laizer Halberstam, edited Elie Wiesel's contributions to the underground newspaper, Ningun, in 1947 in Paris and became a known contentious columnist when he came to Brooklyn. A Holocaust survivor, he raised his children with classic literature and a commitment to social justice and action. "My father was thrilled to find that I was a writer, too, and he encouraged me to utilize my skills for the common good." Yitta had her first poem, "Brotherhood," published at age 13 in the African-American newspaper The Amsterdam News.
So it's no wonder that Yitta is relaxed this afternoon despite her schedule of interviews. She leaves it to her 41-year-old co-author, Judith Leventhal, to delight expressively in their success. Judith's parents had more traditionally Orthodox expectations for their daughter. "They wanted me to be pretty, marry by 18, and have a nice big family," says the brown-haired, blue-eyed Hasidic beauty. "But it seems that some people are meant to be in the spotlight," Judith adds in a deep scratchy voice. "Weird coincidences have led me there time and time again."
The most significant coincidence so far may be running into Yitta 12 years after they first encountered each other. The two women had met when Judith was dating Yitta's brother-in-law. They shared an immediate, intense bond: "When Judith came over for the first time, I felt she was a real kindred spirit. She mentioned her affiliation with the New Age center Omega." It is highly unusual for Hasidim to explore New Age spirituality. In their 20s, both Yitta and Judith had wandered off the traditional path to various alternative centers and retreats, yet remaining kosher and observant of the Jewish Sabbath.
Few Hasidic women pursue professional careers, either, but Judith was in the process of obtaining her degree in social work, and Yitta was teaching "Literature of the Holocaust" at Baruch College. "I wanted Judith to marry into the family so badly," says Yitta. But after several years, the couple split, and the two women lost contact.
Ten years later, Yitta, a newly published writer, and Judith, a practicing social worker, were working for Jewish organizations in midtown Manhattan. Judith ran an errand over to Yitta's place of work and the two "literally bumped into each other" in the lobby. They were so thrilled by the coincidence that they went out for lunch that day.
Judith was intrigued to learn that Yitta's book "Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales About Rabbi Shlomo Carl Bach" (now in its fifth printing) was about to hit the stands. Judith casually confessed to Yitta that she had always wanted to write a book about coincidences. Yitta didn't take the notion lightly. "I thought Judith had a wonderful idea," she says. "And I gave her my agent's contact information." But having had no experience in the publishing world, Judith never followed up. Weeks later,Yitta called Judith: "Do you mind if I write this book?"
"Of course I do!" Judith answered. "It's my dream to write this book. I just can't get it started."
"How about writing it together then?" Yitta offered. Judith, who had just become a mother, immediately agreed. "I realized I was about to reinvent myself again and become an author."
Like Yitta, Judith's mother and father survived the Holocaust and fled Satmar, Hungary, after the war. "My father came without a penny and started two plastics companies and ultimately a diamond business before he passed away 15 years ago," she says. Her mother, having lost three of her five siblings and her parents in the war, settled down in Brooklyn and lived a quiet religious life. "Both my parents lost hundreds of family members. But they went on."
They even enriched their lives by helping others. Her aunt founded a small, nonprofit organization 35 years ago called The Satmar Bikur Cholim, which provides food, financial support, and visitors for thousands of Jewish hospital patients. Judith says her fearlessness and tenacity are fed by her family and the dramatic changes they endured.