Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Story of Revital Avraham - Fact? Fiction?

For a while now, the letter of Revital Avraham has been making the rounds of the internet and shuls. However, it seems that the story finally found someone who can give it major publicity -- Rebbetzin Jungries. As she writes in her weekly Jewish Press column:

Special Note: A young girl, struggling with the Angel of Death, wrote the following letter. At her request, the letter was sent to many rabbis and rebbetzinsin a position to disseminate her message among our people. Tragically, she is no longer here to see her letter published, but as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, her neshamahwill surely have an aliyahin the knowledge that her request has been fulfilled and her message read and taken to heart by many.

She then reprints her letter in full. I'm not going to reprint it, but I will provide a summary. The letter can be seen in English and the original Hebrew here.

In short, the letter from Revital Avraham says that she is nineteen years old and is dying. She was a young girl blessed with physical beauty from an early age. She attracted attention from others around her and grew her hair long. She was told by her teachers to keep her beauty for that someone special in her life, but she did not listen and continued to flaunt her looks.

When she was sixteen, she received a warning when her hair caught fire while frying an omlette. She was terribly upset that her hair was gone. Her father tried to console her saying:

Revital, Hashem has made a miracle. You could have been entirely burnt! You now have an opportunity to change and leave your foolish attitude behind you."

However, she was sixteen and probably had an attitude like many teenagers. Her hair grew back over the next two years. She began wearing tight clothes and even "got involved in some trouble." (Her words -- we have no way of knowing what that entails.)

When she was 17, her beloved grandmother died. Her grandmother had tried to help her on her mend her ways, but could not do so. After her death, Revital changed her behavior for the better for a while, but then fell back into her old habits.

A while later, Revital had a dream. Her grandmother was sitting on a stone crying. When asked why she was crying, she wordlessly pointed to her head. However, Revital ignored that warning as well.

A short while later, after complaining about headaches, she went to see a doctor where she was given the bad news that she was dying.

Now dying, Revital is writing this letter to warn young girls of the dangers of dressing immodestly and being overly beautiful.

The letter ends with the postscript that Revital died shortly after composing the letter and asked in her will that it be distributed.

Let me state up front that I have no idea whether or not the story is true. In fact, that's a part of the purpose of this post -- to ask if any of my readers knew Revital (even second-handedly) or any of her relatives.

To me the language of the letter in no way sounds like it came from a nineteen year old -- nineteen year olds simply don't speak that way -- it's just idiomatically wrong. But then again, that's because I read the translation. I read the original Hebrew, but I'm not familiar enough with modern conversational Hebrew to know if it's more in line with the way an actual nineteen year old would write.

Another problem that I have with this is that in all my searches on the web (and I've done a few already), I could never find any other details to corroborate the story. No place of residence, no date of death, no name of school -- nothing. A lack of detail in a story is one of the first signs that it's an urban legend.

The last concern I have about this letter is the implication that it makes -- i.e. be sure to keep the mitzvah of tznius properly or else be subject to terrible life-threatening illnesses. Assuming for a moment that the story is true - how does Revital know that her illness is due to her lack of adherence to the mitzvah of tznius? There are, unfortunately, people who are very stringent in tznius who get sick and there are those who are lax and live long, healthy lives. Is it because she had a dream where her grandmother pointed at her head? That's quite a leap to come to that conclusion. And it's also quite a leap to apply it universally as a warning -- especially when we see that there are plenty of people who are lax in the mitzvah of tznius and don't end up with brain tumors.

So, does anyone know of any corroborating evidence for the story? Does anyone know if the whole thing is a hoax or urban legend?

The Wolf


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Not to sound cold and harsh, but this sounds like one of "those stories" that floats around the internet waiting for the gullible to pick it up and say "Ohmigosh!"

Have you ever seen the one about the Neimann Marcus cookie recipe? Or have you ever gotten a fax from a Nigerian diplomat looking for somehwere to hide millions of dollars?

This sounds just like those and coming on the heels of the "Don't wear makeup at your wedding" story...

BrooklynWolf said...


I grant that it has some of the markings of an urban legend. That's why I posted about it.

However, to be fair, this letter is older than the "don't wear makeup" story. It's been circulating for a while already. I only brought it up now because Rebbetzin Jungreis did.

The Wolf

Garnel Ironheart said...

I appreciate your point but celebrity endorsement doesn't do anything for me.

By the way, a rav friend of mine mentioned something interesting to me. Everyone treats the "rebbitzen" like it's an official title she earned, like "rabbi" or "doctor". But all you have to do to get it is marry a rabbi. It is so not a statement of qualification for anything. But isn't it interesting how there are now several "rebbitzens" out there using it as part of their presentation?

mother in israel said...

There is no way, no how, that this story is true. Obviously, I can't prove it.
As for titles, remember "Rabbanit" Keren? Her husband wasn't a rabbi.
You mean no one is being paid not to wear makeup at their wedding???

G*3 said...

It has the earmarks of an urban legend. I would guess it started as a fictional story meant to demonstrate the importance of tznius and took off from there.

If it is true, its so sad! This poor girl suffered through cancer thinking that it was her fault, that she had brought it upon herself by looking pretty.

Whether its true or not, that’s the message that those who spread it are trying to impress on women. Don’t look nice, especially if you were unfortunate enough to have been born pretty, or you’ll die of cancer. And it will be your own fault!

Its disgusting.

Ariella's blog said...

They didn't consider the fact that someone under 20 is not chayav din biyedey shamayim, which would negate the argument that a 19 year-old is dying because she erred. Yes, people under 20 do die from accidents, illnesses, etc., but it is venturing on very thin ice to make the claim that they are being punished for something.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that someone with an agenda will codify this bubbeh meiseh as a midrash of some sort.

Anonymous said...

The message this story sends to Jewish women is, "Be careful of how you dress, or G-d will strike you with cancer." Is that the best way to teach Jewish women about the importance of tznius? Even if this story is true, and publication of this letter is her dying wish, this does not necessarily mean that we should do it.

megapixel said...

I am not commenting on the revital story but more on the previous comment.
re: anonymous 11:23
Many rabannim have stated endlessly that alot of the tzaros in klal yisroel can be attributed to lack of tznius.
"v'haya machanecha kadosh" surely refers to tznius whether in dress and behavior.

shira shalom said...

Here's the letter I posted to the Jewish Press, please spread the word, Wolf!

Re "A Call From the Throes of Death," I write to challenge Rebbetzin Jungreis to tell her readers that she has verified the authenticity of the story she printed by speaking to a family member or rabbi who vouched for the truth of the story.
What are we to learn from this dramatic story of a beautiful teenager who wore her hair too long, got into some trouble, and ended up dying of cancer? Is this an attempt to add to the pain of the parents of at-risk teens, to suggest that their children's clothing styles and lack of modest dress will result in their deaths from cancer as a divine punishment?
Are we to conclude that the sin of immodest dress is so great that women who dress immodestly will be struck down dead? My grandmother, who was born in a Polish shtetl, did not cover her hair or her elbows or her collarbone or her entire knee when she was sitting. Yet she encouraged her husband to walk away from his job every Friday because he kept Shabbes, she took in an orphan boy who survived the Holocaust and raised him as her own child, and she gave away almost every penny she could consider "extra" to charity. I cover my hair and my knees and my elbows and my collarbone, but do not consider myself to be on the level that my grandmother was on. Incidentally, my grandmother was not struck down dead, despite her long hair and being pretty; nope, she lived to be 96. There is more to life than modest clothing, and blaming illness or other misfortune on immodestly-dressed women is just plain old misogyny dressed up as religion.
Incidentally, while I think Rebbetzin Jungreis is wonderful, many of the same Torah sages who would object to the length of the girl's hair would also object to a woman speaking in public where men hear her, not to mention having a woman videoed and broadcast on television, so I am puzzled by Rebbetzin Jungreis's through-line here.
I am writing from Ramat Bet Shemesh, where my daughter, dressed in her school uniform with long sleeves, a long skirt, knee socks, and buttoned up to her collar, must daily encounter crazy women dressed in long flowing burqas/shawls over their clothing in 100 degree weather. I tell my daughter that women must cover their knees, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with women who do not wear stockings, though in our family we do. And I tell her the burqa ladies unfortunately have psychological problems.
Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis, please re-think your message. We need to send our daughters healthy messages about their bodies. At this point, we need to hasten the final redemption by focusing on loving other Jews, not measuring their hair or skirts.

Shira Shalom
Ramat Bet Shemesh

Anonymous said...

megapixel, I am the poster you responded to. I understand that tznius is important (and for the record I do follow the laws of tznius), and I know that lack of tznius can bring troubles to klal yisrael. But I also know that lack of achdus also brings terrible tzaros to klal yisrael. I find the reflexive tendency of many to blame every tragedy on lack of tznius very disturbing, and surely not conducive to achdus.

Actually Shira Shalom said this all more articulately than I did.

the junior said...

What do you mean it is true? Is what true?
Do you mean is it true that there was such a girl who wrote such a letter shortly before she died?
Even if all that is true (and I doubt it) - so what? The real question is whether it is true that her death was caused by the shortness of her skirt, and we all know that's nonsense.

Chaim B. said...

>>>how does Revital know that her illness is due to her lack of adherence to the mitzvah of tznius?

The gemara says that when faced with difficulties one should examine one's deeds to determine the cause of the problems.

Whether or not one should publicize this cheshbon hanefesh or whether it is possible to generalize from such a cheshbon hanefesh is a seperate question regarding which you make a number of good points. However, relative to one's own behavior/psyche, reflecting on the cause of punishment seems recommended by Chazal. Apparently through deep soul searching one can reach truthful and real conclusions.

You question (how do you know...) undermines the end result of any cheshbon hanefesh. How do you read the gemara?

megapixel said...

anon- while I agree with you that blaming tznius all the time about every tragedy is -to me, but maybe not to g-d - overkill because the result is that now I pay no attention to these speeches, I still agree that there is an element of truth to it. I just dont like to hear constant harping on it. And your point about achdus is great- we can all use a little more ahavas chinam.

G*3 said...

shira shalom, I hope they print your letter. It makes the points very well. But why include this line: “And I tell her the burqa ladies unfortunately have psychological problems.” The ‘burqa ladies’ simply have a different definition of tznius than you do. Why is it perfectly sane for you to wear a tichel, but crazy for them to wear a hijab? Sane for you to demand your daughter wear long skirts and stockings, but crazy for them to wear a buqa? I’m not equating long skirts with burqas, but the thought process behind a frum women adhering to strict definitions of tznius and a Muslim woman wearing a burqa are the same.

Yaacov Dovid said...

This is part of a broader culture of such stories, such as messages from heaven by mentally-ill children and filmed testimonies of people telling of hair-raising [!] experiences in heaven due to certain sins and the assurance of great reward for keeping mitzvos. See the website Sodot, which has such films, in Hebrew with English subtitles.

shira shalom said...

In Judaism we have a concept of tznius being somewhat relative - thus, in a place where the norm is for women to wear burqas, Jewish women might be obligated to copy their non-Jewish neighbors.
The women hiding their bodies in capes are not following a community norm, nor are they overly religious in other aspects of religion such as lovingkindness towards other Jews, nor are they following a reputable rabbi's guidelines, thus, the overwhelming evidence is that these women have emotional/psychological issues that lead them to cover up their bodies in this freakish way.
I don't have a problem with Muslim women who want to wear hijabs or burqas, by the way. Where did you get that from what I wrote? I only have a problem with governments and men forcing women to wear them and beating them or justifying rape if they don't.

G*3 said...

You're talking about Jewish women who wear burqas? In that case, I apologize. I thought you were talking about Muslim women.

joshwaxman said...

a follow-up this week:


Zev Stern said...

I don't know if the story is true but I assume that Rebbitzen Jungreis believes it is. I considered writing in but decided not to out of respect for the dead girl and not wishing to add to her family's pain.
If, God forbid, Revital had been sexually promiscuous and contracted a fatal sexually transmitted disease, and then wanted to warn others of the consequences of being sexually promiscuous, I would understand. But I cannot discern any logical connection between a style of dress and a brain tumor. Approaching this problem as a scientist, I am aware of lots of people who dress immodestly and live healthy lives, and lots of people who are tzadikim and tzidkaniot (and who are Gentiles and not obligated in mitzvot) who contract cancer and other diseases. Do the math, or rather, the epidemiology. Is there a greater probability of contracting this particular type of cancer if you dress immodestly than if you don't? I kind of doubt it. It's the old theodicy problem, no more and no less. Tzadik va-ra lo; rasha v'tov lo. We have no way of knowing if a particular aveira is connected to a particular negative outcome. We don't have the picture on the box and we don't have the box. We just don't know how the pieces of God's puzzle fit together, but as Jews we have faith that God knows and everything is for the ultimate good. Yes, we should examine our deeds when bad things happen to us, and we might come up with some ideas for ourselves. Extrapolating to others is making judgments that are not ours to make, putting our noses into God's secrets as it were. God's secrets are His (see last week's parsha); the revealed things (Torah and nature) are for us to explore. Nature is the "constitution" by which God runs the world. What are the natural causes of disease and what can we do to prevent and treat them better?
The "revealed" fact that jumps off Revital's page is this: If the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific attitude that is spreading like a cancer in our community spreads to the general society, there will, God forbid, be many more cancerous tumors in many more brains.

G*3 said...

Neandershort, to the people this kind of stuff appeals to, "science" is a dirty word. Statistics don't stand a chance against an 'inspiring' anecdote.

The follow-up letter published this week is, if anything, worse than the original. A girl who is conviced that her acting out as a teenager is responsible for her sister being hurt in a car accident. Survivor's guilt, family dynamics... this girl needs help, not guilt and blame for wearing a short skirt or talking to boys.

observer said...

I would be surprised if this were anything but an urban legend. But, I would point out to you that what a "typical" 19 yo and one who thinks her life is ending - literally - and that she is writing for posterity would right is going to be widely different. Not just in content, but in tone and the whole style of writing.

Devorah said...

I don't know about Revital's story, but I do personally know about this one (and it's all true):

Anonymous said...

the message isn't saying if you are not tzniut you get cancer. it is saying what we do has an effect both in this world and the next world. In life there is always a cause and effect.