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Every Mushkie has a story about her name being called out and a group of Mushkies turning around. Mushkee Efune said that when she was at Beth Rivkah school, in Brooklyn, older girls would call down “Mushkie” from the school’s fourth-floor windows and watch as scores of little faces in the playground turned upward.
“The older I got, the less I turned around,” said Efune, 22. “I ignored every ‘Mushkee!’ unless it was specifically for me.”
Today, like Efune, many of those little girls are starting families of their own.
Leah Gansberg, a Crown Heights matchmaker, said almost one-third of the 200 women on her list of eligible brides are Chaya Mushkas.
“The joke is, if I don’t remember the name I say, ‘Oh, it’s probably Chaya Mushka’ — and I am usually right,” said Gansberg, who has an 18-year-old daughter and three nieces called Chaya Mushka.
Even so, Gansberg added, Chaya Mushka is not as popular for girls as the name Menachem Mendel is for boys. That name became increasingly popular after the rebbe died in 1994. “In my son’s class, I would say about 90% [of the boys] are called Mendy,” Gansberg said.
There are no figures for the number of Chaya Mushkas worldwide. But the name appears to have been similarly popular overseas, at least according to Mushka Afrah, from Milan, Italy, and Mookie Cohen, of Sydney, Australia, both of whom now live in Crown Heights.
Statistics from New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which does not record middle names, show that the popularity of the name “Chaya” surged shortly after the rebbetzin died, from about 100 girls annually during the mid-1980s to 150 girls annually during the early 1990s. It peaked in 2005 and 2006, with almost 200 girls named “Chaya” in each year.
According to Jewish tradition, two girls in the same immediate family cannot share the same name. And Crown Heights residents say neighborhood schools have only a fraction of the Chaya Mushkas today that they experienced during the 1990s. So it’s possible many of the Chayas listed on the health department’s statistics have different names, such as Chaya Rivka or Chaya Sara.
Sheina Margolis, a preschool teacher at Beth Rivkah, said of the 15 girls in her class, only two are called Chaya Mushka. But the name is the most popular among the school’s 20 or so teaching and administrative staff, almost half of whom are named Chaya Mushka.
“My daughter’s teacher is Mushkie,” Margolis said. “Next door to her is a Chayale and a Mushkie. The secretary in the office is Chaya Mushka.”
Even the school building has links to Rebbetzin Schneerson.
One month after she died, Beth Rivkah broke ground on a new 125,000-square-foot campus at 470 Lefferts Avenue, in Brooklyn. According to the school’s website, 470 is the numeric equivalent of the rebbetzin’s name. The facility is called Campus Chomesh, an acronym of the Hebrew initials Chaya Mushka Schneerson.
For most Lubavitch girls, Rebbetzin Schneerson epitomized the perfect wife: quiet, kind, selfless, modest, humble, generous, private. So private in fact that, as any Mushkie will tell you, there are very few photographs of her — a startling fact given the mountain of photos and videos of her husband.
The most ubiquitous photograph is a black-and-white image taken at a wedding in New York, in 1949. Mrs. Schneerson, wearing a floral hat perched atop a pretty face, is captured looking across a table. She has an aquiline nose, a thin upper lip and an elegantly curved jawline. Her expression is serious, as though she is listening attentively.
Every Lubavitch girl has a story about “the rebbetzin.”
There was the time a guest at the Schneerson home knocked over a drink, and to avoid embarrassing her, she knocked over her own drink, too. Or the time her driver passed a family being evicted, so Schneerson asked him to pull over. She immediately wrote a check for the rent they owed. Then there was the time she was asked by a child where her own children were, and she replied: “The Hasidim are my children.”
Perhaps her greatest act, in many young women’s eyes, was marrying Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who went on to become the seventh and last Lubavitcher rebbe.
Chaya Mushka was the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe. If not for her marriage to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, he may never have become the rebbe. And if Chaya Mushka had not allowed him to devote almost all of his time to the Lubavitch movement, he may not have been able to create one of the fastest-growing movements in Judaism today.
“She was someone so special and she gave us the rebbe, who was the greatest leader since Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses],” Duchman said.
“It’s very special to me and to everyone who’s part of Chabad.”