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Wonder Women

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Yitta Halberstam vividly remembers a story that her father, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, used to tell about growing up in Poland. When Laizer Halberstam was 5 years old, his best friend was a Christian boy; they even taught each other prayers. Ten years later, during World War II, Laizer was traveling by train with forged papers when a Nazi soldier became suspicious and asked the youth to prove his Christianity by reciting a particular prayer. “It was exactly the same prayer that his friend had taught him,” Yitta says.

Halberstam, 48, believes that such occurrences—whether lifesaving, as in her father’s case, or merely day brightening—are divine messages. “They’re little taps on the shoulder from God,” she says. “Sometimes they’re whispers and sometimes they’re shouts.”

It’s a conviction shared by her friend and Brooklyn neighbor Judith Leventhal, 41. Together the two highly religious women wrote 1997’s Small Miracles, an uplifting collection of wondrous true coincidences that has sold more than 800,000 copies and spawned two sequels. The latest, Small Miracles of Love & Friendship, which hit bookstores in September, has also made a splash, winning Halberstam and Leventhal TV coverage on Oprah, Leeza and PAX TV. “People are fascinated by unexplained connections that happen to people,” says Rev. Arthur Caliandro, a minister at Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, who draws on Small Miracles for his sermons. “It’s part of the mystery of life.”

There’s no mystery to the appeal of the stories themselves. In a typical one, a young bride loses her engagement ring while boating with her fiancé; 20 years later, her by then middle-aged husband and their kids catch a 7-lb. trout for dinner on the same lake. They find the ring in the fish’s belly. In another tale, a man with undetected heart disease is saved when his doctor’s office mistakenly calls to confirm an appointment for a patient with the same name. “People enjoy reading short pieces of inspiration, of enlightenment,” says Publisher’s Weekly executive editor Daisy Maryles. “They’re wonderful stories of serendipity.”

Halberstam came by her delight in miracles from her religious family. Born in Pittsburgh to Laizer, a Hasidic rabbi who died in 1985, and his wife, Claire, 71, then a home-maker, Yitta recalls being awakened when her father had nightmares about the Nazis. “I heard his screams at night,” she says. But rather than talking about the horrors, he would relate his last-minute escapes from danger. “I’m very grateful that he emphasized that instead of the horrific,” she says.

As a girl growing up in Brooklyn, Leventhal also remembers hearing about the twists of fate that spared her parents, Herschel Frankel, who died in 1985, and Rose, 70, from the Nazi onslaught. “By the time I met Yitta,” she says, “I was 35 and knew about so many great little coincidences that I suggested we write about them.”

One of the happiest of these—which is not included in any of the books—is Halberstam’s own story of her marriage to Mordechai Mandelbaum, 47, a psychotherapist with whom she has two sons, Yossi, 21, and Eli, 13. Yitta fell for Motty, as she calls him, on their first date. They immediately discussed marriage, but both got cold feet. A year later, when the pair were split up, Yitta was riding in a taxi on the Brooklyn Bridge and spotted Motty in a car next to her. She told her driver to honk his horn and stop his car. “I ran into Motty’s car and we got engaged that night,” she exults. They wed in 1977.

Today the two authors get fan mail—and fresh stories—from all over the world. But they’ve made few changes to their lives. Halberstam, who leaves her door open to friends, family and neighbors in need, used some of her royalties to buy a new sofa and to increase her charitable giving. Leventhal still runs her private psychotherapy practice. And though she and her husband, Jules, 46, an upholstery supplier, still live in a two-bedroom apartment with their daughters Arielle, 4, and Shira, 1, they are looking forward to buying their first house.

But the real measure of success for the two women is the number of people who bring out tissues at readings of their books. “If we make people laugh, I’m happy,” says Leventhal. “But if we make them cry, I’m happier.”

Alec Foege

Jennifer Frey in Brooklyn